The EW battle as the main, decisive battle in modern-on-modern warfare

Back in World War Two, the main battlefield in night bombing /night interception and the Second Battle of the Atlantic wasn't about guns or manoeuvres, but about radio and radar technologies. This was followed by the horrible fuel shortage in Germany beginning in summer of '44 (and more so for the aviation gas-guzzling night fighters than for the diesel fuel-guzzling subs).

Accounts of these "battles" focus a lot on radio and radar, and rightly so. The pendulum swung always with radio and radar breakthroughs back then, not with the introduction of better weapons, ammunitions, airframes or ship hulls.

Technology breakthroughs tend to filter from naval to air war, and finally to ground war. Naval warfare often comes first because bulky, heavy and expensive components are no real problem on ships. The components already need to be lightweight and compact for use on aircraft and finally they also need to be cheap for use in ground warfare.

It's thus possible to follow certain technologies from naval to aerial to ground applications. There are exceptions, of course.

The intense high frequency warfare has found its way into the ground forces long ago. The multitude of radars and radios was already impressive back in the 50's, and there are ever more electronic tools being added to the ground forces. Some of them aren't widely known, such as hand-emplaced or even artillery-delivered radio jammers which may collapse a battalion's radio net just as it enters contact with the enemy.

The increasing data processing ability appears to handle the complexity of terrain features ever better, and by now it seems as if the most pressing challenge in ground warfare between two modern ground forces would be the radio and sensor conflict. Just the same as with W2 subs and night fighters.

Here's an example (related: I posted on Eerie radar technology earlier):

I-Master radar - lightweight, compact

Just look at the "Coherent Change Detection" thing, which is more than the mere SAR and GMTI modes. I knew about it for a while, but didn't figure out the correct terminology until recently.
This kind of sensor and data processing capability does - in my opinion - prove the dominant influence of sensors on modern-on-modern ground warfare. 

This doesn't mean that all these sensors are going to make hiding impossible. Even millions of bird-sized drones would not do so. Instead, this shows the dominant importance of countering such sensors.
A modern-on-obsolete conflict of the future would probably look quite like Afghanistan; the opposition being unable to pull off much given the technological and organisation superiority of the modern force. The conflict would thus be limited to hiding and the least risky actions (mines, assaults on non-modern proxies) and then mostly where the modern force is stretched too thin.
It's basically like a firing range. 

Modern-on-modern conflict could and in my opinion WOULD look very differently. The conflict would first and foremost be about countering sensors and communications. Tanks, guns - even logistics - would become onlookers, with ground troops probably waiting till the electronic warfare (EW) battle was decided.

An alternative would be that the electronic warfare-inferior modern forces might try to rush towards a more favourable decision by trying to saturate and seek decisive physical combat as soon as possible.
This is just once more a hint that the delaying action is probably the most important and most interesting tactical action (since the EW-superior force would try to avoid an early decision in physical combat since it expects to have better conditions once it won the EW battle).
Finally, EW strengths tend to disappear over time as the enemy adapts with countermeasures. The EW battle might not follow the example of for example air warfare (air superiority, DEAD) where the superior force attempts to decimate and diminish the inferior force's capability to resist as a prelude to knocking it out. Instead, it might rather be about exploiting the advantage as long as it lasts with concurrent "knock out" attempts against the hostile main force. The EW-superior force would in this scenario assume that its superiority isn't growing, but withering away over time.

It is most interesting and curious that so many extremely important sensor and communications platforms of the West don't appear to be built to withstand the EW-onslaught and countermeasures of a modern force. Stories about non-encrypted drone radio traffic, slow-moving drones and even blimps as sensor platforms and many more anecdotes point at 'us' preparing to bash obsolete forces, not 'us' preparing for a modern-on-modern conflict. Sadly, the former is not really defence, while the latter would is.

I propose to pay much more attention to countermeasures to new sensor and communications capabilities than to the capabilities themselves or the more physical aspects of land warfare such as arms, armour, vehicles and even logistics.



