The future of the battlefield will be closely tied in with the advance of electronics. Computers, robots and sensors will become more common on the future battlefield. Presently the United States employs unmanned air craft as scouts, very intelligent cruise missiles and as resupply craft. That is today, right now, and the use of these craft is becoming even more common.
Infantrymen are being equipped with digital radios and computers. Night vision devices have been around for some time. Tanks have highly sophisticated targeting computers, radar and imaging devices. All these devices are electronic in nature.
As these devices become more and more common they will be integrated into helmets, weapons, and battle suits. Vehicles will become more highly automated and detection of the enemy will become more easier. As weapons become more lethal it will become more important to have an advantage over the enemy and avoid being found by him.
Electronics are thought to be the answer. With battlefield computers, an enemy’s location can be pinpointed, the data can be transmitted to higher headquarters. Artillery or air strikes can be directed more accurately, quickly and easily by commanding agencies.
Night vision devices allow a human to see when he usually could not, radar can detect ground units as well as airborne units. Laser sights allow more accurate weapons fire and range determination.
It is unlikely this trend will reverse itself. However, electronics are not invulnerable. There are presently two devices, which are similar, that can destroy the electronic advantage. These devices are not yet in widespread use but they are as dangerous to electronics as a nuclear bomb. Countermeasures can protect electronics from these devices to some degree but no countermeasure is perfect.
One electronic countermeasure is the EMP burst. EMP stands for ElectroMagnetic Pulse and the source can be a nuclear or non-nuclear detonation. It can destroy or disable the electronics of all computer and communication systems in quite a large area. The EMP bomb is typically used to damage an area instead of a single target.
The high temperatures and energetic radiation produced by a nuclear explosion, also produces large amounts of ionized (electrically charged) matter which is present immediately after the explosion. Under the right conditions, intense currents and electromagnetic fields can be produced, generically called EMP or ElectroMagnetic Pulse, that are felt at long distances. Living organisms are impervious to these effects, but electrical and electronic equipment can be temporarily or permanently disabled by them. Ionized gasses can also block short wavelength radio and radar signals (fireball blackout) for extended periods.
The strength of an EMP burst often depends on the altitude. A surface, or low altitude burst (up to 4,000 meters) can be powerful, but it is even more powerful if the detonation occurs above 30,000 meters. In between 4,000 and 30,000 meters it is not nearly as powerful. The reason is that EMP is generated by the asymmetric absorption of instantaneous gamma rays produced by the explosion. In between 4,000 and 30,000 meters the air absorbs these rays fairly uniformly and doesn’t generate a long range electromagnetic effect.
The formation of the ElectroMagnetic Pulse is formed by the very intense, short gamma rays that are emitted. These gamma rays collide with electrons in the air molecules, and eject the electrons at high energies through a process called Compton Scattering. These energetic electrons in turn knock other electrons loose, and create a cascade effect that produces some 30,000 electrons for every original gamma ray.
A low altitude EMP burst is mainly horizontal and is limited. For instance, a one megaton nuclear bomb can cause an EMP effect out to five miles. A high altitude EMP burst is much more devastating. A pancake shaped ionization region is formed below the bomb and it can extend all the way to the horizon, up to 2,500 kilometers fro an explosion at an altitude of 500 kilometers with the ionization zone up to 80 kilometers thick at the center.
The effect of these fields on electronics is often difficult to predict. Massive electrical currents are generated in wires, antennas, and metal objects (like tanks, missiles, airplanes and building frames). Electrical grids would be exposed to voltage surges than are incredibly more powerful than lightning, and over a vastly wider area. Computer chips which are sensitive to even small voltage surges would be fried instantly.
Military equipment is designed to be resistant (not impervious) to EMP, but realistic tests are difficult to conduct and EMP protection rests on attention to detail. Minor changes in design, incorrect maintenance procedures, poorly fitting parts, loose debris, moisture, and ordinary dirt can cause elaborate EMP protections to be totally circumvented.
EMP protection is increased by the choices of the materials the semiconductor components are constructed of. To explain, most electronics, and currently all consumer grade electronics are made of silicone metal oxide die, which is particularly transparent to the pulse created by a nucleur bomb. To combat this effect, the geometries of the device are altered. This is not a complete defense; it hardens the device, but they are suceptible to the effect in direct proportion to the range of the explosion.
Newer milspec electronics are to be constructed out of a material substrate called Gallium Arsinide (GaAS), which is virtually opaque to the wavelengths that can interfere with the proper function. Use this material in conjunction with the altered interior geometries of the die, and the individual device is virtually impervious to the effect except at close range. At such close range, the user of the equipment would most likely be dead anyways, due to the exposure to intense gamma rays.
Any electronic device could be made one hundred percent hardened, except for the price. Fabricating with GaAs components is prohibitively expensive, and very hard to do, due to some properties the material lacks that silicone has (no natural oxide formation, neccesary for insulation layers between metal runners). But GaAs technology is in its infancy. Given enough time and research, the EMP will vanish as a viable method of scrambling electronics on the battlefield.
HERF guns are more directional and controllable than an Electromagnetic Pulse. HERF stands for High Energy Radio Frequency and they can shoot a high power radio signal at an electronic target to put it out of commission. The damage inflicted can vary, for instance light damage can shut down the system but allow it to be restarted or it can physically damage the system.
