Europe’s EMS and Next-Gen Miltech Challenge


Russia’s ‘invasion’ of East Ukraine in 2014 will be seen as a fundamental turning point in modern warfare. For almost 25 years following the end of the Cold War, US military dominance and the lack of near-peers caused the West to under-invest in key technologies, including EMS (electro-magnetic spectrum). Warning signs started appearing, such as the loss of an RQ170 ‘stealth’ drone over Iran in 2011 to Russian radar spoofing (which enabled China and Russia to save $bns of development costs via reverse engineered equivalents). Ukraine in 2014/15, however, was the game-changer.

Unlike the West, Russia continued to invest in EMS technologies, largely in an attempt to address US airpower, and in particular, stealth. Moreover, Russia saw the budgetary advantages and force-multiplier effects in effective EMS defence and long-range strike, particularly ground based. Its abject failure in the invasion of Georgia in 2008 had served as Russia’s own wake-up call to its post-Cold War capability atrophy, and Ukraine was a coming-out of sorts for the lessons-learned by Russia. Russia has continued to invest in the full gamut of EMS capabilities and has been able to gain valuable experience not only from Ukraine but Syria, where Russian and Western capabilities were tested almost side-by-side.

“If you emit, you die”, has been coined by the US as a direct result of the Ukraine experience, and has opened up significant new markets, led by DARPA and other US enterprises, for low ‘emission’ capabilities that can survive in a highly contested EMS environment.

China’s own EMS capabilities are not yet combat proven, but it has been keen to showcase its own advances, particularly in counter-stealth and Terrahertz capabilities, the latter being seen by China as the strategic ‘high ground’ to dominate in the years to come. China has already fielded formidable EMS capabilities, including in Space, and within the First Island Chain as part of its A2/AD umbrella, and the PLAAN is now considered second to none in naval EMS capabilities. China’s kinetic counter-EMS capability investments have focused laser-like on putting at risk key US strategic capabilities, with exquisite solutions aimed at key US and Indian Air and Naval assets. For example, The PL-15 and PL-21 long range missiles have been specifically designed to shoot down AEW/ISR assets at very long range. Countering such capabilities will be no small task.

For the US, it’s ‘EMS Community’ is now enjoying a long overdue revival. The recent confirmation of the standing-up of the 355th Spectrum Warfare Wing (https://www.c4isrnet.com/electronic-warfare/2020/11/17/us-air-force-sets-sights-on-new-spectrum-warfare-wing/), is the latest important investment in America’s EMS ‘recovery’.

As we have now entered a new era in the EMS domain, key questions arise for EU-NATO. At the heart of EMS is science, and China is currently outstripping the West in its scientific focus on new materials (eg Graphene) for military purposes. EU nations need to contend with a reality that as China and the US invest in a new hi-tech arms race, European defence capabilities, as currently structured, will be left behind at an accelerating pace.

In key future-oriented technologies (such as integrated troop night vision, low observable UAV’s, stealth, AI, cyber-EW), Europe’s lack of cutting edge capabilities means it will fall behind the curve vs best in class, and will also in time increasingly be shut out of non-Western export markets. The former has been accepted thus far whilst the US has provided top-cover for Europe, and the latter because Western-leaning nations have largely avoided Chinese imports. Neither can be guaranteed in the period ahead.

As was pointed out in an influencial Report in Washington last week, the US at present can only deal effectively with one Great Power contingency, most likely with China. https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2020-11/2021_IndexOfUSMilitaryStrength_WEB_0.pdf

In addition, a Biden Presidency is likely (our view) to focus on butter vs guns domestically, and will lean more on alliance partners to step-up budgetarily, particularly Europe, alongside a more conciliatory position re trade, and Iran. Europe’s continuing problem remains ‘national sovereignty’ of key capabilities within partner nations, and this serves as an ever growing millstone. Something needs to ‘give’. Historically, the ‘give’ has been an unforeseen contingency event.

Future war-fighting will be marked by a high-level confrontation of resilient sensor-enabled networks, where AI and cyber-enabled EMS dominance will play a critical role, especially in a world where there is no longer ‘a place to hide’, and where speed (hypersonics, quantum, kill-chains etc) will become a critical differentiator. Europe has no time to lose.

John Longhurst