The history of electronic warfare (EW) began in the 19th century with a series of scientific developments in electronics and electromagnetics. EW has continued to evolve, largely influenced by the rapid advances in technology. Incapacitating or deceiving an adversary’s electronic sensors by an electromagnetic attack (EA) is a typical form of EW. The battle between electronic countermeasures (ECM) and electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) is an unending competition. As ECM gains superiority, newly developed ECCM comes up and negates this. Because all progress in this battle is relative, the competition among nations in EW is one with no end in sight.
Since the 1970s, the US has gained an advantage in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) by increasing the survivability of its war-fighting capability with stealth technology, rather than physically neutralizing the capabilities of adversary radar by EA. Although stealth technology was a winner strategically in terms of the vertical (technological) evolution of EW, its superiority has been rapidly compromised by the use of new EMS countermeasures in the infrared and visible light wavelengths. This is a back-and-forth technological battle of EW. For example, in order to gain an advantage over an adversary in the new operating environment, more active EMS capability has been installed in the latest stealth aircraft in addition to passive stealth technology. In the future, innovative advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and big data will be incorporated into EW operations. In the struggle for superiority in the EW domain, we can expect to see an increase in revolutionary speed and diversity.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia and China have rapidly and boldly improved their EW capabilities. Consequently, Japan and the UK each face increased EMS threats, both geographically and strategically. This essay will outline some of the developments in EW and EMS and highlight the importance of Japan–UK–US trilateral cooperation in this field, in order to maximize each country’s capabilities and encourage interoperability.
What should Japan and the UK both do regarding measures against the ever-evolving nature of EW? The ultimate aim is to prevent an adversary from easily carrying out an EA. It is also useful to convince an adversary that even if an attack is made, the effect will be lower than expected and little advantage can be obtained through these actions. Yet the effectiveness and scale of EW attacks is expanding. If carried out in urban domains, an attack could lead to serious and direct impacts on the lives of citizens by, for example, interfering with GPS reception or causing large-scale disruptions to civilian infrastructure such as power facilities and broadcasting stations. If full-scale war were to occur in outer space, cyberspace and across the EMS, the biggest victim would not be the military, but unprotected civilians who most benefit from these domains in daily life. It is thus necessary to consider a strategy that focuses more on deterrence than on coping with the consequences of an attack. One could consider this as an approach of ‘deter the adversary by knowing the adversary’s EA capability’.
To achieve this, it is necessary to construct an EMS architecture that enables tactical decentralization of command and delegation of authority to the field in order to make immediate decisions and take appropriate actions in a complex EW environment. AI and autonomous systems will play the central role in this function. A series of processes that harness the power of big data and predictive analytics to provide various response options for commanders are key to this architectural construct. AI is a digital ecosystem that continues to evolve by equipping algorithms and data, and is broadly classified into two types: ‘narrow AI’ that has human-like ability to specialize in individual areas and exert its abilities; and ‘Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)’ that solves various and complicated problems in different areas. Moreover, AI evolves through the repeated input of new data while being used empirically. In this sense, the quality and quantity of EMS data collected from tactical edges is vitally important. It is expected that narrow AI (focused on a specific task) will be implemented through the accumulation of ‘big data’ and in deep learning. Optimal EMS options will be created through the accurate understanding of the real-time EMS situation in the field combined with predictive analytics based on accumulated historical data and executed by an AI-based autonomous system. Narrow AI will therefore provide support to commanders dealing with the human stress of making consequential tactical decisions as the war-fighting situation rapidly changes. As a result, commanders will be able to maintain sophisticated insight in any environment, understand the effects of EMS operations more clearly, and make optimal decisions at all times.
While advanced technical cooperation between Japan and the UK in terms of security is not widely established, the foundations of cooperation on dual-use technology are steadily being formed.
