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Arming the Electronic Warfighter: Part 2, Understanding the Domain


cryptologic technician sits at desk with headset on and faces computer monitor with a radar screen in a dimly lit room with another sailor working beside her

Click here to read part one of this blog series.

The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The first thing experienced firefighters do when attacking wildfires is to assess and plan. It might be tempting to rush in immediately, but this can have terrible effects. Seasoned firefighters know how important it is to evaluate the conditions first.

This is true of application design as well. Before we start building a product, we must first learn about and understand the following:

  • The operators for whom we are designing the system
  • Where the operators will use the system

Before we jump into the process of designing software for Electronic Warfare (EW), we must survey the landscape. To do this, we should first analyze the end user (the Electronic Warfighter) and the environment, starting at the highest level, then narrowing in focus.

Designing for the Electronic Battlespace

Like firefighters, EW and/or signals intelligence (SIGINT) operators may find themselves in a number of unique situations. It would be a fool’s errand to try to design for each individual scenario.

two concentric circles of water with one circle's intersecting another at the edgeImagine a circle. This circle is made up of all of the different scenarios our end users will face. Most scenarios will overlap a lot in terms of requirements. These scenarios sit closer to the circle’s center. At the edges, we see scenarios with much more specific or niche requirements; these have less overlap with more commonplace operations. We refer to these scenarios at the fringe as edge cases. Edge cases are rare situations that demand unique solutions.

As designers, if we focus on the edge cases, we will find a fractal of ever-increasing complexity. Instead, we should look at the commonalities that each situation shares.

When equipping the Electronic Warfighter, one commonality is crucial to remember: intelligence operations demand constant vigilance. This “constant vigilance” represents an entire cultural mindset toward the EW operating environment.

What does this look like for our Electronic Warfighter? To investigate, we must first examine the EW/SIGINT operational environment, specifically the broader cultural expectations. Then we can look at the physical operating environment. Finally, we can examine how these two affect the end user.

The Macro Environment: The Cultural Backdrop

No user operates in a vacuum. The cultural mindset and expectations of the EW/SIGINT world are shaped by the knowledge that adversaries will take advantage of any weaknesses they find.

Near-peer (traditional military) opponents in particular have nearly endless capabilities, including time and personnel. Successful operations therefore demand sufficient intelligence coverage to counter enemy tactics and capabilities.

cryptologic technician sits at desk with headset on and faces computer monitor with a radar screen in a dimly lit room with another sailor working beside herBecause of this, a typical large-scale operation takes on several characteristics:

  • The mission does not end with normal business hours or holiday breaks.
  • Most missions demand constant manning.
  • Electronic Warfighters may operate on a rotating shift basis with frequent disruptions to sleep schedules.
  • EW operations have a high turnover rate due to personnel attrition and changes in assignment.
  • Operators are expected to maintain both military career and professional expertise and meet physical performance standards.

As we move on to the narrower SIGINT environment, try to keep these things in mind, as, like training and experience affect individual firefighters, this culture has a great impact on our Electronic Warfighter.

The Micro Environment: The Physical Stage

Firefighters examine their environment by determining the type of fire present and identifying any weather conditions or potential hazards. However, when making tools and decisions that affect the Modern Warfighter, decision makers often underestimate, misunderstand or even ignore the physical operating environment.

When equipping the Modern Warfighter, there is a tendency to conceptualize this “stage” according to our own individual experiences and expertise. A radio frequency (RF) engineer may therefore view the environment in terms of physical properties such as atmosphere, terrain or signal density. Software and hardware engineers may view it instead in terms of installation – the restrictions to be overcome or the specifications required.

two u.s. soldiers standing in the woods, one wearing a backpack with a large antenna array and a handsetFor our purposes, however, the stage is the environment in which the user, not the equipment, will operate. It includes all of the factors that affect the EW operator. Despite the many environments where SIGINT software will be utilized, these varying stages do have common factors:

  • At the national or regional command level (say, for US Pacific Command or US Northern Command), EW often takes place in isolated, secure facilities (SCIFs); ground commands often operate outside of these SCIFs on a short-term basis.
  • SCIF work tends to be very sedentary while operations outside of a SCIF are often quite physically intensive.
  • The environment may be cramped and/or noisy, with sub-optimal lighting and equipment.
  • Users may only have access to a single monitor or a laptop screen and limited external support via the internet, mobile devices or outside personnel.
  • SIGINT missions may be distributed across a global area and can include multiple military commands or government agencies; users may have to communicate information quickly across time zones, including incident times and logs.

The Environmental Impact

All of these environmental factors affect our end users. For example, single monitors and sub-optimal equipment can make multi-window displays frustrating. While large, power-hungry EW systems may be appropriate in SCIFs, the size, weight and power (SWaP) of cumbersome or power-intensive equipment can have a direct physical impact on dismounted foot soldiers.

Additionally, rotating shifts and irregular sleep schedules mean our Electronic Warfighters do not always operate at peak capabilities. High turnover, combined with round-the-clock mission requirements, often results in rushed training schedules and mission handovers to ensure replacements are on hand. This common scenario is bound to increase user error.

These knowledge gaps and user errors are only compounded by technological pushes for battlefield superiority. Both technology and combatant capabilities develop at lightning speed, and EW personnel and software must sprint to keep pace. In the intelligence community, or the IC, this results in rapidly changing toolsets and procedures. Unfortunately, as the mission becomes more complex, training is often the weakest link once again.

We could address this problem via edge cases, developing software tools and interfaces for subject matter experts and power users. However, as we’ve mentioned, designing for edge cases does not solve the core problem. At CRFS, we use user-centered design (UCD, sometimes also referred to as UI/UX, or user interface/user experience design) to mitigate the core human-computer interface (HCI) problems by focusing on the situations and personnel at the center of the circle.

In the next section, we will look at this broad end user in greater detail. We will explore the relationship between user and environment and provide some strategies for user research in situations where access to the end user is often limited. Finally, we will pull this information together to create a basic persona, an archetypal representation of our Electronic Warfighter. Only then can we craft solutions that truly empower our end user.