Electronic Warfare conference report shows new threats and opportunities


The Electronic Warfare Africa Conference, hosted by the CSIR, has revealed many possibilities and also vulnerabilities in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in the realm of Electronic Warfare (EW) with increasing complexity of operations coupled with decreasing defence budgets.

The conference was hosted by the Association of Old Crows’ South African branch, Aardvark Roost. These unusual names come from the history of the worldwide organisation. In WW II, Allied Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) officers were given the code-name “Raven” and when during the Cold War, members of the American Strategic Air Command (SAC) established an ECM-related course in New Jersey, the students changed the name to “Crows”. ECM operators came to be known as Old Crows. The present organisation, which hosts international conferences and gives scholarships and teaches courses, is based on this name.

While “Electronic Warfare” might conjure up images of secret radio messages, radar jamming or Cold War submarine activity for many, the speakers at the conference this week made it clear EW has increased relevance to conflict in Africa today, with rebel groups using large parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, from cell phones to High Frequency (HF) radios, satellite phones as well as other electronic devices, such as gate remotes to detonate Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

What might come as a surprise is that EW is not considered any less important in the African context than in the Developed World or in Afghanistan; only the details are different. Keynote speaker Major General Duma Mdutyana, Chief Director Operations at Joint Operations Division, pointed to a tragic episode in 2007 during an operation against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), when soldiers used cell phones to communicate. Believing they had a technological advantage over the LRA, eight Special Forces soldiers from an unspecified military were ambushed and killed as a result of the LRA’s use of EW in tracking the cell phone signals. The Special Forces members were not South Africans.

The Senior Staff Officer, EW, of the South African Air Force (SAAF), Colonel Padi Khoase, said that since 1945, there had been 216 conflicts, of which 196 were “irregular” wars. He added that conflicts in Africa were mainly irregular and there had been a “surge of warlordism”.

Other speakers also pointed out that these irregular fighters, whether rebels, separatists, terrorists or even major criminal syndicates, were equipped with low-end EW equipment, from simple scanner systems (like those used to listen to police radios) to more advanced Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) equipment; as well as having unmanned aerial vehicles and even aircraft.

EW can also refer to simple but deadly use of devices that can trigger IEDs and these can be combined by “bad guys” to create havoc. For instance a cheap unmanned aerial vehicle can be rigged with a simple hand grenade and a cellphone to create a flying IED.

In the same way, Navy Captain André Katerini? pointed to the recent ISIS attack on an Egyptian Navy vessel using a guided anti-tank missile. This precedent means more protection is needed for Navy vessels in port and part of the defence must include EW warning.

EW constitutes a threat on the African continent, but is also an opportunity for security forces to use countermeasures and EW of their own to more effectively combat the threats against peace and stability on the continent, the conference heard.