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New Kid on the Block: An Analysis of How the Advent of Cyber Has Influenced Electronic Warfare

  • Published
  • By Major Trevor Mendenhall


“There’s no going back. You’ve changed things, forever.” In Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film, The Dark Knight, the Joker explains to Batman how the hero’s presence and attempts to defend Gotham City against organized crime have forever altered the landscape of order and chaos. He further claims returning to the way things used to be, where law-keepers and criminals were normal and predictable, is now impossible. Similarly, cyber warfare has permanently changed how the United States conducts electronic warfare (EW) under the umbrella of information warfare (IW). Over the last 50 years, cyber has dramatically enhanced how EW operations are conducted to the point that they are both so fundamentally intertwined that they can no longer exist separately at the operational level of modern war. Cyber operations have increased the quantity of data available for processing and the speed at which it is processed, through shared environmental characteristics and objectives, and shared operational functions.

It is important to define some key terms and concepts before proceeding.  First, IW refers to “the military capabilities employed in and through the IE [information environment] to deliberately affect adversary human and system behavior and preserve friendly freedom of action during cooperation, competition, and conflict.”[1] Six principle capabilities fall under the umbrella of Air Force IW, two of which are cyberspace operations and electromagnetic spectrum [EMS] operations.[2] Cyberspace is “a manmade domain, wholly contained within the IE, and [encompassing] the features of specificity, global scope, and an emphasis on the [EMS].” Cyberspace operations (CO) fall into three categories: offensive cyberspace operations (OCO), defensive cyberspace operations (DCO), and DoD information network (DODIN) operations.[3] EMS is “a maneuver space consisting of all frequencies of EM [electromagnetic] radiation (oscillating electric and magnetic fields characterized by frequency and wavelength). The EMS is often organized by frequency bands, based on certain physical characteristics.”[4] Finally, EW consists of “military actions involving the use of EM and DE [directed energy] to control the EMS or to attack the enemy. EW consists of three distinct divisions: [electromagnetic attack] EA, electromagnetic support (ES), and electromagnetic protection (EP).”[5] EA offensively uses targeted EM radiation to disrupt, degrade or deny an enemy’s ability to receive signals, deliver data payloads supporting CO, or disable and destroy targets susceptible to high-energy EM radiation.[6] ES is the operational activity to search for, intercept, identify and locate enemy EM signals to aid threat recognition and avoidance.[7] EP focuses on defending friendly or neutral assets against the enemy use of the EMS.[8] The term ‘cyber’ will be used to reference any combination of the three categories of CO with the understanding that the operational dependencies of individual branches of CO and EW can change when comparing each of the different categories.

Despite the relative youth of CO, cyber has had a profound impact on EW theory and operations. One of the primary ways cyber has significantly influenced EW is how cyber has made the world more interconnected, allowing for the transmission and receipt of an amount and type of data otherwise impossible. In the digital information age, connections are frequently made and rarely severed. As the level of global interconnectedness grows, cyber capabilities enhance EW operational effectiveness. One example is how “active electronic scanned array (AESA) radars (which allow thousands of radio beams to transmit at once) and software defined radios (which transform how a radio wave is transmitted) rely on computer systems to manage spectrum operations.”[9]

The merging of cyber with EW technologies has dramatically increased the operational capabilities of today’s military by giving decision-makers access to more information, which can improve a commander’s ability to shape operations. Before the advent of cyber, EW was limited by the physics of EM wave propagation. For example, ES assets collecting against an adversary in the Middle East could not transmit data to the continental United States due to range. With the advent of cyber, ES mission data can be transmitted anywhere in the world in near real-time via satellite networks. Additionally, fiber optic cables can transmit EW information much farther and in much larger quantities than relying solely on RF propagation. Thus, cyber transmission affords military operational command centers the ability to share enormous amounts of data anywhere in the world, giving strategic leadership an unprecedented level of global situational awareness. Furthermore, software has enabled the physical alteration of waveforms, thereby manipulating the EMS. Once adopted, militaries rarely abandon a new technology or process unless it is replaced with something with better capabilities. Having dramatically enhanced EW data quantity transfer capabilities, cyber will likely remain a key element of future operational warfare.

