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Eight laws of electronic combat.

These eight laws of electronic combat (EC) are not intended to be all inclusive. Rather, they are intended to at last actually commit to paper a number of truths that many electronic combat professionals have known for years. As EC is inextricably combined with strategy and tactics, a number of such aspects are apparent in these "laws."


During the past 45 years, to an extent undreamed of during World War 11, an extremely hostile air environment has developed. During World War II, the threat to aircraft consisted of numerous optical and very limited radar-directed anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and fighter gunfire. The surface-to-air missile SAM) and air-to-air missile (AAM) had yet to be invented. Radar surveillance of defended areas was in its infancy. The situation was little different during the Korean conflict.

By the time the Vietnam conflict (1965-1973) arrived, the development of threat systems had indeed intensified, particularly in the north. A relatively sophisticated electronic-based defense system was put into place there. This system consisted of an integrated radar early warning and ground-controlled intercept system with terminal SAMs and AAM-capable fighters. This system presented a formidable threat to attacking aircraft.

During the war a number of new equipment and techniques were developed to degrade the threat. Figure 1 shows aircraft losses versus application of electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment during this conflict. Although losses were significantly decreased, the threat continued to claim aircraft. Certain "humps" in the trend reflect hostile countermoves to our ECM protection efforts.

Following on the heels of the Vietnam conflict, other nations experienced the even further intensified threat environment of the Middle East. Israel and the Arab states fought the EC battle with even more types and numbers of radars, SAMS, AAMs, etc. Israel's EC assets were principally provided by the United States and other western countries, while the Arabs used most kinds of Soviet-built equipment and some bought from the West. The losses by both sides, and particularly the Arab states, indicated the continued and intensified lethality of the threat and the necessity for EC systems. The British/Argentine experience in the Falklands/Malvinas War further underscored the continuing intensification of the threat.

Today our air forces face the extensive air defenses of the Warsaw Pact. Though the future cohesiveness of the Pact is in question, the capability to deal with this potential adversary will be needed until democratization and pacification of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are assured. The basic mission of the combined NATO forces is to deter aggression and, failing that, stop an aggression as close to the established borders as possible. To accomplish this mission, tactical, strategic and mobility air forces must operate in and around the integrated defensive (threat) system the Warsaw Pact forces have developed during the past 40 years. Pact forces have used this time to not only hone their offensive procedures, but their equipment and command, control and communications (C3) system as well.

The evolution of the modern threat to military aircraft and the real need of our combined NATO forces for air power support dictate that EC are necessary.


It is a natural human reaction to want simple solutions. However, the EC battlefield is anything but simple. Figure 2 shows the principle assets that are involved in the modern EC environment. Add to this environment the complications of varying terrain and the AirLand Battle that will be swirling around the EC dimension, and the total situation in which EC must be prosecuted is not at all simple.

Further, technological innovations and the proliferation of numbers and types of threat by our potential adversaries have rendered such simple solutions as brute-force jamming and the "lower is better" syndrome minimally useful.

These factors have, unhappily, made the execution of effective EC a very complicated undertaking. Anyone who thinks differently simply does not understand the total problem.


At first glance this idea seems to have little import. However, the curve of the earth is very dramatic when compared to the relatively low altitude at which aircraft fly. Even an aircraft flying at 40,000 ft above mean sea level (MSL) is only barely above the earth's surface when considered in reference to the size of the earth itself. An altitude of 40,000 ft MSL, when compared to the earth's radius of 20,925,740 ft, is quite insignificant (altitude = 0.19115% of radius). This is comparable to an "altitude" of 0.00912674 in. above a standard basketball.

But as any flyer knows, at "high" altitude an aircraft can see and be seen for long distances. However, at low altitudes an aircraft can be seen for very limited distances. The nomogram given in Figure 3 can be used to compute these distances. This nomogram is a radar-horizon nomogram, not an optical one. This means that a 4/3 size earth is assumed. An earth with less curvature (4/3 size) is used to account for the bending of radar beams caused by the earth's magnetic field.

This discussion would lead one to believe that "lower is better." This is a perilous assumption. The danger of this assumption is graphically illustrated by the fourth law.


Because of the increasing efficiency of radar-guided SAM and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) radars, more and more combat operations are being flown at lower and lower levels. The easy extrapolation of this situation is to fly as low as possible. The fundamental problem with flying as low as possible is that the lower you fly the more likely an aircraft will hit the ground, becoming a victim of a "Granite SAM." Practically all unplanned contact encounters between aircraft and the ground result in aircraft destruction.

Further, the benefits of flying incrementally lower are not linear. While the lethality of radar-guided SAM systems is indeed generally degraded by flying lower, this benefit decreases by increment as the aircraft flies closer and closer to the ground. Computations from Figure 3 yield the radar-horizon distances (threat radar at 500 ft MSL) listed in Table 1.

While the radar-horizon distance is indeed decreased with each descent, the benefit of flying 100 ft versus 300 ft is only 9 nautical miles. At the same time, the danger of the aircraft hitting the ground is much higher at 100 ft than 300 ft.

This short analysis has shown that the simple axiom of "lower is better" is not true. In turn, the refutation of this so-called axiom supports the Second Law of EC - EC are not simple.

As alluded to above, some aircraft do survive these various encounters. On numerous occasions aircraft have survived SAM hits. However, almost no aircraft survive unplanned contact with the ground. The "Granite SAM" is indeed deadly.

