The challenges of dominating the electromagnetic spectrum

Feb. 26, 2018

Today’s radar and electronic warfare systems play a critical role in success on the battlefield: whether detecting enemy aircraft, ships, or land-based vehicles and jamming their communications; guiding missiles; mapping terrain; spoofing enemy radar and so on, dominating the electromagnetic spectrum is paramount for operational success. Controlling the spectrum means the warfighter is kept safe, and our enemies are kept at bay. As the Department of Defense (DoD) notes in its 2013 Electromagnetic Spectrum Strategy call to action, success on the modern battlefield increasingly depends on dominating the electromagnetic spectrum.

“The Department of Defense’s (DoD) air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace operations increasingly depend on electromagnetic spectrum access…  DoD must act now to ensure access to the congested and contested electromagnetic environment of the future. Specifically, the Department must adapt how it acquires and uses spectrum resources. Our approach must include acquiring more efficient, flexible, and adaptable systems while developing more agile and opportunistic spectrum operations to ensure that our forces can complete their missions.”

In early 2018, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said that there has been explicit recognition “of the re-emergence of great power competition” and that world powers such as Russia and China are “modernizing very quickly – they’re modernizing their air defenses, but also their air-to-air capability is really modernizing across the board. It is the pacing threat for the U.S. Air Force because of the pace of their modernization.”

Adversaries evolve

As our adversaries continue to evolve, so too do the technology requirements to counteract the threat. Radar and EW technology are no exception. As radar systems continue to increase their operational frequency ranges – more bandwidth means it’s harder to jam or cause interference – electronic warfare systems also must cover a wider band of the spectrum. Additionally, the number of channels required per system is also increasing. Wider bandwidth and more channels means greater range and trackable targets.

As these trends for wider bandwidth and more channels proliferate, the need for a flexible hardware platform becomes greater and greater.  FPGA-based digital receivers - the front end of a radar or EW system - that leverage FMC modules for analog-to-digital conversion systems have provided a flexible, high performance solution to current challenges.

The flexibility of the system derives from the ability to upgrade hardware pieces – like the FMC module – when the performance requirement changes, or when the next generation of technology is introduced. While flexibility at the hardware level can help overcome the stringent requirements for wider bandwidth, more channels and high adaptability, even greater flexibility could be provided if this flexibility could be pushed closer to the antenna.


In the second part of this blog post, I’ll look at new technology just now becoming available, and how it can provide a compelling solution to the challenges described above.

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