Leadership: Going To War With What You Got

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August 25, 2021: Senior American military commanders now admit that the U.S. is woefully vulnerable to enemy (Chinese and Russian) electronic warfare weapons during wartime. Recent wargames, accurately representing these enemy capabilities, finally got enough attention from senior commanders to make a serious effort to deal with the problem. Recent wargames showed that China could shut down most American satellite and ground-based electronic communications and make American forces much more vulnerable than expected. This is not a new problem. For over two decades similar realistic wargames demonstrated this growing vulnerability but the senior military leadership did not respond effectively, or even admit there was a problem. There was, and it’s been around for over half a century.

The United States had long suffered from ignoring the capabilities of enemy electronic weapons and getting away with it. This was common during the Cold War, when NATO and Soviet Union forces confronted each other along the Iron Curtain. This border divided Western Europe from Russian occupied East Europe from the late 1940s until the late 1980s. While NATO air forces and navies took Russian electronic weapons seriously and often tested their aircraft to test their ability to handle Russian electronic jamming and other electronic weapons, the ground forces rarely tested, much less used these electronic weapons during training. NATO commanders may have ignored the problem but occasionally lower-ranking troops would “accidently” turn on their electronic jammers during a training exercise, causing chaos among American forces. Jammers were not supposed to be used during training because they would disrupt NATO communications and this problem was dismissed because a fix was always in the works. This seemed absurd to many NATO troops and commanders because it was known, from unclassified sources, that Russian troops trained to fight in a heavily jammed environment. That meant that Russian troops followed war plans that were not dependent on reliable electronic communications at all times, while their opponents tended to be unprepared. By the 1980s NATO forces finally took steps to deal with this problem and this bothered Russian commanders a great deal.

In the 21st century satellite surveillance and communications are crucial. China has taken the lead in developing methods for disrupting enemy access to these satellite resources and minimizing the damage done to Chinese satellite capabilities. The Chinese are also emulating the Cold War Russian forces and training to continue operating under conditions where communications and aerial/satellite surveillance is diminished or absent.

The latest American wargames accurately displayed these problems. Learning from the previous instances where these problems were dismissed, the wargame developers provided lots of documentation, most of it classified, to back up the wargame portrayal of the threat and its impact. Attention has been paid, but it remains to be seen if remedies will be found and applied in time. Another lesson learned during the Cold War was that you go to war with the forces you have, not the ones you are developing for use sometime in the future.

 


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