The missiles fell on the soldiers huddled in the trench below. Next followed blasts and smoke, concluding with silence in their tomb. In 2020, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict brought forth a range of lessons on the future of war—not least on the future of targeting and fires. During the war, both sides relied heavily on nontraditional assets and electronic warfare (EW). This war’s examples of unorthodox EW and UAS integration indicate the opening of an era of ground warfare requiring innovative technological and training capabilities. The Azerbaijani military was particularly effective at integrating EW into its operations, while the Armenian military’s EW effectiveness was comparatively more limited. The lesson from both sides is that conventional military forces must integrate electronic warfare into their targeting cycles to have any hope of imposing their will on the enemy. The war shows how a modern force that effectively integrates EW and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) enables its commanders to find, fix, and finish adversary targets with fires.
Fast forward just over a year after the Nagorno-Karabakh war to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the conduct of the war triggered by that invasion has only reinforced these lessons. For any military force watching, there is little excuse not to learn them. The US military needs more training and operational experience to enhance and impose the devastating effects of modern technology in the targeting cycle against a conventional adversary. As a modern force, we have a professional obligation to focus on the tactics, techniques, and integration on display in these two wars—in this case regarding the use of EW and signals intelligence (SIGINT) to support targeting—in order to better prepare for the next conflict. That is especially true for the US Marine Corps.
In a conventional war with uncertain communications capabilities based on the environment and the adversary, we will need a refined capability to find enemy signatures and leverage fires against enemy targets. At the small-unit level, this would take the form of a man-portable capability, operated by Marines in fire support teams, to incorporate SIGINT and EW to more efficiently find, fix, and finish the enemy in a denied environment. To be clear, the service needs more than EW integration, which for a variety of reasons is more easily achievable for units than SIGINT integrations. It needs both—more and better integration of EW and SIGINT, with emphasis on the former, complemented by the latter.
As the Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine wars make clear, the future will call for employing long-range fires and integrating various unmanned systems in ways that diverge from US doctrinal approaches that are either rigidly defined or scarcely exist. Current doctrine calls for SIGINT and EW to be integrated in an electronic warfare coordination cell, an element that seldom exists in practice. The purpose of these SIGINT and EW assets is to enhance sensing operations in coordination with other fires, communications, information systems use, and intelligence operations. They are designed to act as the electronic fires and augment the intelligence component to the ground commander and work in unison with the operations section of a unit. Though doctrine has claimed these capabilities for decades, tactical SIGINT and EW utilization and their integration with fire support teams must be more present within infantry and artillery units. Ideally, the employment of direction-finding and targeting components should dovetail with the work of fire support teams to provide an additional capability to focus fires without other emissions that could compromise the teams’ positions against the enemy. But this does not routinely happen.
Consider the four areas of focus of the Marine Corps as the service works to optimize its force design for the battlefield of 2030: logistics; long-range precision fires; alternate positioning, navigation, and timing; and C5ISRT (command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting). These areas of focus are based on what the service’s leadership expects Marine units must be able to do in the future operational environment—including, for example, unit leaders employing loitering munitions and long-range precision fires in tandem with UAS and both SIGINT and EW capabilities to find the adversary and adjudicate the kill chain based on the target set. Crucially, utilizing UAS and SIGINT and EW assets will enable commanders to locate and destroy the enemy with fires before the maneuver. There are challenges to establishing this much-needed capability, not least of which is navigating the different legal authorities involved—Title 10 for tactical actions and Title 50 for intelligence activities. But these are precisely the issues that must be explored today for a force to be prepared for the challenges of 2030. Fundamentally, unit leaders’ demands will compound without cooperative and mutually supporting capabilities. However, some of these capabilities already exist, just not in the units where they are needed. The capability to locate and fix an enemy position can be bolstered, for instance, by employing direction-finding assets currently present in a Marine radio battalion. However, for Title 10 actions, SIGINT and EW can be decoupled as many direction-finding capabilities are primarily EW, not SIGINT. These do not need to be sourced solely from a radio battalion—or like units from the Army. Instead, they can be nested organically within a unit. SIGINT and EW assets remain in our inventory, but the Marine Corps lacks the experimentation and employment necessary to maximize these assets’ utility for ground force commanders.
Our competitors and potential adversaries have demonstrated a commitment to integrating SIGINT and EW with targeting. Indeed, this is a feature of how Russia trains its foreign partners. Russia’s military places artillery in a central position as the workhorse of its heavily mechanized land army. Integrating such assets into the artillery targeting cycle has been a feature of Russian artillery operations in Ukraine. However, what we have observed over the past year reflects a longstanding Russian focus on EW and an enduring emphasis on the discipline over the years.
In contrast, the US military has atrophied in such techniques over the last two decades. It has been focused on counterinsurgency operations where the adversary has not employed conventional formations or more sophisticated electronic emissions. Although the US armed services, including the Marine Corps, occasionally use fires and EW assets in concert, there needs to be more SIGINT and EW integration and synchronization to ensure there remains a competitive advantage against how the adversary employs them.
This is mainly because the US military, specifically the Marine Corps, does not prioritize using these sensors with artillery units or passing information from the sensor to the firing unit. The Marine Corps combines SIGINT and EW capabilities in SI/EW teams, most of which currently rest within the service’s three radio battalions—the exception being the experiment of the Marine Littoral Regiment. For the Army, the proposed Terrestrial Layer System–Brigade Combat Team is a step in the right direction. Still, more steps are needed to prioritize, cultivate, and encourage cross-pollination between artillery, organic indirect fire capabilities, EW, and intelligence assets to find, fix, and finish an adversary within a weapons engagement zone. The continued focus on long-range precision fires is one of the factors that has pushed the military toward the increased use of precision-guided munitions such as HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), and this, too, requires coordination and integration of assets to feed into the targeting cycle. As the Army’s doctrinal manual on fire support and field artillery operations states,
The successful delivery of fire depends on the rapid and continuous integration and synchronization of all forms of [fire support] assets with all elements of combat power, and across all domains for one purpose. This is to place the correct type and volume of fire at the right time and on the right targets across all domains to ensure the success of the supported maneuver commander’s concept of operations.