In addition to big data, the development of advanced technologies such as quantum computing, high-precision sensors, image recognition systems and ultra-high-speed networks is indispensable for accelerating AI and autonomous system capabilities. While advanced technical cooperation between Japan and the UK in terms of security is not widely established, the foundations of cooperation on dual-use technology are steadily being formed. For example, the UK–Japan Quantum Technology Workshop, a private initiative that has been held since 2017, seeks to share information and discuss future UK–Japan collaboration on quantum technology projects. As quantum characteristics attract new attention, the time for practical application of quantum computers may be gradually approaching; countries, including Japan, are looking to develop their knowledge of this field. If miniaturized quantum computers, mounted on AI systems (the core of EW) were to be realized in the future, the speed of decision-making regarding EW would increase dramatically. In addition, an AI-powered, autonomous EW system would be able to identify unknown threats and respond in real time to increase the success rate and survivability of operations. And, if quantum radars using quantum entanglement could be put into practical use, revolutionary and high-performance surveillance systems, with higher survivability and airtightness would be realized, leading to an additional increase in deterrent effectiveness. While realization of these developments remains some way off, the prospect of these huge technological advances means that it is extremely important to develop a ‘deter the adversary by knowing the adversary’s capability’ approach by incorporating these emergent advanced technologies into electromagnetic equipment faster than the adversary is doing. Structural, strategic and rapid incorporation of technology is critical to survival in the electromagnetic race.
To achieve this, Japan and the UK should find space to develop their technical cooperation. The advanced technologies required for an EMS deterrent approach are dual-use technologies that can be used for both civilian and defence purposes. Japan and the UK confirmed cooperation in dual-use technology in the context of security and defence cooperation at the 2017 Japan–UK Summit Meeting. However, there is one challenge here. In recent years, despite remarkable progress in advanced technology fields, including AI and quantum mechanics, it has been difficult to align these advances with the methods used in the development of conventional defence equipment. However, parallel research and development ingenuity is being studied and practised worldwide, mainly by the private sector, where the implementation of these technologies is progressing at a faster pace. In consideration of this, Japanese and British private-sector engineers and operators should work together to quickly demonstrate the effectiveness of fast-moving civilian advanced technologies, which could aid the speed at which these new technologies are implemented within defence equipment. Joint utilization of private-sector expertise would also enable both Japan and the UK to save costs. Japan’s civilian sector includes research institutes such as the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR), that are famous for developing emerging or destructive technologies (EDTs). In this sense, the foundation for technical cooperation on EMS between Japan and the UK has already been established.
At present, due to the rapid advance of science and technology, including innovative information and communications technology (ICT), the connection between the conventional operational domains of land, sea and air has deepened. However, new domains of outer space and cyberspace have been added to the overall operational battle space, and it is important that all operational domains be integrated. In view of this situation, in 2015, China established the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force to lend assistance to other PLA forces from outer space, cyberspace and the EMS. The US, Russia, France and the UK have also been trying to establish independent specialized organizations in these new domains.
While the world has seen a reduction in large-scale wars with vast physical consequences, low-intensity conflicts involving the illegal operations of non-state actors in these new domains do occur. As a general trend, the main axis of conflict has shifted towards asymmetric operations in the new domains. As a forerunner, China seems to be considering military operations that cross the new domains, using faster and more advanced EMS threats designed to avoid traditional defences. For example, in order to attack major cyberspace networks and to deny the adversary access to necessary operational information, China is advancing ‘Integrated Network Electronic Warfare’, which is based on the combined use of networks and EW, in conjunction with launching asymmetrical warfare in the real world. This is accelerating the trend towards militarization of cyberspace as a war-fighting domain, along with the EMS.
5G and 6G communication networks, combined with the emergence of new technology such as quantum communications, will increase the affinity between cyberspace and the EMS, while offensive operations across such domains will become more common. Turning to outer space, the networking of space systems has advanced, and while the utilization of laser beam communications in the construction of satellite constellations is more common, there is concern about the increase in EMS threats to individual link segments of the space system due to radio interference and interception of communications.
In the future, there will be little choice but to develop an integrated, comprehensive security perspective of the so-called global commons. Japan has begun to focus on ‘cross-domain operations’ that organically combine the capabilities of new domains with those of conventional land, sea and air domains. The EMS is included alongside outer space and cyberspace as a domain of interest. Unlike other domains, the EMS is not a strategically independent domain, but has the exclusive property of unilaterally influencing all domains. Therefore, the military use of the EMS, which directly affects the safety of these domains, must be considered more comprehensively and strategically. This means that Japan, the UK and their allies should utilize and increase activation of their existing international cooperation frameworks, whether public or private.