A corollary to this law is that the ground is also more lethal than AAA hits. Numerous aircraft have returned safely to base after sustaining AAA hits.

Although this law indicates that lower is not always better, the survival of combat aircraft flying in the radar-guided SAM and AAA environment is assisted by the stark reality of the Fifth Law of EC.


The basic fact that radar does not propogate through terrain (in either direction) has made terrain masking a prime technique for combat aircraft. However, the concept of decreasing incremental benefit applies to terrain masking as well as to flying closer and closer to the ground.

Indeed, any in-depth analysis of the average topography of the earth will reveal that the benefits to be gained from terrain masking are great but diminish quickly by increment for operations below 300 ft above ground level (AGL).

It must be emphasized that terrain masking techniques are critically dependent on good intelligence - where the ground-based threat systems are located. While the timeliness of intelligence is one measure of its quality, even relatively "old" (one-hour old) intelligence may be useful as few mobile threat systems can actually shoot on the move.

A necessary corollary to this law is: "Neither Can Electro-Optical Systems." Optical systems - infrared, ultra-violet, particle beam, high-power microwave and laser systems - also cannot see or operate through terrain. With the exception of strategic over-the-horizon (OTH) radars, all ground-based and air-breathing detection, identification, tracking and engagement threat systems are effectively countered by the presence of terrain (whether from the curve of the earth or hills/mountains) between them and a target aircraft. This fact logically leads to Law Six.


This law draws upon the wisdom of the ancient philosopher of war, Sun Tzu. Throughout his writings on war Sun Tzu emphasized conservation of force. It just makes sense to avoid enemy air defense assets if in so doing, an aircraft can still accomplish its mission.

In any event, there are not enough resources to suppress hostile air defense assets, especially in the European environment. At present the total USAF inventory of the F-4G Wild Weasel includes 72 Primary Aircraft Authorizations (PAA). Even with ground assets and ancillary aircraft this force is inadequate when arrayed against the thousands of threat systems fielded by the Warsaw Pact or even the hundreds possessed by other potential adversaries. These threat systems must be dealt with if effective (and survivable) air support of friendly ground forces is to be provided. Therefore, the best option, if available, is to avoid enemy defenses.

This concept is closely related to a sentiment put forward by Dan Graves: "The Old Crow didn't get old by being the fastest of the birds, or the strongest or the bravest. He got old by being wily. Courage is fine in battle, there is no substitute for it, but cunning is even better."

While this Sixth Law is of great importance, it is tempered by the Seventh Law.


This law is proven by the worldwide development and proliferation of threat systems. The old pre-Vietnam "permissive" environment is gone. Even before the Vietnam conflict, the Warsaw Pact was building up its defenses. Additionally, this equipment (and American and Allied ones as well) was exported to various countries around the world.

The best examples of recent "equipment trials" can be found in both the Arab-Israeli conflicts and the Falklands War. In both of these conflicts, varied and deadly defensive weapons were brought to bear on a variety of aircraft engaged in operations in support of ground and naval forces.

The relative success and criticality of threat systems to the successful prosecution of war has only caused nations to acquire still more and better systems. The present environment can only be expected to continue to increase the threat to aircraft.

The worsening of the threat and the complexity of the EC environment has led to the popular opinion that EC may never be truly understood by most operators. This sentiment has led to the Eighth Law.

LAW EIGHT: MAGIC AND MIRRORS The idea that EC is all accomplished by "magic and mirrors" has developed because of a popular cynicism that it is all beyond understanding. Although the preceding seven laws have shown that the basics of EC are understandable by laymen, the jocular expression magic and mirrors" has true meaning to our craft in a way that has probably not occurred to the average layman. "Magic and mirrors" has, in recent years, come closer and closer to reality. The reality of this concept has its basis in the development in infrared sensors (including both missile seekers and infrared search/track units), laser applications, particle beams and the advent of alternate and multi-path techniques. Infrared missiles have changed the face of air operations in both general and limited war. Infrared (IR) AAms have offered a relatively dependable weapon for fighter aircraft while the shoulder-launched IR SAM has greatly increased the threat and uncertainty of the threat from ground troops to aircraft. IR search track (IRST) units on aircraft allow an attacking aircraft to engage from long range without actually emitting RF energy. Lasers have developed from bulky, heavy, expensive items to lightweight units that can designate targets, cause sensor damage and will ultimately be used to cause structural damage to aircraft. Additionally, particle beam or directed energy weapons have been in development (with air defense in mind) for more than 10 years. The exploitation of both the near and far infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum has opened the door to the real "magic and mirrors" arena, and also offers alternate and multipath techniques that will post real challenges to aircraft survivability in the next century.

Countermeasures to these techniques have been developed (flares, IRCM pods, etc.) to a limited degree, but this area can only grow in importance in the years ahead.


The intent of these "Eight Laws" is to offer a foundation for understanding the basic nature of EC. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, they are not intended to be all inclusive. Indeed, it would be optimal if this writing generates debate resulting in additional valid "laws" of EC. Further, it should be apparent that EC is not yet a science, but rather an art that uses the most advanced scientific "tools" to achieve its aim. These tools will continue to progress and the field of EC will continue to expand. The modern EC professional must continually build upon a firm foundation or rapidly fall behind in the ever changing art of electronic combat.
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Author:Yagher, Ray A., Jr.
Publication:Journal of Electronic Defense
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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