Operating in Contested Environments: MAWTS-1 Works the Spectrum Warfare Challenge


By Robbin Laird

During my visit to MAWTS-1 in 2018, the shift from operating in the land wars to dealing with challenges which could be posed by peer competitors was clearly underway. At the center of the shift was clear recognition of the need to deal with the ongoing challenge of operating in contested electro-magnetic environments.

In my meetings with PACFLEET this past April, a key aspect of the challenge facing the force is clearly spectrum warfare or signature management and deception. My takeaway from discussions at PACFLEET was very clear. Success for distributed maritime operations requires not only assured command and control but the tissue of ISR systems enabling distributed fleet operations and adding the key element of deception through various counter-ISR systems as well. In effect, fleet distribution built on a kill web effects infrastructure is being combined with what me be called a wake-a-mole operational capability. You can’t target me, if you can’t find me.

As one key Navy leader put it to me: “Counter-ISR is the number one priority for me, to deny the adversary with to high confidence in his targeting capabilities. I need to deceive them and to make a needle look like a needle in a haystack of needles. It is important to have the capability to look like a black hole in the middle of nothing.”

MAWTS-1 with its work on FARPs, force distribution, new ways to do C2 such as from systems operating out of the back of Ospreys, signature management and deception is clearly working along the same lines as PACFLEET.

I had a chance to discuss this approach with Major John Edwards, the Spectrum Warfare Department Head, when visiting MAWTS-1 in November 2023. Edwards highlighted their work in preparing the force for the spectrum management challenges they experience and will experience within a contested electronic warfare environment. Their focus is upon ramping up the “red” threat against blue to prepare the force for the experience they have when operating in a contested environment.

They focus on showing the operational elements of the force the kind of spectrum signature they are creating when they operate to better understand the nature of spectrum warfare and how that affects their lethality and survivability in operations. And by knowing that one can create ways to think about signature deception as well as pointed out by PACFLEET.

Edwards background is from operating in the last remaining specialized USMC airborne electronic warfare platform, the Prowler. The focus now is upon having the entire operational force “electronic warfare” ready, which requires consideration as well for bringing the kind of threats which red forces can be brought by an adversary to contested operations. This is always going to be a work in progress as both blue and red work the dynamically changing electronic magnetic spectrum embodied in the operating forces.

We discussed an issue as well which I have observed in both allied and U.S militaries, namely the paring down of specialized aircraft to perform the EW mission and the question of whether or not there is enough capability remaining for the specialized domain which EW or tron warfare really constitutes.

Major Edwards thought this was a valid concern and observed that the Navy currently through its Growlers provides a joint capability. He noted the USAF has officers involved with Growlers and Growlers come to MAWTS-1 as well to work with the range of capabilities which the USMC deploys. But he felt that there needs to be a joint force commitment to expertise in this area beyond simply relying on the Growler community.

Part of the problem is simply the need to have a robust capability in this area which can inform the force with regard to training standards necessary for effective operations. If it was felt correctly that spectrum management is now a thread running through offensive and defensive operations, where will the expertise be to inform the operational and training requirements?

Featured Image: U.S. Marine Corps aircraft assigned to Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One takeoff from a landing zone during a Spectrum Warfare Department (SWD) training event near Yuma, Arizona, Aug. 23, 2023. SWD Marines conducted a training to intercept, identify, and locate or localize sources of intentional and unintentional radiated electromagnetic energy for the purpose of immediate threat recognition, targeting, planning and conduct of future operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ruben Padilla)