Small Wars Journal

Getting the Pulse of Future Multi-Domain Battle

Sat, 07/15/2017 - 11:52am

Getting the Pulse of Future Multi-Domain Battle

Tim McGeehan

Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

-- Stewart Brand [i]


Multi-domain battle of 2030-2050 will be profoundly shaped by emerging technology.  Autonomous systems will leverage computational advances and processing power to offer increased precision, faster reaction times, longer endurance, and greater range than their manned counterparts.  The proliferation of sensors coupled with the internet of things (IoT) will allow constant surveillance and status updates, but at the same time open countless attack vectors for cyber operations.  Artificial intelligence (AI) will be employed to shape the “narrative” of unfolding actions by releasing information into the media via the internet that is calculated to psychologically target adversary soldiers in the field as well as their populations to shape perceptions, manipulate opinion and influence morale.  Other AI algorithms will focus on spoofing or deceiving adversary algorithms that seek to leverage “big data” by inserting misleading data into mix.  Logistics systems and supply chains will be redefined by additive manufacturing that gives the ability to 3-D print parts on demand, vice having to stock, store, and transport them.  Human performance will be upgraded not only by augmented reality capabilities but also by “biohacking” with implanted technologies that allow commanders to monitor location, health and status of their troops in the field.  This could extend to implants that create a brain-computer interface to boost cognitive ability, aid memory, add new senses, or even directly push data feeds (i.e. allow a soldier to see through an unmanned aerial vehicle’s camera).[ii]  However, in this world of flux and constant pursuit of competitive advantage, by far and away the most disruptive technologies will be tactical level electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons.

EMP Weapons

Traditional electronic attack capabilities involve jamming signals, resulting in temporary denial of portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.  In contrast, EMP weapons deliver short intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation that produce damaging current and voltage surges in electrical and electronic systems, overloading and destroying sensitive circuitry and components.[iii]  Although of shorter duration than most jamming, the end result is actually a longer denial of adversary access to the spectrum as they struggle to repair or replace damaged components.  More importantly, an EMP that damages electronic components can effectively render many of the other emerging technologies moot:  sophisticated communications systems will go down, the advantages brought by autonomous systems will be negated, and Commanders relying heavily on sophisticated sensor networks for situational awareness will be blind.

EMP weapons are not intended to secure and hold the spectrum.  Rather, in the spirit of multi-domain battle they create a window of opportunity where friendly forces can achieve superiority.  Furthermore, EMP weapons can apply in all five doctrinal domains (air, sea, land, cyberspace, and space) and they can achieve effects between domains (i.e. an EMP in space can damage communications satellites and limit the flow of data through cyberspace that feed a common operating picture (COP) which in turn introduces fog and friction into traditional operations on land, sea, and air).

The EMP phenomenon has long been known and is typically associated with nuclear detonations.  However, tactical level stand-alone EMP weapons are in development now and will likely be available for use in the 2030-2050 timeframe.  For example, in 2012, the U.S. Air Force Research Lab successfully demonstrated an air-launched cruise missile outfitted with a high-power microwave (a variant of EMP) payload known as Counter-electronics High-power- microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP).[iv]  During that flight CHAMP successfully flew a pre-programmed flight path and disabled electronic systems (to include computers) within a target building with no damage to the structure itself.  This program is likely to continue, as CHAMP received additional funding in 2016 (and Senator Heinrich of New Mexico, himself an engineer and veteran of directed energy research, has been urging the Secretary of Defense to accelerate development and transition efforts to acquisition programs of record).[v]

However, CHAMP is not the only tactical EMP weapon that the Pentagon is contemplating.  In November of 2016, the U.S. Army released a solicitation to industry for “Munition-Delivered Non-Kinetic Effects.”[vi]  The objective is to “Develop and demonstrate an innovative, cost-effective, munitions-based electronics system that can deliver non-destructive, non-kinetic RF (radio frequency) effects against a wide range of electronics, critical infrastructure, and computer-based systems.” The announcement specifically sought out artillery launched munitions (initial design would fit in a 155mm projectile with further miniaturization to follow later), highlighting that the precision delivery afforded by artillery operating close to the target could achieve desired effects with lower power, limiting the effects both in geographic and spectral terms.  In summary, this is not a stand-off weapon like CHAMP, but rather one to be employed by ground forces in close contact with adversaries. 

Interestingly, while an artillery delivered EMP may seem to be best suited for land warfare, it could be extended to other domains.  It could be used in an air defense application against incoming attack aircraft, missiles, or swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles.  Likewise, in a scenario with ground forces and artillery dispersed along a coast or throughout an archipelago, it could be employed against adversary shipping or naval forces transiting nearby or through associated choke points.  It is not hard to imagine a naval analog, where the same EMP artillery round could be delivered from naval gunfire to achieve effects ashore.

