Tactical Bushcraft: A Training Approach to Counter the Electromagnetic Threat

Tactical Bushcraft: A Training Approach to Counter the Electromagnetic Threat

Tactical Bushcraft: A Training Approach to Counter the Electromagnetic Threat

A Future Conflicts Publication



Bottom Line Up Front: The military dominance the United States has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War relies upon our technological lead in electromagnetic technology, and that lead is rapidly shrinking. As our adversaries, most notably China, further develop their capabilities, our forces face an increasing likelihood that our ability to communicate and maneuver as a combined arms team will be severely degraded, forcing us to conduct warfare with “old school” coordination, communication, and dissemination. This degradation will be exacerbated if American military forces are not properly trained for this eventuality.



Every modern military on earth relies on manipulating the radio wave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to communicate. At its simplest, electrical waves and magnetic fields are codependent. Where there is electricity, there is also a magnetic pull. Where there is magnetism, there is an electrical charge. They work and travel together, oscillating at 90 degree angles to each other, and are capable of oscillating at many different rates.


The longest, most drawn out electromagnetic wavelengths are known as radio waves, which we obviously manipulate to communicate. Slightly faster wavelengths form microwaves, which we use to heat up food. Faster still are infrared waves, which we use in a defense capacity in our laser range finders, targeting systems, and night vision devices. Beyond infrared waves are waves at just the right frequency for the human eye to see, known as visible light, and after visible light we get ultraviolet, x rays, and finally gamma rays which oscillate tremendously fast. The totality of these known wavelengths is known as the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS).


During the US/USSR arms race of the Cold War, the nuclear bombs and the space craft got all the media attention but there was an equally fierce competition to develop further control over the electromagnetic spectrum; a struggle to develop technologies that better utilized it for military and economic advantages. Signal blocking, intercepting, tracking, and corrupting were sought after capabilities on both sides, as were the capabilities to protect their own internal communication signals from attack. Every advance in technology led to an equivacable advance on the opposing side. For example, the Soviets developed next generation radar so the Americans developed the F117 Nighthawk to hide from that radar.


This competition was so intense it prompted Soviet Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov, Commander of the Soviet Navy to say in 1973 “The next war will be won by the side that best exploits the electromagnetic spectrum”. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1993 and the Soviet Union collapsed, most of the Russian development in this area fell behind, and US seized the opportunity to launch into a golden age of unrivaled military dominance. Not only were we able to project power around the globe relatively unchallenged, but we also enjoyed a comfortable lead in electromagnetic technology.


In every conflict we’ve gotten into in the last three decades, our electromagnetic dominance was barely contested. None of the forces we faced in Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Syria had sophisticated EMS capabilities. We not only enjoyed secured and unfettered radio communication along with absolute air dominance and a reliable supply chain, but we also were able to infiltrate and corrupt enemy communications, giving us a tremendous advantage in targeting opportunities. When we can listen to enemy communications but the enemy can’t listen to ours, we hold absolute dominance over the battlefield.


This signals intelligence (SIGINT) advantage was so one sided it defined and framed our intelligence gathering process in Iraq and led to the development of the “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate” cycle employed by our IC and SOF partners.  


However during this time, our adversaries have not been idle. Nations like Russia and China have been watching our operations over the last 30 years and quietly taking notes. They know they can’t beat the United States in a stand up conventional war so they’ve judged that exploiting our reliance on electronic devices is the most effective use of their resources.


What we would consider our greatest advantage our adversaries would consider our greatest weakness.


They have put the equivalent of billions of US dollars into developing their EMS capabilities and as of right now, and at least from open source data, it’s hard to tell exactly where we stand right now because they don’t disclose their manuals like we do. What is known is that the Russians and Chinese have no real need to achieve total EMS supremacy, they only need the ability to challenge ours – and so we have to invest a lot more to maintain our technological lead than they have to invest to disrupt it.


We know Russia can jam and disrupt signals, which is not as impressive as actually hacking communication devices but it’s still a formidable capability. They used this extensively in Syria, jamming signals wherever they moved.


We know that Russia used this technology to jam GPS devices during a NATO exercise in Norway, and that this jamming was so precise it didn’t affect their own immediately adjacent frequency bands on the Russian GLONASS system.


