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CHIPS Articles: The Incomprehensible Electromagnetic Battle Space

The Incomprehensible Electromagnetic Battle Space
By Thomas Kidd - July-September 2019
Every battlefield is a dynamic and chaotic environment. Since the beginning of time, commanders have struggled with maintaining sufficient situational awareness to effectively direct troops to victory. The engagement speed and complexity of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) battle space will challenge our abilities to visualize operations more than any other physical warfighting domain. What makes the EMS battle space different?

Our eyes only see a small sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum. We only see those electromagnetic waves known as visible light rays that travel directly into our eyes. Waves traveling through space in other directions are invisible to us. Even if we could perceive the entire visible spectrum of electromagnetic waves traveling in all directions simultaneously, our brains are not capable of decoding it into useful information.

But imagine that we were able to see light traveling in all directions. We would see beams bouncing and changing as they are reflected off objects and scattered in patterns around the room. We would also see the light from a window, a lamp, a television, our cell phone screen, and all other sources flooding out in all directions. All of this light would change as the conditions of the room changed. For example, as a curtain moved in the breeze, every bit of light would also move in space. Even you and I, as objects in the room, are effecting how the light reflects in all directions. If we could see all the light in a room, not just the rays heading directly into our eye, it would appear to be chaos.

Like light waves visible to humans, radio waves and other waves in the electromagnetic spectrum are also light, but they operate at higher or lower frequencies than our eyes can perceive. To anyone capable of seeing the full spectrum of electromagnetic energy traveling in all directions, the world around us would be a soup of ever changing waves. Moreover, depending on the color or frequency of the electromagnetic waves, some would be traveling over, under, or through things in the room while other frequencies would be absorbed and others would ricochet off the surfaces, bouncing around in all directions. It is hard to imagine what the electromagnetic environment would look like if one could see it all.

As a battle space, the electromagnetic spectrum is unlike any other physical warfighting domain. While all are chaotic and all change over time, the other physical domains of land, air, sea, and space change on a timescale that is comprehensible to the human eye. Land moves due to erosion or construction, and we can see how, years later, a battlefield may look different.

Weather changes the air and sea domains on a quicker scale, but the human eye can still perceive those changes. Space weather also changes in a relatively predictable and understandable rate. However, in the electromagnetic battle space, the physical electromagnetic environment, changes occur at a rate nearly inconceivable by human timescale. Only cyber, a virtual domain, can change as rapidly as the electromagnetic environment.

Events in the electromagnetic environment occur on such a short timescale that it is impossible for humans to comprehend the entire environment in real time. Future electromagnetic battles will take place in an unimaginably complex electromagnetic environment that cannot be predicted with certainty, and they will be won or lost in an equally unimaginable short period. The electromagnetic kill chain will cycle in fractions of a second without human intervention.

To prevail on the electromagnetic battlefield, commanders cannot rely on traditional tools and techniques of the past. To succeed, future electromagnetic weapons must be capable of autonomous engagement to execute the commander’s intent without human direction.

Tom Kidd is the director for DON Strategic Spectrum Policy in the Office of the Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer.

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