Jeremy Hong: Weaponizing the Radio Spectrum

Jeremy Hong knows a secret or two about things you shouldn’t do with radio frequency (RF), but he’s not sharing.

That seems an odd foundation upon which to build one’s 2018 Hackaday Superconference talk, but it’s for good reason. Jeremy knows how to do things like build GPS and radar jammers, which are federal crimes. Even he hasn’t put his knowledge to practical use, having built only devices that never actually emitted any RF.

So what does one talk about when circumspection is the order of the day? As it turns out, quite a lot. Jeremy focused on how the military leverages the power of radio frequency jamming to turn the tables on enemies, and how civilian police forces are fielding electronic countermeasures as well. It’s interesting stuff, and Jeremy proved to be an engaging guide on a whirlwind tour into the world of electronic warfare.

SDRs Take Wing

Jeremy comes to this field more as an informed enthusiast than as an employee or contractor for one of the many alphabet agencies or defense contractors who jealously guard such secrets. A recent EE grad from Wright State University, where courses on electronic warfare (EW) are offered, Jeremy not only developed an interest in the field but has been able to observe some of the systems in action, thanks to nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

A US Navy EA-18G Growler on carrier approach.

After the obligatory “Don’t try this at home” warnings, Jeremy gave a brief history of electronic warfare, stretching back to what was possibly the first electronic war — the American Civil War — where the telegraph played a sometimes decisive role. Ever since then, both intercepting and jamming enemy signals has become immensely important and ever more sophisticated as the technology of communications and reconnaissance have developed. What was once accomplished simply by taking an ax to a telegraph pole now takes an in-depth understanding of Maxwell’s equations.

Where all this technology has led is to tools and weapon systems that are as fascinating as they are deadly. Chief among these is the EA-18G, an aerial EW platform based on the F/A-18F Super Hornet multirole combat jet. Built to not only jam enemy signals but to seek out and kill their sources, the “Growler” devotes much of its internal space to avionics bays that drive its 66 antennas, turning it in a flying “software defined radio on steroids” and the only EW system yet to score an electronic kill on the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.

Electronic Warfare Comes Home

During Jeremy’s talk, it became clear that modern military aircraft are becoming flying nodes of immensely complex and capable networks, sharing information and synthesizing a picture of a dynamic and rapidly changing battlefield. The assets devoted to EW have remarkable capabilities, from active jamming of enemy signals with powerful transmitters to detecting enemy radar sites and launching missiles that ride the signal beam to destroy the antenna. Some EW systems are even capable of simulating the radar signatures of other planes to confuse the enemy.

EW technology is not just for the battlefield, of course. Civilians have been fighting back against law enforcement speed traps for decades with radar detectors; in turn police agencies are now using radar detector detectors to find scofflaws in jurisdictions where these devices are prohibited. And of course, in a predictable escalation in the war on speeding tickets, radar detector detector detectors are now a thing, allowing users to shut off their early-warning system before being caught using it. And despite being highly illegal, GPS jammers are also common on the road, particularly with truckers who feel the need to cheat on their electronic logging systems and perhaps mask their whereabouts from their employers.

The takehome message in all this is, if you build something that uses RF technology, someone somewhere knows how to deny it the ability to work as intended. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view, but there’s no denying that the whole field of electronic warfare is technologically fascinating, nor is there any doubt that Jeremy wants to be at the forefront of this exciting field.

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