We know from an Estonian report that Russian ground forces don’t go anywhere without EW support. They learned a lot of hard lessons from their 2008 invasion of Georgia, launched what became known as the Seridioukov reforms and now have a full company of SIGINT operators per every Russian combat brigade, tasked with providing a protective umbrella over their Area of Operations (AO).


We know the Russian military is fielding advanced microwave cannons designed to bring down aircraft by interrupting their electrical flow, and we know they’re also fielding handheld versions to target lower flying drones.


We know that Russia can implant location tracking software into apps, and that they used that software to triangulate and massacre a Ukrainian battalion in 2014. A targeting app had become popular with Ukrainian artillery officers to make ballistic calculation easier; however that app was most likely created by a proxy of Russian government, who correctly assumed that anyone using the app in the Donbass was most likely a Ukrainian artillery officer, and subsequently launched massive barrages to wherever the apps were pinging, taking out dozens of artillery pieces and hundreds of soldiers.


In this latest Ukrainian conflict Russian forces, who were widely regarded to have some of the most sophisticated SIGINT and electronic warfare capabilities in the world, seem to have inadvertently blocked out their own tactical communications networks while attempting to interfere with Ukrainian systems. This led to mass internal confusion because they had not only rendered their own radios ineffective, but had also disrupted their own GPS abilities, and without the proper training in map and compass land navigation Russian advances ground to a halt within weeks of the invasion.    


One theory is that their lack of logistical coordination getting fuel to their own vehicles meant they couldn’t maneuver their electronic warfare units into the positions they needed to be in.


Another is that Russia doesn’t want to “play its hand” with its most sophisticated devices, Putin is saving those for a conflict with the US and NATO. Deploying Russia’s most sophisticated and powerful electronic weapons in Ukraine would enable us to study their technologies and tactics, and to come up with countermeasures.


Whatever the reason, it seems that Russia, in the course of launching a fumbling electronic offensive, has completely dead lined many of its own navigational capabilities. Russian soldiers both enlisted and officer seem to have little to no training in traditional land navigation without technological devices, so Russian forces consequently seem to be unable to function on the modern battlefield without them, which we believe is the first of many examples to come in future conflicts of the importance of having every soldier trained in primitive navigation.


China proves more difficult to decipher than Russia because they haven’t had a real war in more than fifty years to demonstrate their capabilities. We know that they are the largest manufacturer of cell phones on earth and that they own the majority of patented 5G technology, so it would be a safe bet to assume their electromagnetic defense capabilities are fairly robust as well.


We know they consolidated Information, Space, ISR, EW, and Cyber Warfare all under one roof in 2016, called the Strategic Support Force, which tells you a lot about how they view the Space and EW Domains.


We know they’ve been practicing electronic warfare in their training events, where units rehearse jamming and anti-jamming operations.


We know they’re building up a string of islands throughout the South China Sea, not just to lay territorial claims but also to put what’s most likely EW jamming equipment on them.


We know they’ve invested heavily in drones with electronic jamming capabilities; both aerial drones that are similar to American models designed for the mountains of Afghanistan, as well as sea borne drones which are unique to the Chinese military. Russia has a lot of land based electronic warfare equipment designed for the plains of Eastern Europe, but the Chinese are putting a heavy emphasis on sea based platforms as they try to tip the balance of power in the Pacific.


We know that the Chinese military is expanding its space warfare operations. In 2007 with no warning and after repeatedly denying that they had a space warfare program, the Chinese successfully launched a surface to space missile against one of their own satellites, demonstrating their capability to knock out space borne communication relays around the world and creating the largest debris field in space ever created, endangering every other satellite in orbit.  


We also know that the Chinese consider information operations to be the key to military victories. The need for information is saturated throughout the Chinese classic The Art of War and is fused into the Chinese psyche from the mayhem of the Warring States period – so they’ll most likely prioritize the destruction of American C4ISR systems to gain an informational advantage, disrupting communications to create chaos.


The greatest concern from the Chinese, however, is their stated intention of using large scale electromagnetic weapons against us.


Colonel Wang Ziangsui, a military strategist with the People’s Liberation Army Chinese War College said in a 2020 interview “Satellites are an American strongpoint, but if you look closely, they can also be a weak point. The US relies on satellites to control their entire communications network, and that’s a weakness. Today the American military depends too much on its electronics and satellites. This dependence reminds me of the Greek legend: the powerful Achilles who was invulnerable except for his heel – and satellites are a little like the American Achilles heel”.