  1. I think that the whole western world seems to have begun to take for granted that we will never fight a near peer enemy. I think that we may be in for a surprise if we are not careful. In the end high tech is nice right up until you run out of the planes and tanks that are the pointy part of the tech.

  2. DA: I don't think that we have "begun to take for granted" that there will not be a near-peer or peer war... it seems evident to me that since 1992-93 all conventional warfare capabilities have been dramatically scaled down. The thinking that there will be no peer wars probably dates from this time.

  3. The needs for conventional military strength diminished with the end of the Warsaw pact, and kept diminishing as the Russian army rusted in the 90's. This doesn't mean 'we' did not expect high end warfare in the long term.

    In fact, scaling down is no real problem for long-term readiness for demanding conventional warfare. Many Western military establishments grew heavy on officers, pointing at a high growth potential and it's better to equip the military with modern stuff in a final spurt arms race than to attempt to maintain it at large size and enter the war with on average 15+ y.o. stuff.

    I sense the dismissal of modern-on-modern scenarios rather in the development projects. An astonishing quantity of projects and new systems are unsuitable against competent modern opposition (such as patrol-focused warships, slow-moving drones, fragile and tell-tale radio networks).

    1. Why prepare for a modern on modern conflict if the problems of today are posed by obsolete equipped enemies?
      Modern on modern warfare is a ritual that happens within a legal framework on a limited playing field with neutrals.
      Violence, as a means to stress one's point of view, needs by no means be bound to this construct and the current external use of violence reflects just this. Military violence is just one means of politics and if politics require agreements in such underdeveloped places where violence is necessary, then the tools must be appropriate and affordable.

    2. Obsoletely-equipped powers are not going to attack us because they're not stupid and know how it would end.
      To prepare for the fight against them is offence, not defence. Strategic offence isn't worth the expense.

    3. Does obsolete armament pose any hindrance to executing drug trafficking, piracy or terrorism against some else?
      These things get misused as pretexts, but they are security problems that require solutions.
      "Arming the periphery" by Emrys Chew is an interesting read on how old these problems are and how security operates within a not so obvious framework. Truth and politics often mutually exclude each other in these contexts with military enforcement learning a lot from the cloak and dagger specialists. Thus peer on peer capable hardware does often see an expensive misuse for the task and other solutions deliver more security bang for the buck.
      These slow flying drones are just an example of the old COIN aircrafts with extended endurance and so on.
      Is strategic offence not worth the expenditure? There's a Roman scutum on top of the page. Could you have convinced them of your opinion, when they were still using that type of shield?

    4. There has been no solution to drug trafficking with or without military involvement, so the idea that the problem requires a solution is already falsified. We'd like to have a solution, but observation tells us the military has none.

      Piracy s from Somalia could have been handled with a few hundred gendarmes shipped on a chartered freighter to three Somali villages. The whole affair was instead used as a pretext for a near-permanent mission for military bureaucracies.

      Errorism is basically a law enforcement issue. There's no evidence whatsoever that military action suppresses errorism more than it provokes it.

    5. Good one, the hammer and everything looks like a nail -type.

  4. We have all grown so sure of ourselves. No one would dare threaten the west. The mistake is to under estimate those that hate us. Those that look at the way we run the world and think that it could be done better had the west just got out of the way. How many people in each western countries feel the same.

    1. Blue water navy. Any challenger will need decades to build up. Enough time for less expensive solutions with less bloodshed.

    2. Look up the story of the naval race 1898-1914. By 1912 Germany had basically caught up with the British so very well that it was very dangerous. The critical phase only begun in 1906, as pre-dreadnoughts were obsolete by 1912.

      Also, look up the expansion of the USN in 1942-1944; it multiplied its strength in three years.