Despite emphasizing greater joint integration for the Marine Corps, there remains a lag in integration even within the service. Specifically, tactical SIGINT and EW units need to train and integrate more with—and in support of—indirect fire assets. Recent conventional operations—the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the ongoing war in Ukraine, for example—point to a future where capabilities must synchronize and integrate with, and complement, one another, a future in which maneuver, indirect fires, and capabilities like SIGINT and EW all work together seamlessly, even at the small-unit level. There needs to be increased focus on integrating SIGINT and EW in the Marine Corps through platforms such as HIMARS, Naval Strike Missiles, Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, and UAS. The objective should be to create a lethal cycle that enables the Marines to conduct missions in a contested environment. The Marine Corps is increasing its precision fires arsenal and downsizing its cannon batteries, and both of these moves present an opportunity to better integrate SIGINT and EW into the targeting cycle. Focusing future experimentation on swift, sustained, and accurate support to targeting by employing SIGINT and EW at the small-unit level and in an advanced expeditionary base or stand-in force operations must remain a priority.
A critical element of combined arms execution is the coordination of intelligence and operations—in the Marine Corps, a fire support team plays a vital role in this coordination, integrating indirect fire and close air support with maneuver elements. Though these teams rely heavily on ground observation and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, they should incorporate SI/EW teams or liaisons to assist in the targeting cycle to add another dimension to their target acquisition. Units across the Marine Corps already employ dedicated teams to enable the employment of organic and other leveraged fire assets. Such teams can operate in small numbers and maintain a low profile, an important characteristic to make them survivable in the future fight. Integrating an SI/EW noncommissioned officer or staff noncommissioned officer proficient in integration into the existing teams would provide organic subject matter expertise to leverage radio battalion EW assets better, thereby enhancing the teams’ ability to find and facilitate the targeting of adversary forces rapidly.
Although it is crucial that greater integration efforts do not focus solely on EW capabilities and that commanders should demand SIGINT support, as well, integrating EW with existing doctrinal formations has several advantages. First, more incorporation of man-portable EW capabilities into the targeting cycle would significantly increase the number of sensors available without adding significant equipment. Second, it would allow ground combat elements to integrate EW support more effectively without the burden of SIGINT support teams, which often have unique authorities. If used properly, the tools within EW authorities can still locate an enemy and provide valuable, timely information to a unit leader. This is the immediate step that can be taken, but the next area of focus should be integration of SIGINT and EW in tandem. These enhanced fire support teams could have a faster, more accurate targeting ability that would allow for widely dispersed Marine Corps units to call for precision fires in support of their maneuver elements while maintaining a small enough footprint to operate from inside the enemy’s weapons engagement zone.
EW tools provide direction finding, can be man-portable, and, most importantly, can be employed organically with a team on an advanced expeditionary base in austere conditions. The short-term solution is to incorporate direction-finding assets more with artillery and fire support team units to develop standard operating procedures. In the long term, even more significant impact can be achieved by training the use of SIGINT and EW in the targeting cycle to Marines, optimizing access to capabilities through authorities, and enabling organic employment by placing SIGINT and EW tools within the ground combat element’s table of organization.
Adaptation to mission processing, communication with adjacent units, and identifying targets at both close and deep levels are paramount to survivability and success on the modern battlefield. Our competitors have invested heavily in integrating technology to connect sensors, processors, and shooters, thereby shortening prosecution times while producing more extraordinary standoffs through EW. With Force Design 2030 steering the Corps in a new direction, there will be disruption in tandem with advancement. Ground combat targeting, collection, and employment of precision fires must fundamentally change at the tactical and operational level by expanding long-range missiles in the arsenal. The Marine Corps can augment the transition and the utilization of precision fires by integrating direction finding and EW for targeting—essential for expeditionary advanced base operations. Incorporating EW Marines as liaisons with fire support teams would allow the capability to find and fix utilizing the technical aspect of targeting while leaving direct tactical employment to the fire support team. This, in effect, would allow radio battalions to contribute more options and greater flexibility at the tactical level.
In the short term, units can lean forward with experimentation, leveraging SIGINT or EW assets that are available to develop operating procedures and techniques to add to the targeting repertoire of tomorrow. A promising first step would be integrating a small detachment of Marines into the fire support team to facilitate coordination, paving the way for deeper SIGINT or EW integration at infantry units, artillery formations, and schoolhouses. When the Marine Corps does these things—maximizing SIGINT and EW’s support to targeting, codifying these capabilities’ role in operations, innovating new procedures, and teaching electromagnetic-enabled targeting even at entry-level artillery courses—it will demonstrate that it has learned a vital lesson from the wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine.
David Laszcz is a Pat Tillman scholar and Harry S. Truman scholar. He served as an infantry squad leader and is a Marine officer. He holds a master’s in public policy from Harvard.
Nicholas Mabry served as an officer in the Marines. He has a degree in history from the United States Naval Academy.
Matthew Sherman served as an officer in the Marines. He holds a degree in international relations from the University of Wisconsin and deployed to support Marine Rotational Force–Europe.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of ant organization the authors are affiliated with, including the US Marine Corps.
Image credit: Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck, US Marine Corps