What Colonel Ziangsui is referring to is a weapon that’s clearly stated in Chinese military doctrine as a cornerstone of their national defense strategy called a High-altitude Electromagnetic Pulse weapon, or HEMP.


A HEMP is the product of a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere, either launched there via an intercontinental ballistic missile or dropped from a satellite. The shock waves from that detonation knock out all electronic devices below it as well as the satellites surrounding it, potentially knocking out a whole country or just a targeted area – for example where the Chinese know American forces to be.


In the ever more likely event of a US/Chinese conflict, the Chinese government will almost certainly attempt to use an HEMP to disable American electronic communication devices – whether the target is a land based Division overseas, an open water carrier battle group, or an American city like Washington DC - in order to gain an immediate tactical advantage. While the damage from this has been over exaggerated in movies and television, it is true that the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum most affected by an EMP or HEMP is the radio wave portion. Depending on many factors such as the weather at time of detonation, this has real potential to completely disable all US military radio communications within an area of operation, including communications between GPS devices and the satellites that they rely upon.


Once an HEMP capable missile detonates, there are no viable counter measures available to prevent, control, or mitigate the effects. Options are nonexistent. Electrical devices below the site of detonation will become inoperable, and American forces will have to try to conduct operations without them against an enemy that most likely will still have their own devices intact.


The beautiful advantages we’ve held for years over our adversaries will become suddenly, horrifically, reversed.


For American military forces, this would instantly transport entire Divisions back to the 1800’s. No radio communications, GPS devices, blue force trackers, cell phones, laser guided munitions, night vision optics, thermal scopes, or targeting systems. While most large scale electronic devices like planes, ships, and trucks would either not be affected or be able to be restarted, the radio communications we rely upon would be completely gone. Air power as well as artillery, missile, and tank units would be reduced to line of sight fire missions, with no way for troops in contact to request fire.


Battalions would have to maneuver blindly without aerial reconnaissance or coordination with other units, and our supply chain would grow both convoluted and increasingly difficult to defend. American units, cut off and likely encircled by Chinese military forces, as they have a penchant to do, will be forced to conduct operations without resupply of any kind, most notably without resupply of fresh water.  


The US military is well aware of this problem and has been working on potential solutions. One very expensive solution is known as electromagnetic hardening, which entails purchasing and providing EMP resistant covers and wrappings for all electronic components in every branch of the armed services. Another is expanding our subterranean capabilities as we transition from counter terrorism operations to peer on peer readiness and begin to fully implement our new comprehensive approach to warfare known as Multi Domain Operations.


One reason why we’re focused on subterranean operations is that a greater percentage of people worldwide live in cities today than at any other time in human history, so the rationale is that conflict will center around populations and hence, entail a lot of city fighting which in modern cities includes fighting in tunnels and subway systems.


A second reason is that the next conflict could entail a substantial amount of drone warfare. Individually carried and controlled drones are cost effective for our adversaries, hard to defeat with traditional air power, and easily rigged with jamming equipment or high explosive devices that can be dropped onto ground units. One way to negate their effectiveness in modern urban warfare is to take our operations and movements underground.


Finally, a third reason the Army is expanding its subterranean warfare capabilities and considers them to be a training priority is because the structure of those tunnels and subways systems could function as a form of electromagnetic hardening of their own accord, therefore preserving the functionality of US military electronic equipment in the event of an EMP or HEMP. 


Subterranean warfare is extremely dangerous and typically only reserved for Special Operations units with dedicated and trained canine teams, however necessity is forcing the US military to assign this task to conventional units as well.


The solution offered to the US military from the American military industrial complex for this problem is exactly what you would expect from multibillion dollar weapons development corporations. Their pitch is to attempt to either regain dominance of the EMS via heavy investment in more advanced, encrypted technology or attempt to circumnavigate the problem altogether by investing in new, innovative ways to communicate that don’t rely on it.


The repetitive, expensive, and unimaginative solutions offered by companies like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman is to invest in, develop, issue, and have soldiers carry every possible technological tool we can in a never ending race for the next advantage over our adversaries with no regard to how brittle that ladder of ascension is. The real effect of this for the warfighter is the average Infantryman carrying far more weight in equipment than our own field manuals on Soldier performance allow for.