By increasing the speed of data transfer, cyber has caused a shift in the character of war.[10] Military leaders must recognize this and act to adapt quicker than their enemies, or they risk losing the ability to shape operations if the enemy develops a faster decision cycle. With the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML)-enabled systems, the U.S. can now collect, analyze, interpret, and produce intelligence derived from EW sources faster than ever.[11] Not only does it provide a quicker and more efficient means to collect, process, and fuse data to provide decision-makers with accurate and timely information, but it can also simultaneously complicate an adversary’s decision-making process. This distinct advantage will, therefore, help enable a nation to shape operations in its favor.[12]

By enabling a network of interconnected units, people, and resources, cyber has increased the speed of information and reduced time barriers to decision-making. The tyranny of distance in military planning is rapidly being supplanted by the tyranny of time. Nations that can decide and act more quickly will have a distinct advantage that can overcome even large distances in military operations. The operational convergence between computers, communications, electronic devices, and sensors, enabling network assets to become de facto EW assets and vice versa, has contributed to the increased speed of data sharing.[13] When coupled with advancements in AI/ML technology systems, IW is primed to see another leap forward in the speeds at which data is collected, processed, interpreted, and disseminated.

The shared characteristics of cyber and EW operations and their similar objectives to influence human behavior and support IW efforts means that both types of operations are logically employed in conjunction. Additionally, actions in cyberspace and the EMS can mutually affect each other. Not only can cyber can be used to transmit EW data rapidly, EW can also be used to create cyber effects through the use of electromagnetic pulses or jamming frequencies.[14] While EW can be used at the tactical level without cyber (e.g. eavesdropping with a bugging device or jamming a radio frequency by transmitting on the same frequency with a hand-held device), the U.S. does not employ EW without cyber at the operational level. Furthermore, the support network to collect, process, and catalog EW mission data is totally reliant on a secure cyber network. Despite their co-dependency, however, they cannot be merged as they each have elements that extend well beyond the limits of the other.[15]

Cyber and EW also share similar characteristics in their operational functions, further demonstrating their inextricable link. EW expert David Adamy describes the link between cyber and EW by analyzing their common operational functions, comparing ES to spyware, EA to viruses, and EP to passwords and firewalls.[16] While EW uses ES to collect information from the enemy, cyber uses spyware. To electronically interfere with the enemy’s operational capability, EW uses EA, whereas cyber uses viruses. Similarly, EW uses EP to protect friendly capabilities from enemy electronic interference, while cyber uses passwords and firewalls. Furthermore, while EW decoys are not doctrinally part of EW, Adamy likens them to cyber trojan horses because both cause enemy systems to initiate undesired actions.[17] However, Adamy mistakenly assumes that malware uses only physical connections to enter a system through software, not considering wireless or air-gapped entry methods such as WiFi, Bluetooth, or mobile ad-hoc networks (MANET), which are actually similar to the electromagnetic entry methods for EW.[18]  With these common functions, it is easy to see how pairing these two different operational capabilities can be effective. Separating Cyber and EW at the operational level would only give the enemy significant space to maneuver in the information battlespace.

There are those who do not view cyber and EW as now permanently intertwined at the operational level of war. While some opponents have focused on different naming conventions used for each, others have argued that EW existed long before cyber and has not fundamentally shifted since its inception. Upon review, these arguments do not hold up.

The argument based on differences in doctrinal definitions is primarily a strawman that ignores the connectivity based on operational capabilities. It is true that AFDP 3-12 describes cyberspace as a “global domain within the information environment (IE),”[19] equal in nature to other domains, while JP 3-85 describes EMS as a “maneuver space.”[20] Given the ever-evolving nature of joint doctrine and the different authors of these documents, the difference in descriptions is most likely a result of assuming domain to be a widely understood term and not thinking specifically through what is and is not a domain. Despite defining specific domains, such as “land domain” and “maritime domain,” joint doctrine never explicitly defines the term “domain.” Unfortunately, this lack of specificity has only added ambiguity and confusion, which has given room for an argument to rage regarding the nature of a domain as the DoD has expanded from the traditional operating environments of land, sea, and air with the inclusion of space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. While space is more easily accepted as a domain because it has physical operations that closely parallel its land, maritime, or air counterparts, cyberspace’s status as a domain is more nebulous—sometimes included in a list of domains,[21] but other times excluded.[22] This is likely due to a misconception that cyber and EW do not physically exist. While cyber and EW may be harder to understand conceptually, it is wrong to assume that these environments do not have physical properties. On the contrary, cyber relies on a physical layer of infrastructure that includes hardware, servers, cable, and interface devices, and EW operations require physical equipment to encode, send, receive, and decode information and utilize EM waves that have physical properties that can be measured. Therefore, the key difference is these physical properties cannot be seen with the naked eye. (Yet interestingly, neither can air or space.) Given the ambiguity surrounding the term “domain,” it ultimately does not matter that EMS has never been overtly referred to as a domain. Therefore fixating one’s argument on ill-defined terminology does not hold up against the evidence of their operational overlap.

