South Africa’s defence community has to accept that electronic warfare (EW) will play an ever increasing role in its activities with the advent of high speed (up to Mach 10) weapons, rail guns, the next generation of hypersonic missiles and threats posed by irregular groups including terrorists.
This warning comes from SA Navy Captain André Katerini? who also points out South Africa has institutions with a high reputation for technology where threats such as these will have to be designed against. These include the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, (CSIR), headquartered in Pretoria, and the Institute for Maritime Technology (IMT) in Simon’s Town.
The use of EW in the maritime environment by the SA Navy is at present largely confined to electronic counter-measures (ECM) supported by ELINT (electronic intelligence), COMINT (communications intelligence), detection and direction finding (DF) analysis.
“A lot of effort goes into these aspects with jamming rather than deception the lead activity on the ECM side,” he said, adding the maritime arm of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) worked on signal jamming to “control the space we want to operate in”.
“It’s congested and busy out there. The Navy finds itself clashing with commercial interests, the emissions from merchant and other shipping, but the work has to be done to prevent the nefarious ones from coming in.”
As far as future threats are concerned and particularly ones where EW has a role to play in detection, Katerini? points out the joint Indo-Russian BrahMos missile, successfully test fired earlier this month, as one. This hypersonic missile uses scramjet technology and can operate at between Mach one and five.
“South Africa must take cognisance of weapons of this type. They are coming, sooner rather than later,” he said.
Another high-tech weapon he sees providing a test for South African EW capacity in the future is the rail gun.
“A simple design where a pair of electrified parallel rails push a conductive projectile along their length by electro-magnetic force. There are no explosives involved, only kinetic energy, which is good for ships. This is because there is sufficient room for the generators needed to create the electro-magnetic field aboard ships.”
What is to be done when faced with a weapon of this nature is the question Katerini? answers with “you are back to long range interception, back to denying a firing solution, because once the weapon has targeted you, it’s over”.
He also sees room for laser weapons in the broader South African arsenal and mentions directed high-energy weapons as ones that can be used, particularly in the defensive mode, and cites the destruction of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as an application with minimal collateral damage.
The Americans are, according to him, testing a system known as a laser weapon system (LaWS). It is aimed at deterring asymmetric threats to the ship, from small boats up to UAVs.
“It is happening. The Americans are leading and future warships will see these types of systems employed. For South Africa it means ECM must deny the laser and the only way that can be done is by a multi-spectral charge. It’s a simple solution and I’d like to see our scientists working on it.”
Multispectral technology relies on infrared (IR) and other signals disruption which can prevent a laser rangefinder from locking on to a target and this is where he sees the South African defence research and development community coming to the assistance of the military.
Another threat Katerini? sees in the future is armed UAVs. He said the use of this type of equipment among armed forces was increasing and at the same time terrorist groups were adapting and weaponising UAVs.
“Both commercial off-the shelf (COTS) and modified off-the shelf (MOTS) items can quickly be turned into weapons,” he said giving the example of a UAV packed with small explosive charges and flown into a ship.
“IS (Islamic State) recently attacked an Egyptian patrol vessel using a modified anti-tank missile. Naval EW would need to pick up threats such as these, including IR and laser guidance systems,” Katerini? said.
He maintains there are new conventional and asymmetric threats looming for the Navy and sees South African defence designers having to think ahead to overcome them.