In the face of our shifting battlefields, where a society completely reliant on the grid can be crippled by a foreign power without a shot fired, where the potential for total war unimaginable by Von Clausewitz and next generation Multi Domain Operations redefining the focus of our national defense efforts, and where the monstrosity that is our military industrial complex can only provide or will only provide a solution in the form of a more complex and expensive technological device to counter an equivocal device being developed on the opposing side, it would benefit the Infantry and the military as a whole to substitute technological devices for knowledge, and to take this time to reinforce basic Soldier skills.


The five forms of communication in the Army are radio, sound, visual, messenger, and wire. Sound and visual only travel so far and wire needs to be set up prior. If we lose radio communication all we have left is messenger. When was the last time an Infantry Company tried to conduct an operation using only messengers for communication? That is exactly what American forces would have to do if all our multimillion dollar communication systems were knocked out. When was the last time a Company Commander tried to control an exercise by only sending runners to his Platoon Leaders to disseminate orders? The US Army conducted operations that way from the Division level down for two hundred years, but these tried and true methods are seen as so primitive and obsolete on the modern battlefield by today’s military that they’re not even practiced. 


How often do we take the time to verify that all the soldiers in the formation, Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers included, are truly proficient in land navigation without a GPS? The running joke is that Lieutenants by default will get their platoons lost. I have actually found the opposite to be true. Officer candidates have the benefit of extensive personalized land navigation training while they work towards their commissions - whereas enlisted do not. If the Jessica Lynch convoy of 2003 taught the US Army anything, it’s that all soldiers regardless of rank and MOS need to be proficient in this skill. It is not sufficient, as the Russian military believes, to only have the Officers own this skill. If we retrograde to using messengers to communicate those messengers need to be competent in land navigation without a GPS in order to actually find the other units and deliver orders.


If a campaign focuses on a region of extreme latitude or if it stretches into winter, and due to the aforementioned supply complications Soldiers don’t have cold weather clothing or sleeping gear, how many Soldiers in formation today could confidently make a fire in the woods from natural materials to avoid freezing to death? During the Second World War due simply to the logistical difficulties of resupply against a near peer enemy, the 101st Airborne was forced to defend Bastogne without any winter equipment at all, and that was with functioning radios to try to coordinate a drop off. The US Army lost far more Soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge to cold weather injuries than to enemy fire, but that could have been avoided with the proper training. From my personal experience, the knowledge base of the average Infantry Soldier today in natural fire building is almost nonexistent, so our modern performance operating in that sort of cold weather environment would likely be just as dismal. 


Extrapolating upon that: without Class 1 resupply, how many modern Soldiers have ever scavenged, trapped, foraged, fished or hunted for their own food before? Without regularly filled water buffalos or a steady supply of iodine tablets, how many have sanitized their own water before? Do they even have a fire safe container to boil water in? Is the only option at their disposal to drink from a source and hope they don’t get sick? How long can a unit operate without fresh water? How effective is a unit if half the formation is curled up in agony with gastrointestinal parasites? If our medical personnel run out of basic medications to soothe that pain, do they know which plants they can source replacements from?


The US military is phenomenal at communication and teamwork, and our logistical structures as well as our supply corps are absolutely world class. By all means, we should continue to strengthen those systems and play to our advantages. However, if we are preparing for a new chapter in global conflict, I would suggest a different approach from the one multibillion dollars defense companies would offer. I would suggest that instead of spending more tax dollars on the next bit of tech, we save the money, drop the weight, and substitute gear for knowledge.


Basic bushcraft knowledge is and always has been a foundational warrior skill, and in the modern US military it has been not only neglected but substituted for a faith in battery powered devices that can and will fail. Future Conflicts is a tactical bushcraft training school based in Maryland that can offer an effective solution to fill knowledge gaps and drastically increase the combat readiness of the American warfighter.


Our courses cover a thorough curriculum tailored to the Infantry that progressively build upon each other in line with the ADDIE model, Blooms Taxonomy, and proven adult learning theory, and our instructors have the training, knowledge, and experience to deliver world class tactical bushcraft courses that are applicable, cost effective, and crucial to victory in the wars to come.