HERF guns are basically nothing more than radio transmitters that send a concentrated radio signal at the target. The target can be anything from a computer inside a building to a jet fighter (that will crash and burn when the electronics fry).
While an EMP bomb is not easy to construct (like a nuclear bomb) a HERF gun is much simpler. There are currently some police departments that are equipped with HERF guns in order to shut down the vehicles of fleeing felons.
Electronic warfare primarily involves detection. Radar, which sends out an electromagnetic signature and analyzes the return, is also highly prevalent in military operations. Radar is becoming so sophisticated that ground emplacements can detect infantry movement in an area. Submarines that surface can be detected by low level radar.
Radar is usually defeated by using terrain to block it (the reason for flying nap of earth) or by using some kind of countermeasures. Two methods currently being used are radar absorbing panels (like the US stealth fighters) and a radar nullifier that detects a radar signal and then transmits a signal that nullifies the return signal (like on the newest French fighter Rafale).
Radar can be used to designate targets for missiles and other munitions.
One item that has been around for a while is TEMPEST, which uses special equipment to read the electromagnetic emanations from a computer screen, hard drive being accessed or keyboard commands being sent from an unprotected computer. Most military computers are TEMPEST protected, however, it should be noted that nearly all electronic devices emit electromagnetic radiation that might be detectable and readable. TEMPEST protection usually increases the bulk of the computer but usually works quite well if done properly.
Radio waves are emitted from a transmitter. For this reason if a detector is set to the right frequency the Radio can be detected. Jamming radio transmissions is not as easy as it used to be. Digital radios can jump between frequencies very fast making them harder to detect, intercept and jam. Additionally encryption makes it more difficult translate what the transmission was about.
Jamming is usually done by ‘making more noise’ than the other guy and drowning out his transmission. A White Noise generator just transmits high powered garbage onto the frequency being used. In order to jam however, the jammer must know what frequency to jam. Multiple frequencies can be jammed of course but the jammer is a transmitter and can easily be detected and bombed by enemy forces.
Even though a radio can switch frequencies rapidly, detection will still (hypothetically) be possible. Tracking a transmitter to its location is much harder. However, if the transmitter does not keep the messages short, it becomes easier to track them. Attack by artillery, mortars, attack fighter or helicopters are usually a good indication that the transmitter has been located by enemy forces.
Receiving a transmission is strictly a passive action. Only if regular electronics can be detected, can the receiver be discovered by enemy ECM units.
Laser communication is a very secure method but requires line of sight. Clouds, fog, smoke and other such obstacles can severely reduce the effectiveness of such laser communicators. Also, since a laser is an emission that can be detected it is theoretically possible to eavesdrop on such a communication by measuring the qualities of the laser beams.
Another device that is electronic and is changing the face of the battle field is called the GPS, Global Prepositioning System. This device tracks satellites and can tell the user his or her exact location on the face of a planet. Civilian versions are accurate to within a hundred meters, Military version are much more accurate. GPS systems were used with devastating effect in the Gulf War and allowed allied troops to maneuver with precision.
Aside from not getting lost, a person with his exact coordinates can call in accurate fire on the enemy, request extract or supply. Exact coordinates can also be used to recover hidden caches, slip through gaps in enemy lines or attack with pinpoint munitions. Knowing the exact location minimizes all manner of mistakes.
Satellites, however, are a weakness in the GPS system. The satellites continuously transmit their identification and location, a ground receiver uses that information to pinpoint their location. If the ground receiver cannot receive enough satellite signals then it cannot determine its location. The triple canopy of a thick jungle for instance could block satellite signals. On an alien planet, there will probably not be a satellite system to provide coordinates and one would have to be deployed.
Of course there are probably other possibilities, like using the planet’s magnetic fields to determine location or some variation thereof.
With the advance of technology battlefield computers are becoming more and more useful. When combined with a radio network and other systems they can provide a massive advantage to the user. For example, when units transmit their location it gives higher authorities better control over their movement and situation. When combined with a computer a commander can see a real time map on a screen of where everyone is. Intelligence reports can allow ground units to bypass or attack enemy formations. Links with satellites can give a ground unit the ability to see what the situation is from above. Software can help a forward observer plan a fire mission so it does not endanger friendly aircraft or troops. Instant information can be gained or transmitted on enemy weapons, equipment and abilities. Software could analyze the enemy’s actions and possibly determine what he is up to and how to counter it.
With instant communication a leader can more easily draw on the experience and knowledge of others. He personally may not have dealt with some aspect of the enemy, but with a visual link with someone else that warrior may not have to learn the hard way what he/she is dealing with. A data base can help a commander deal with unusual situations more effectively.
Also, since data is so easily exchanged, it is easily recorded. Recordings can be used for a multitude of reasons, to see what was going on, as a training aid, for historical archives, to help design simulators and so on.
Computers becoming more common increase the risks of the enemy learning what they shouldn’t. To avoid valuable data falling into enemy hands the data must be encrypted and the enemy might become very interested in what kind of information is available on networks and computers. Hackers will very likely become an integral part of combat units, both to attack enemy networks and protect friendly data nets.
Information on the battlefield is often the difference between victory and defeat. The importance of information on friendly forces as well as enemy forces is critical to the success of the commander. Sun Tzu once wrote that if you know the enemy and now yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy, nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Computers are about information. They process, store and retrieve information and information is what can be the deciding factor between victory and defeat on the battlefield.