A Russian soldier at the satellite launch site in Plesetsk

Electronic Warfare: Old Crows gather in Stockholm

As the relations between Russia and the West deteriorate and the threat of the new Cold War grows, we report from a ‘sensitive’ electronic warfare conference in Stockholm organised by a technology-driven international society with a peculiar name.

“The Kremlin is being besieged by a murder of crows, which have been pecking away at the buildings, threatening their grand facades, disturbing tourists and once even reportedly stealing classified papers...” (The Independent, 4 June 2015)

To me, there couldn’t have been a better literary post-script to the recent Electronic Warfare Europe conference in Stockholm than the above news item. I can see the omniscient readers’ eyebrows fly up - crow-like: what does electronic warfare (EW) have in common with the obstreperous black birds dominating Europe’s skies? Well, as it turns out, there is a connection. The abbreviated name of the event was AOC EW Europe, where AOC stands for The Association of Old Crows - the non-profit international organisation, focused on advocating and advancing strategy, policy and programmes for EW and electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) operations under whose auspices the above conference and many similar events were and will be conducted. For the benefit of those readers who are not too familiar with the subject, I hasten to explain that the AOC does not ‘advocate’ electronic warfare, only the exchange of information on the topic. Far from jingoistic in its aims, it is in actual fact very peaceable.

“Electronic warfare is really about digital electronics in the radio frequency (RF) spectrum,” USAF (ret.) Major General Kenneth Israel, the AOC president, told me during one of the breaks in the conference sessions. “Those can be used for peaceful purposes: self-protection of aircraft, maintaining security within a network etc. Having said that, it is important to remember that the future war will be very much about the control of the EMS in space.”

His UK counterpart Chris Howe, director of EW business development at Systematic and president of the AOC’s UK Chapter, agrees. “If successful, EW reduces the loss of life during the war. It also prevents fratricide - the mistakes made in the fog of war; it makes sure that you cannot attack your ally, by correctly identifying unknown targets.” In modern euphemistic speech, ‘fratricide’ is normally replaced with ‘collateral damage’ or ‘friendly fire’.

So, the Old Crows are not at all belligerent and aggressive. But before we take a closer look at the history of the AOC and the origins of its peculiar (to say the least) name, let us consider the concept of EW itself.

What is EW?

Broadly speaking, ‘electronic warfare’ is communicating, sensing and protecting with the help of electromagnetic spectrum signals (radio, infrared, radar). It is also preventing the enemy from intercepting and disrupting the above signals. There are three main types of EW: naval, ground and airborne; and three major areas where it is carried out: electronic attack (e.g. disrupting an enemy signal), electronic protection (preventing disruption of own signals) and electronic support (generating the data to disrupt the EMS). All those are pretty much the future of modern warfare which will no longer be about tanks, bombs and warheads (not even nuclear ones), but indeed about the control of the electromagnetic spectrum (pace General Israel).

In the words of Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of US Naval Operations, future wars will not be won simply by effective use of the EMS and cyberspace, they will be conducted and won within the EMS domain.

If so, the theme of the AOC EW Conference in Stockholm, Future Electronic Warfare, and its timing - with the world balancing on the brink of a new Cold War - could not be more appropriate. And while we cannot be certain about the exact origins of the inquisitive crows besieging the Kremlin, the keynote speakers at the conference referred repeatedly to Russia’s increasing and ever-so-provocative incursions into the airspace and territorial waters not just of the UK, but also of the Baltic states, Sweden, Norway and other Western countries. These are accompanied by some worrying developments in Russia’s electronic warfare programmes.

A couple of months prior to the conference, the SEN space news network stated that military personnel at the near-Polar Circle Plesetsk launch site were preparing to put a hush-hush satellite into orbit. Official Russian media had reported that a Soyuz launch mission had been delayed to allow the first launch of the brand-new Angara-A5 rocket. By referring to previous publications by a Russian defence contractor, Western experts were able to match this Soyuz mission with that of Russia’s new spy satellite for electronic intelligence - ELINT.

Sensitive receivers on board ELINT satellites are used for eavesdropping on radio communications around the world. ELINT controllers could use intercepted signals to locate, characterise and target various installations and military vehicles of a potential enemy, if not directly decipher encrypted conversations. Not yet. But who can be sure that the latter won’t be decrypted, as happened recently to the secret MI6 files stolen by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden? This was just one of many worrying signals which made EW Europe both timely and topical.

Likewise, it was highly symbolic that the conference opening coincided almost to the day with the 70th anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe, probably the bloodiest conflict in human history. It was a highly appropriate reminder of the importance of EW’s main aim - reducing the loss of human lives in any potential military conflict of the future.

Now we may safely assume that had the capabilities and the technologies of EW been in existence in the 1940s, the mind-boggling number of the WWII casualties would have been considerably smaller. EW Europe was very much about engineering and technology, with a strong focus on such generally important concepts as innovation, information and interoperability. It was also about forward planning and technological foresight, since future EW systems have to be able to tackle the threats that have not yet arisen.

Summing up some technological issues - present and future - discussed at the conference, Chris Howe said: “As radars mature and become more integrated into the latest weapons systems, it remains a challenge in EW to lead technology in applications, which are generally unpredictable and reactive in nature. It is critical therefore that nations and allied governments promote engineering techniques over the whole electromagnetic spectrum.”

