Electronic warfare offers advantages over irregular opponents


South Africa has promising electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, but must improve in the lower end of the scale, according to EW practitioners, and focus on irregular forces such as rebels, pirates and poachers.

While the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) militaries are using EW in effective ways for traditional military roles such as ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) and DF (Direction Finding) functions, they need to pay attention to using EW in small unit actions, both in counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare in peacekeeping and in operations against highly-funded insurgencies, such as Boko Haram, as well as piracy and poaching, according to experts.

Senior Staff Officer (SSO) for EW in the South African Air Force (SAAF) Colonel Padi Khoase pointed out that EW is important in international peacekeeping operations. It is clear that peacekeeping operations usually use small unit tactics which means that patrols made up of platoon or company-sized units need to start using EW methods to DF guerrillas or poachers. The technology is now available that allows troops to carry high-capability sensors which can pick up cell phones, satellite phones or military HF radios used by rebels or other irregulars.

Defence analyst Helmoed Römer Heitman pointed to recent Boko Haram attacks carried out by ‘technicals’ against a community in Chad. He explained the vehicles moved in columns, and then converged on the target. To do that, it was clear they had to communicate.

Heitman and Khoase were speaking at the recent EW Africa conference held at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Other speakers also focused on the need for EW on the lower end of the scale. In other words, not large vehicles with vast antenna arrays operated by experts, but EW applications that can be used by a sub-unit as small as a company or platoon, which can be carried by a single soldier or carried by a vehicle.

Professor Warren du Plessis, Chair in Electronic Defence Research at the University of Pretoria, also stressed this point. He said SANDF casualties in the Seleka attack in Bangui, Central African Republic, in March 2013 could have been avoided had the soldiers been given an EW capability. He said even if they had no intelligence on exactly who was coming from the north, the intensity of the signals traffic and the DF capability would have allowed them to prepare for an attack.

EW applications aimed at “irregulars” are becoming more common. The Indian Army, as Brigadier Shubash Chandra Sharma (retd) said, were using ECM against Maoist Naxalite terrorists as well as insurgents elsewhere in India by “sweeping” roads in areas where they operate to make sure Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) cannot be operated.

The US military is also using similar sweeping and jamming equipment that prevents a guerrilla from detonating an IED while the US patrol is in the area.

One of the man portable EW systems on display during the conference was the Chemring Solutions Resolve 3 which scans from 1MHz to 3GHz, covering HF, VHF and UHF ranges. Phil Ashworth, a former British Army EW specialist, said that poachers and smugglers and the like are low-tech opponents but they need to communicate. “There are huge distances and we could apply the technology with the rangers, the police, the military. We wouldn’t necessarily change the technology, it’s how you use it. The agencies (SA National Parks, SAPS, SA Army, Special Forces) would understand how they work; how they operate; where they go, what methods of movement are. We would understand what their communications links are.
“If you can track the movement from his communications, from range, then obviously, you’re going to stay ahead, or be abreast of where (for example) that poaching team is.”

When asked what would he do if the opponent – as is often the case – was mixing cellphone, VHF and satellite phones, for example, he said: “If you didn’t know the communications equipment your adversary was using, you would conduct an Electromagnetic Survey, shall we say a scoping of the environment, [analyse] what’s being used, how it’s being used, and then identify who is using it. You’d look for habits of behaviour. You’d relate them geographically on the map, because the system is specifically for intercept, direction finding and position fixing.
“You’re looking for pockets of radioactivity. But you’re also looking for linkages in pockets of radioactivity. You’re looking for network establishment, and network behaviours. So you’re trying to build up those patterns.
“So if you’re seeing a cluster of very low-powered, unlicensed radio communications systems, and in that mix, you’re also seeing satellite communications with links elsewhere, or cellular communications or HF communications, then you can start to very quickly to build that pattern and you can analyse that network infrastructure so you can understand what’s being used and who it’s being used by.
“Once you’ve done that, you can begin to target and exploit the specific communications being used by that adversary. Then you start looking at the patterns of life within that organisation: What is he saying, how he is operating. That’s the type of picture you’re building up. Nowadays that’s very often done on behalf of the operational and the tactical commander.
“You monitor communications in order to apply an effect. That could simply be that you get a lot of intelligence out of it, don’t do anything to him, just listen and take all that intelligence. But you might want to close that network down because what you might want to do is cause disruption. The effect you might want to do is take out the command node.
“Alternatively, what you might want to do is interdict a particular operation. You could be applying a jammer, so they can’t communicate, in which case you’re applying a non-lethal effect, and you’re not actually hurting anybody. Or you might want to insert an interdiction team; a police team or a Special Forces team to go in and snatch the individuals or you might ultimately, in a war fighting situation, apply a deliberate military effect.”