      The times needed for challenging a dominant navy are regularly exaggerated. Likewise, the claim that a navy new to carrier ops would take 20+ years to learn it. 20+ yeas was the time needed to invent it - learning can be done in one year. Compare the carrier fleet expansion of WW2 as evidence.

      The underestimation and complacency is especially powerful in naval circles.

    3. There's a difference between expanding an existing structure and creating a new one as well as between green and blue water navy. Creating takes longer than expanding. The US expanded their fleet, the Germans built within a European framework of information transfer and thus neither created, however, the blue water value of the German "Hochseeflotte" is very disputed. Germany did build up an impressive green water navy, but no blue water navy on par with the UK in the global sea lines of communication control game.

      The Punic Wars are an example of Rome acquiring a victorious navy(they expanded their old obsolete fleet and used help from naval experts). Despite their impresssive combat capabilities, there's no report of the Roman fleet exploiting the parts of the Mediterranean further away from shore like their opponents. In this case sea currents and socio-economic and political structures favoured the Romans in a very green water environment.

      The Soviet navy was another example of a navy becoming blue water by doing repairs and maintenance away from port. China as a most likely naval competitor has no doubt the output capability to dominate with ships within the island chains. But can they maintain their fleet in the vast blue with repairs of all kind en route in the blue? That's the art that makes the difference in sea lines of communication control, not the number of guns, missiles and aircrafts.

    4. The Royal Navy of 1914 was no real ocean-going anvy either. Even the cruisers were short-legged. It wasn't until IIRC the Frobisher cruisers of (post-1916) that endurance became better.

      To build the infrastructure of ports, drydocks etc. is a different thing than building a navy.

  5. Sorry, the naval powers like UK, USA and Japan had decades to learn the essentials of carrier operations and to get an understanding how design decisions affect operation.

    There are good papers on this subject, the last article on the German attempt in one of the last issues of "War in History". Even after five years of experiments and Japanese input the Germans were not able to operate a carrier in 1939, one reason to scrap it.


    1. One deck ops NCO and one naval aviator as traitor would be enough to nullify almost all advantages.
      Look at how quickly crews were trained for carrier ops in WW2.

      Germany had no effective aircraft carrier in WW2 because the two under construction were not completed in late 1939 and did not seem to make much sense given the strategic situation. Input from Japan was negligible.
      There were no real German carrier experiments - not a single German carrier was ever completed and thus there was never a demonstration of inability to operate one.
      The biggest mistakes done were about what kind of aircraft was required (understandable given the timeframe of quick aviation advances) and about whether heavy guns were required (same mistake as done by Japan and the US).

    2. Sorry, no NCO knew the subtle effects of carriere design on carrier operation.

      The reason for not completig the carrier was exactly that the Germans did not understand how to operate one and the Japanese input came too late. The IJN and USN worked both hard at the beginning of the 1930 not to give away their advantages. Again, there are good papers on this subject, no need to kick dead horses.


      The strategic shift from a fleet designed to fight France to a fleet with UK as enemy did also not help.

  6. The difference between Germany and UK in 1914 was, that the geostrategic position of UK was much better, an short legged cruiser operating from an island port and choking the German suplly was much more worth than a cruiser operating from German ports.

    That's the difference between Seemacht und Flottenmacht. :-)

    The German fleet was too expensive for its strategic impact, i.e. and did more harm than good for Germany. Check the costs of the Kriegmarine and think in terms of army corps.

    BTW The maritime UK strategy before 1914 was quite good and I do not see that they were intimidated. Fisher et al. claerly understood their advantages. The break came in 1915, when the French army was bled white and British forces had to share losses to ensure a French survival, now UK fought the very war Fisher wanted to prevent.



    1. Rock-paper-scissors is a game that highlights a very human trait. The loser tends to chose what would have one the last game (in championships they have elaborated this with algorithms). The German surface fleet in the Second War highlights what would have worked better in the First.
      What each of them missed, power is pointless as long as there's little clue where to direct it and the better directions are, the less power can achieve the result.