Others argue that EW has not fundamentally shifted since its inception, which predates cyber. Instead, cyber is simply another resource to achieve those desired effects. Although the methods have become more advanced, the concept of using the propagation of EM waves to achieve effects has not changed in the last eight decades, which has led some to argue that the later advent of cyber has only offered another resource for disseminating and manipulating EM information. However, as this argument focuses solely on effects, it only sees the connection between cyber and EW in terms of resources (means) instead of capabilities (ways).[23]  While cyber has expanded EW capabilities through improved methods of transmission, reception, and processing, its influence on EW goes far beyond being an additional resource as their close integration provides military leaders with greater information, allowing for better predictions and faster decisions.[24] Critics who view cyber as only another resource to conduct EW fail to recognize how combining these two disciplines has generated a fundamental increase in capabilities. Essentially, cyber and EW have achieved a level of interconnectedness (while still maintaining elements of exclusivity) such that one cannot exist without the other at the operational level without commanders accepting a severe limitation in informational capability.[25]

Not only has cyber has dramatically enhanced how EW operations are conducted, but these two disciplines are so fundamentally intertwined that they can no longer exist separately at the operational level of modern warfare. Cyber has increased the quantity of data EW can transmit for processing, exploitation, and dissemination. Additionally, cyber has dramatically increased the speed at which EW data is transmitted, allowing for faster decision-making. Not only do Cyber and EW also share similar environmental characteristics and objectives, but they also share operational functions as well, making their cooperation even easier. As the Joker told Batman in The Dark Knight, with a mixture of resigned exasperation and hopeful elation, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” His words can also be applied to the ever-increasingly interdependent relationship between cyber and EW.


Major Trevor Mendenhall
Maj Mendenhall is a 2023 graduate of Air Command and Staff College. He holds a master’s degree from Air University, a master’s degree from Liberty University, and a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Major Mendenhall graduated from ACSC as a member of the inaugural Cyberspace Specialization Track, conducting a year-long focus on integrating cyber power into operational warfare. He is a Senior Combat Systems Officer with deployment experience in USCENTCOM, USSOUTHCOM, and USINDOPACOM.



[1]. U.S. Department of the Air Force, Information in Air Force Operations, AFDP 3-13 (Maxwell AFB: LeMay Doctrine Center, February 2023), 4.

[2]. Ibid., 4.

[3]. U.S. Department of the Air Force, Cyberspace Operations, AFDP 3-12  (Maxwell AFB:  LeMay Doctrine Center, February 2023), 1.

[4]. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations, JP 3-85 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 22 May 2020), I-2.

[5]. Ibid., I-5.

[6]. Ibid., I-4.

[7]. Ibid., I-6.

[8]. Ibid., I-7.

[9]. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Convergence of Cyberspace Operations and Electronic Warfare, by Catherine A. Theohary and John R. Hoehn, IF11292, (2019), 2,

[10]. Joseph Dunford, “The Character of War and Strategic Landscape Have Changed,” Joint Force Quarterly  no. 89 (April 2018): 2,

[11]. Jacob Cox, Daniel Bennett, Scott Lathrop, Chris Walls, Jason LaClair, Clint Tracy, Judy Esquibel, “The Friction Points, Operational Goals, and Research Opportunities of Electronic Warfare and Cyber Convergence,” The Cyber Defense Review 4, no. 2 (2019): 91-93,

[12]. Concept taken from Maj Trevor Mendenhall, unpublished Position Paper on Chinese Strategic Maneuver in the Information Domain, Contemporary Warfare-901, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 06 Feb 2023, 1.

[13]. Isaac Porche, Christopher Paul, Michael York, Chad C. Serena, Jerry M. Sollinger, Elliot Axelband, Endy M. Daehner, and Bruce Held Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013), 49,

[14]. Alison Russell, Strategic A2/AD in Cyberspace, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 7.

[15]. Ibid., 34.

[16]. David Adamy, EW 104: EW Against a New Generation of Threats, (Boston: Artech House, 2015), 30-34.

[17]. Ibid., 32.

[18]. Ibid., 33.

[19]. AFDP 3-12, 1.

[20]. JP 3-85, I-1.

[21].  U.S. Department of the Air Force, Electromagnetic Warfare and Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations, AFDP 3-51 Annex (Maxwell AFB: LeMay Doctrine Center, July 2019), 2.

[22]. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Campaigns and Operations, JP 3-0 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, June 2022), IV-1.

[23]. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Planning, JP 5-0 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, December 2020), I-1.

[24]. Dr. Josh Sipper, credit for a phrase he spoke constantly throughout the AY23 cyber ISR and cyber EW seminar classes at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

[25]. Russell, Strategic A2/AD in Cyberspace, 34.

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