Air Force publishes new doctrine on electromagnetic spectrum operations

The document outlines concepts, terminology, roles and responsibilities, authorities, operations and the importance of the spectrum to joint ops.
U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing perform a flyover above Aviano Air Base, Italy, June 1, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kelsey Tucker)

The U.S. Air Force released new doctrine for electromagnetic spectrum operations, reflecting a change in the operating environment.

The document, published Dec. 14, outlines concepts, terminology, roles and responsibilities, authorities, operations and the importance of the spectrum to joint ops.

“The joint force requires an overmatching, offensive approach to electromagnetic spectrum operations (EMSO) to enhance competitive advantage and create multiple dilemmas for adversaries in all domains. Airmen should develop EMS awareness, engagement, and maneuver capabilities that span and connect all domains and enable successful friendly operations,” the foreword states. “Dominant EMS expertise and capabilities can render adversary sensors, situational awareness, command and control, networks, and decision processes ineffective, preventing adversaries from attaining their objectives.”

While doctrine is typically updated and revisited frequently — with the last update to EMSO doctrine in 2019 — this document marks a change in that it converts previous doctrine into newer concepts and lexicon.


“The continuing changing characteristics of war require us to ensure that our doctrine is current, in-line with joint doctrine, and that it reflects USAF considerations for force presentation and implementation,” according to an Air Force spokesperson. “The new version further clarifies needed authorities and support across the whole-of-government to make EMSO effective, responsive, and adaptable to a dynamically changing environment … This directive establishes the [Department of the Air Force] policy for electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) superiority governance, management, capability development, operations and sustainment, and capability divestment. This directive also designates USAF Major Command and [U.S. Space Force] Field Command roles and responsibilities for these capabilities in support of objectives and effects.”

The new document had been in the works since January 2022, with the Air Force’s doctrine center initiating the process to convert AFDP 3-51, Electromagnetic Warfare and Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations, to AFDP 3-85, Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations.

EMSO is a more all-inclusive term that the Pentagon has sought to use recently that takes into account the offensive, defensive and maneuver aspects of military activities associated with the electromagnetic spectrum.

Following the end of the Cold War, the Department of Defense largely divested much of its high-end electronic warfare capabilities. Now, adversaries recognize the U.S. military’s dependence on the spectrum and its strategic importance. The joint force relies on the spectrum for communications and navigation — to include precision strike, GPS and data — and other nations have developed sophisticated systems to jam, spoof and confuse American systems.

The Air Force in recent years has acknowledged this gap and sought to aggressively address it through a myriad of studies, organizational approaches and new capabilities.


Service officials still recognize they are in catch-up mode to some degree and must act fast to keep pace with adversary advances.

“In order to align with the National Defense Strategy, the Air Force will need to embrace new concepts for EW and increased emphasis on the broader EMS,” the new doctrine says, quoting Gen. David Allvin, chief of staff of the Air Force.

The document also includes annexes addressing the integration of cyber and electromagnetic spectrum operations, electromagnetic warfare in space and the importance or reprogramming, for which the Air Force established an entire wing to perform.

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