EMP weapons are coming.  Russia and North Korea are reportedly developing them as well.[vii]  The fact that they do not cause physical devastation or blast damage, coupled with the fact that they don’t target humans, makes them an extremely attractive option to launch a pre-emptive first strike, limit escalation, or control collateral damage.  When they are employed (the question is really “when,” not “if”), the cascading consequences will be wide-ranging.

Cascading Consequences

While EMP weapons appear fairly straight forward, they do raise interesting questions of follow-on effects.  For example, while they do not target people, what will EMP weapons do to people with implanted technologies?  Implanted technologies may well be on the battlefield of 2030-2050.  In fact, there is a DARPA program working to “develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.”[viii]  On one hand those implants offer the promise of upgraded humans (“human 2.0”) and possibly the ultimate expression of “human-machine teaming” described in the Third Offset Strategy.  On the other hand, an EMP may render these devices useless and reduce those “human 2.0” back to the lowest common denominator.  In fact, while the un-upgraded person (“human 1.0”) would emerge from an EMP physically unscathed, “human 2.0” might be seriously incapacitated.  There is some evidence to support this, as pioneering biohackers have already had devices surgically implanted in themselves; some of these people have already reported experiencing debilitating panic attacks associated with battery malfunctions.[ix]  What would happen if an EMP completely overloaded the device and caused a powerful discharge directly into the person’s nervous system?  In that case, it will likely be “human 1.0” that holds the asymmetric advantage.

However, this concern extends beyond military combatants to civilians with implanted medical devices like insulin pumps, cochlear implants, and pacemakers.  The discussion of the IoT has recently highlighted the vulnerability of these medical devices to cyber hacking, but depending on its size and power, an EMP weapon could impact or even destroy those devices, yielding significant unexpected collateral damage.  This points to broader implications for the use of EMP weapons in the megacities of the future, which may well be the battlegrounds of 2030-2050. 

While military planners will employ them in an attempt to limit collateral damage to structures and people, EMP weapons will have multiple second- and third- order effects in dense urban environments, like disrupting communications, preventing the flow of digital commerce, impacting transportation systems, damaging industrial control systems, and above all degrading the electrical power grid itself.  As “smart cities” emerge, the interconnectedness of disparate systems will make “surgical” targeting of particular capabilities increasingly difficult.  Critical infrastructure crippled by EMP weapons could lead to massive disruption, civil unrest, and drastic escalation in an otherwise limited military operation. 

Other considerations revolve around the sheer number of interconnected sensors, systems, and data flows. While military maneuver in urban terrain has always been difficult to mask, it will be exceedingly difficult for a unit to maneuver unobserved and unreported in a world where every person is a data collector and every “thing” is a sensor.  A unit’s location, disposition, and movement will almost certainly be noted and shared, and adversaries could use this to avoid contact or target the unit at a time and place of their choosing.  From that point of view, employing an EMP before moving in might be desirable to cloud the adversary COP and deliver the ability to maneuver freely. 

That said, refraining from use and holding EMP weapons in reserve would allow this information infrastructure to be co-opted for use by friendly forces.  A savvy force could use these existing conduits to present signatures that give a misleading impression of their actual maneuver, operating profile, and posture.  Using an EMP weapon without careful consideration and synchronization with intelligence personnel may close the door on valuable cyber accesses, vectors, and exploits.  Tapping into the infrastructure of a “smart city” would give access to a gold-mine of information available for exploitation.  Data (and associated anomalies) regarding electricity usage, internet traffic, vehicular traffic, etc., could allow a force to locate adversaries, predict when and where to focus operations, decide how to route convoys to avoid threats, or even know where to deliver food, fuel, water, or humanitarian aid.  The multi-domain battle commander of the future must have a clear understanding of the intelligence gains/losses that accompany any action he takes regarding the use (or non-use) of EMP weapons.


With these implications in mind, how does one mitigate the use of EMP weapons?  The first answer is to have the protection “baked in” (i.e. systems and their components are “electromagnetically hardened” or shielded from undesirable effects of electromagnetic radiation).[x]  However, as sensors become ever more sensitive and circuits become ever more intricate completely hardening them may not be cost effective; it might be cheaper to simply focus on resiliency and procure many spares.  The trend towards simplifying logistics systems with 3-D printing (print on demand vice stocking all possibly required spare parts) will be at least partially offset by the need to stock many EMP sensitive components.  Identifying these particular components and training Soldiers to diagnose and repair battle damage to equipment in the field will likely require significant focused training.

A related defensive measure is to temporarily protect sensitive systems and their components be disconnecting them, placing them into a safe mode, temporarily shielding them, or bringing them into a protected area (perhaps a building constructed of a special EMP resistant concrete like what is being developed at the University of Nebraska).[xi]  However, these actions are predicated on knowing that an EMP is coming.  This will require enhanced intelligence capabilities as timely indications and warnings will prove critical. 