What approach should be taken to the various evolutions of EW? In the future, as dual-use technology rapidly evolves, the benefits and utility of the global commons will increase for the private sector. On the other hand, instability and insecurity due to horizontal expansion (degree of use) will remain a major concern. The emergence of new risks and threats, along with continuing vertical advancements, will require a cost-effective application of national resources to manage these developments. This will necessitate innovative multilateral cooperation that challenges traditional considerations of national sovereignty.
In the Asia-Pacific region, there is no collective security organization like that in Europe, and because of history, politics and regional characteristics, it is not realistic to establish a new NATO-type military organization to cope with emerging risks and threats. Rather, it will be an urgent priority to apply existing security cooperation frameworks such as the bilateral Japan–US alliance, the ‘Quad’ of the US, Australia, India and Japan, the ‘Five Eyes’ that share values such as diplomacy, security and human rights, and the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) to this new regional security framework in a multi-layered manner.
What is needed to realize deterrence under this framework? Firstly, Japan, the UK and other like-minded countries should start to issue strategic messages to potential adversaries in a coordinated manner. From the perspective of public diplomacy, holding regular summits and existing 2+2 meetings under these security frameworks would have a significant deterrent effect, as would publishing an agreed communiqué.
Secondly, in order to further ensure effective deterrence options, it is essential for these countries to maintain interoperability in EMS operations and to develop combined military operational capabilities. In fact, if there is a lack of communication between the countries involved and physical linkages between assets cannot be achieved, efforts to carry out cooperative actions will come to nothing. In this regard, the regular implementation of combined exercises and training events by the countries concerned, as well as the implementation of table-top exercises, would have immediate and remarkable effects. In this context, it is extremely important to make efforts to stimulate communication among the cooperating countries and mitigate the capability gap. Japan and the UK are already established strategic partners that share the values of ‘freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the market economy’, which underline their efforts to tackle the ‘various global challenges confronting the international community’. Thirdly, from a geopolitical point of view, Japan and the UK are both sea powers, and through trilateral partnership with the US, their common ally, the environment in which Japan and the UK can contribute to world security beyond the boundaries of their own region is already in place. The maintenance of interoperability between the technologies of these countries will be a major prerequisite for the countries concerned to act together.
Trilateral cooperation and prospects for operational interoperability
In 2021, the UK will send HMS Queen Elizabeth and her Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific region. There are plans for this group to participate in naval activities to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), a military alliance between the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand, and to conduct combined exercises with regional partners.
The Queen Elizabeth’s air wing will include the F-35B Lightning, a fifth-generation fighter equipped with stealth technology and the latest EW system. Japan also has this common force platform (consisting of 147 F-35s, including 42 F-35Bs), as the realization of the future air defence system under the 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines. It is expected that combined training by the F-35s of Japan, the US and the UK will be carried out in the vicinity of Japan in the near future, just as British Air Force Typhoons came to Japan in 2016 and conducted combined training with Air Self-Defense Force fighters. In this context, combined training in EW would mean that interoperability between Japan, the US and the UK in the EMS field would be improved through the sophisticated EW capabilities of the F-35, and at the same time, it would have an effect as a major strategic message to neighbouring countries that have been enhancing their EMS capabilities. Furthermore, this effect will contribute to the improvement of operational interoperability by eliminating the capability gap related to EW. By continuing this practical relationship in EW, it will be possible for the UK and Japan to contribute to regional stability through the strengthening of their bilateral partnership, and to global stability through their trilateral cooperation in new domains alongside the US.
EW has continued to evolve as a means of offence and defence in warfare, but it has also gained strategic value through technological breakthroughs and the development of operational tactics. In the future, as militarization of cyberspace and outer space as well as the integration of these domains progresses, use of the EMS, which plays a catalytic role at the centre of these domains, will have increasingly important security implications. Moreover, as its potential impact on the private sector becomes more direct and serious, every country will have to continue to improve their capabilities. Developing EMS capacity is also a race against time as well as a competition against adversaries for accumulating EMS information (big data) and advanced technologies. A single country’s response will likely be insufficient; cooperation among Japan, the UK and the US is key to competing effectively in the EMS. For this purpose, it is important to make steady efforts to strengthen interoperability while identifying and eliminating capability gaps one by one, through joint training and defence exchanges.