BBC Future

Code Red

Electronic warfare: The ethereal future of battle

About the author

Sharon is a 2012/13 fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, where she is working on a history of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Her writing on military science and technology has appeared in Nature, Discover, Slate, Wired, the Washington Post Magazine, and the Financial Times, among other publications. She is the co-author of A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry (Bloomsbury, 2008) and the author of Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld (Nations Books, 2006).

  • Invisible realm
    Command of the electromagnetic spectrum – used for communications – will be as crucial as dominating the land, sea and air, say some military officials. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Air jammer
    The EA-18G Growler is the US Navy’s electronic warfare plane, capable of eavesdropping on and disrupting electrical systems, such as those in guided missiles. (Copyright: Boeing)
  • Silent attack
    Although much research is classified, some weapons could be adapted from a type of radar, known as active electronically scanned arrays. (Copyright: Thales)
  • Striking at a distance
    But defence firms are also looking to build long-range weapons, such as missiles with electromagnetic warheads. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Lights out
    In 2012, Boeing showed a video of its Champ concept, a cruise missile with an electromagnetic warhead concept, knocking out computers and lights. (Copyright: Boeing)
  • Power down
    Electromagnetic weapons could also be used to disable enemy vehicles, or in the case of the US Active Denial System (ADS), be used to repel humans. (Copyright: JNLWP)
  • Set to stun
    Handheld versions of ‘non-lethal’ weapons like the ADS have also been built, which use radio waves to heat the skin and cause an intense burning feeling. (Copyright: Getty Images)
The future of warfare is no longer about bullets and bombs, or dominating land, sea and air. Instead, tomorrow’s victors will dominate the ether.

The voice of the foreign military commander is sinister and gloating.

“On the anniversary of our nation’s most glorious sea victory, let us remember our heroes that helped bring the United States to its knees,” he says, his face obscured by shadows. “We ground to dust the vaunted American navy like the impotent clay figurines that they had become.”

The speech continues, providing hints of how the devastating attack of 2025 began—carried out initially not with bombs and bullets, but invisible electromagnetic energy and cyberattacks that dropped drones from the sky, left US cities in total blackness, and disabled entire aircraft carriers at sea.

This video may sound like the opening of an apocalyptic movie, but the brief clip was created as part of a US Navy game called MMOWGLI, an acronym for the unwieldy sounding Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet. The crowdsourcing game, which was run by three elements of the US Navy – the Navy Warfare Development Command, the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Postgraduate School—invited players to help develop ideas for how the navy could prepare for this brave new world of electromagnetic warfare, where enemies use invisible, and often untraceable weapons, that can theoretically disable everything from satellites and computers to radar and aircraft.

Electromagnetic warfare covers any and all weapons that attack using electromagnetic radiation, which can jam or even permanently fry electronics. But the Navy now may be looking at such weapons as part of a broader approach to warfare. In a recent article, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of US Naval Operations, argued that cyber weapons needed to be merged with electromagnetic attacks, or what he calls the “electromagnetic cyber realm.”

“The EM-cyber environment is now so fundamental to military operations and so critical to our national interests that we must start treating it as a warfighting domain on par with—or perhaps even more important than—land, sea, air, and space,” he wrote. “Future wars will not be won simply by effectively using the EM spectrum and cyberspace; they will be won within the EM-cyber domain.”

Electronic warhead

Much has been written about cyber-weapons, such as the Stuxnet virus that infiltrated Iran’s nuclear facilities, or any number of attacks on government and military departments and contractors, but the electromagnetic realm rarely features.

These weapons trace their origins back to the cold-war idea of exploding an atom bomb high in the atmosphere above an enemy, which results in an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, that fries the electricity grid and communication network.

While such nuclear-generated EMP weapons are still largely theoretical, the US has pursued electromagnetic weapons that use conventional sources, such as high-power microwave generators.  Such weapons could, at least in theory, stop vehicles in their tracks and even take down enemy weapons.

Much of the work on such weapons is secret, but there are unclassified weapons as well.  For example, the US military has funded a Radio-Frequency Vehicle Stopper - a satellite dish sized weapon that can be mounted on top of a jeep that can be used to disable enemy vehicles at a distance.  

Many of these existing weapons are for relatively close-in use. “[Electromagnetic weapons] always had the problem of getting close enough to be really effective," says Dave Fulghum, a former senior editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

But defense companies have also been working on new weapons that can strike at greater distances. In October of last year, Boeing released footage of its development weapon, the Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (Champ), a cruise missile with an electromagnetic warhead. Though Boeing has declined to discuss the project in any detail, a video produced by the firm shows the missile disabling a bank of desktop computers. US firm Raytheon has worked on missiles equipped with electromagnetic warheads, according to Fulghum.

This growing interest in electromagnetic weapons explains the military’s interest in preparing defenses.  “An aircraft carrier [is] a huge emitter, and anytime you have an antenna putting stuff out, those then become targets,” says Fulghum. “Any emitter that can send stuff out, can have stuff put into it.”

It also helps explain the US Navy’s – perhaps unconventional - approach of using a crowdsourcing game to finding potential solutions to electromagnetic warfare.

‘Zombies in hyperspace’

The idea of MMOWGLI was to attract a wide group of people to come up with ways to help the military prepare for electromagnetic and cyber warfare. Unlike previous crowd-sourcing games sponsored by the navy and open to the public, such as one focusing on counter-piracy, the electromagnetic warfare game was limited only to those with a military or government email account. The explanation, says Don Brutzman, a professor as the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, was because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

While the game itself was unclassified, Brutzman, who helped run the game, says keeping it “limited access” introduced a layer of security. “It’s quite easy for players to go classified in a hurry,” he says. “As soon as you talk about this radar, or that antenna—the numbers and vulnerabilities—that’s classified.”

While designed as a “game,” MMOWGLI may fall far short of many people’s idea of entertainment.

 “It’s not a shoot ‘em up, let’s go blast zombies in hyperspace,” cautions Brutzman. “It’s people typing ideas and interacting with each other.”

In reality, players submitted an idea, such as a way to bolster US defenses, winning points based on the number of discussion and response that their submission generates.

So what exactly can crowdsourcing do for improving electromagnetic-cyber warfare? It’s not completely clear: though the naval researchers involved in the project did post some examples of award winning concepts, at least some, such as a method for secure communication, cannot be discussed in an open forum.

While limiting it to government officials and members of the military may make the game sound less like an experiment in true crowdsourcing, Rebecca Law, a research associate at the MovesInstitute at the Naval Postgraduate School and a game administrator, points out that it still had over 200 active players.  And the anonymity granted to players online allowed them to propose ideas without regard to their status or rank.  “I believe it makes the information accessible when it’s done in a game-like fashion,” she said.

But more importantly, using a game with points and winners encourages a creative mindset. “They want to have great ideas,” she says. “They want to win.”

Whether they will , time will tell.

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