Among the delegates (from 42 countries) there were plenty of engineers. “I am an engineer, a sceptic by nature, but I am also open to new ideas, of which there are plenty at the conference” one of them, a young Swedish participant, told me.

I wish I could be much more specific in describing the conference proceedings and speakers, but - for reasons that are obvious and particularly relevant in the present geopolitical climate - most of those were classified, or ‘sensitive’, as they sometimes say. At the opening of the event, we were strictly warned not to record anything we heard inside the main conference hall (apart from the keynote addresses). Even the layout of the event was to stay confidential and was not to be revealed for reasons of heightened security - not an ideal scenario.

Luckily, the accompanying EW exhibition outside the conference main halls was not classified and I was able to have a quick (and fairly random) look around it.

EW hardware

‘Engineering a Safer World’ was the logo of one of the 47 exhibitors representing 11 countries - L3 TRL Technology - a UK-based company which designs, develops and delivers advanced electronic systems “for the protection of people, infrastructure and assets.” It was exhibiting (among other things) a government-grade encryption solution called Catapan - a device (claimed to be the most advanced of its kind) that protects and secures highly classified networks.

Rockwell Collins presented its CS-3045 Airborne ELINT/ESM Subsystem, designed to detect, capture and identify modern radar signals in the 0.5 to 18GHz or optionally millimetre wave range. The system comprises omni- and direction-finding (DF) antennas, receivers, signal processors and operator workstations for use in airborne environments, i.e. aeroplanes and helicopters.

Swedish technology giant Saab exhibited Giraffe AMB, a new device for air surveillance and ground-based air defence integrating a powerful 3D surveillance radar and 3C (command, control and communications) functionality. “When every second counts, Giraffe AMB provides the information and time needed for protecting both people and assets,” according to its entry in the exhibition catalogue, which also featured an ESTL missile countermeasures pod for fixed-wing aircraft.

Airbus, a multinational defence and space corporation, displayed a set of next-generation multi-role ‘smart jammers’ to protect against RCIED (radio controlled improvised explosive device) attacks which can also be used for information gathering.

And German-Swiss family-owned company Boger Electronics was promoting ‘Comint & Sigint’ radio-monitoring systems and applications for tactical and strategic purposes and radio-reconnaissance, which can also be used for border control (more specifically, for the surveillance of radio traffic along borders).

One of the biggest stands at the exhibition was that of the Association of Old Crows itself. Unlike most of other participants and exhibitors, the Old Crows were not at all classified. On the contrary, they were extremely open. Anyone can join the AOC. The cost of membership is low and includes free subscription to the Journal of Electronic Defense monthly, described as the world’s only periodical fully dedicated to EW issues.

About the Old Crows

“The Association of Old Crows unites 13,000 individual members and 200 organisations into 67 Chapters in 21 countries,” said General Kenneth Israel, the AOC president. “Our headquarters are in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, and our interests cover the entire electromagnetic environment, supporting military operations, security and homeland defence. We educate, we support, we sponsor, we bring like-minded people together.”

The origins of the organisation’s name go back to the Second World War, when the Allied Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) operators, ordered to disrupt enemy communications and radars, were given the code name ‘Raven’ to add a degree of security to their existence. After WWII, military jargon changed ‘Ravens’ into ‘Crows’ - similar in appearance, yet a more widespread bird, and members of the EW profession became known as ‘Old Crows’.

Israel, himself a former electronic warfare operator, who flew in Vietnam in 1969-1972, explains: “We were able to pass information back and forth using a call sign: ‘This is Raven One talking to Raven Two’ and so on. We knew that we were ‘ravens’ or later ‘crows’ and therefore we didn’t need to go through all the credentials and semantics: pulse width, pulse repetition frequency, antenna patterns and so on. The code word implied that each of us knew a priori what all those meant.”

The UK Chapter of the AOC now has 430 members, and the Swedish one 220. The latter is called the Viking Roost, after the mythological Gullinkambi (‘golden comb’ in Old Norse) rooster who lives in Valhalla. Among other unorthodox attention-grabbing Chapter names are South Africa’s Aadvark’s Nest, Germany’s Red Baron Roost and Norway’s Arctic Roost.

Watching the Old Crows during the conference was fascinating. Their presence in the audiences and in the exhibition halls was noticeable. They seemed ubiquitous - indeed like crows in the skies. No wonder the AOC received a number of new membership applications from the delegates.

“This conference was important for us,” Chris Howe said after the proceedings closed. “I’ve been attending similar events for over 20 years and always learned something new. At this conference, we were approached by a number of potential new Old Crows. One was a man from Leeds - an engineer working in radars who knew nothing about the Old Crows Association and had never been to an EW gathering before. Now he is enrolled as a member and is considering coming as an exhibitor to next year’s EW conference in Washington DC. To me, that is a breakthrough.”

I was one of the last to leave the spacious, brightly lit premises of the Radisson Waterfront Congress Centre, where the conference was held. The corridors and halls, which were bursting with delegates, both military and civilian, only hours earlier, were now empty. The Old Crows, like all birds, always find it hard to stay put and were already on their way. To where? Towards Moscow? To fly over the Kremlin and to peck away at its walls?

You never know with crows, even less so with The Old Crows - a unique bunch (or shall I say ‘flock’?) of people who try to strengthen peace by containing any future warfare within the electromagnetic spectrum.

Additional reporting by Rebecca Northfield

For more information about The Association of Old Crows, visit www.crows.org

Photo credits: Getty images, Airbus, Saab

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