The use of EMP weapons can also be mitigated by the increased focus on mission command.  As larger units are disaggregated to complicate adversary targeting, small units will be expected to operate autonomously for extended periods based on commander’s intent.  This mindset will be key to dealing with the challenges that come when EMP weapons have struck friendly electronic systems.  The trend towards increased disaggregation also favors weapons with increased standoff ranges.  Depending on forward basing opportunities and perceived vulnerabilities, the platforms supporting the fight may be kept increasingly distant from the battlefield.  Taken to the extreme, this would favor the development of prompt global strike capabilities (based in the continental United States) with hypersonic speed, vice other strike platforms that are locally held at risk.

Just as EMP weapons may degrade the abilities of “human 2.0” and essentially set them back in time to a less technologically advanced era, perhaps adversaries will employ an exceedingly old-fashioned defense from the weapons in the first place:  going underground.  Historically, tunneling has proven to be an exceedingly effective low-tech counter to the high-tech weapons of the day. World War I industrialized artillery barrages forced combatants to seek safety underground and then emerge for the charge.  In World War II the Germans developed extensive underground bunkers and facilities (like their pioneering jet fighter aircraft manufacturing plant) to avoid Allied airpower.[xii]  The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces employed extensive tunnel complexes during the Viet Nam War to provide sanctuary from air raids, run supplies, manufacture ordnance, operate as hospitals, and launch surprise attacks.[xiii]  Likewise, the Afghans have used extensive tunnel networks (like the infamous Tora Bora stronghold) against both the Soviet and the United States militaries.[xiv]  Hezbollah and Hamas both used tunnels for infiltration, smuggling, ambushing Israeli forces (and subsequently seeking sanctuary from them) in the brief wars of 2006 and 2014, respectively.[xv]  Now ISIS is using tunnels to counter advanced coalition intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), air power, and weaponry.[xvi]  A similar tactic of going underground may prove effective against EMP weapons, or be incorporated into tactics involving their use.  For example, if an adversary obtains an EMP weapon, they could seek refuge underground (with their own electronic equipment), employ the EMP weapon above ground “danger close” (to target friendly forces in the area), and then emerge as the only members on the battlefield who still have full capabilities.


There will be additional enablers required to fully realize the benefits of EMP weapons. Commanders and targeteers need a reference like the Joint Munitions Effectiveness Manual to give realistic understanding of the effects they should anticipate when employing a weapon against an array of targets, particularly if the weapon has a scalable yield (i.e. everything from forcing a system to reboot to destroying internal circuits).  Complex modeling and simulation software will be needed to feed tactical decision aids that predict and graphically display the geographic extent and effectiveness of capabilities during mission planning, allowing commanders to visualize the scenario and both ensure the desired adversary impacts as well as prevent fratricide. 

On a higher level, existing doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures will need to be modified to ensure that the employment of EMP weapons is integrated with other fires, as well as specify the level at which weapons release authority should be retained.  Logistics systems will have to be more flexible and agile to ensure the ability to deliver parts and spares in a rapid manner to repair and reconstitute capabilities.  Finally, to boost force resilience, training will have to include exercises where forces practice recovering from EMP damage. 

Side Benefits

There is a certain deterrent value associated with just possessing credible EMP capabilities.  Broadcasting or telegraphing that their use is imminent could force adversaries to bring their systems down (like an early warning radar) or activate shielding protocols that degrade their performance.  Again, this could buy time and provide the multi-domain battle commander with a window of opportunity to establish a particular task or maneuver into position to bring other capabilities to bear. 

Another side-benefit of having EMP weapons is that they will inform the greater awareness and understanding of potential impacts to natural EMP phenomena associated with solar activity.  Space weather vulnerabilities are real, like the Carrington Event of 1859 that caused electrical currents to surge and overload telegraph systems around the world, shocking operators, destroying equipment, and setting paper on fire (the resulting atmosphere was so electrically charged that telegraph operators discovered that they could disconnect their batteries and still send messages using the ambient current).[xvii]  A storm on this scale would prove catastrophic today.  A lesser but more recent even occurred in 1989, when a magnetic storm shut down the power grid that services Quebec.[xviii]  In 2015, the National Space Weather Strategy explicitly called for increased efforts to boost preparedness and resilience of critical infrastructure.[xix]  The lessons learned associated with focused military training and capability development will inform national resilience programs, should there be a massive event (natural or man-made) that impacts the domestic electrical grid.[xx]


EMP weapons will change the face of the multi-domain battle of 2030-2050.  They have the ability to seriously impair a technology-dependent adversary force or population.  EMP-hardened capabilities, as well as existing non-electronic capabilities (traditional arms and munitions), will be critical in the immediate aftermath of an EMP, as they may be the only capabilities that are still functional.  It is critical that the multi-domain commander of the future can integrate EMP with other fires, and discern the most opportune time to do so.  He must be prepared to seize the advantage during the windows of opportunity when he uses an EMP capability, and be resilient enough to fight through when his forces are degraded because his adversary does.

End Notes



About the Author(s)

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Naval Postgraduate School, and Naval War College. He has served on both the CNO Strategic Studies Group and CNO Strategic Actions Group. The ideas presented are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.