On the evening of the 2 August 1939, the German airship Graf Zeppelin prowled along the British coast, secretly gathering intelligence on whether Britain was using the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) for communications, navigation and radar.
Zeppelin was the world’s first airborne electronic intelligence collector, searching the radio spectrum for potential enemy signals, as a prelude to countering them.
Since the mid 1930’s Britain had been secretly harnessing the EMS to develop the first early warning radar network in fear of the threat that the German air-force could pose should a future war erupt.
Britain’s newly erected Chain Home radar network was tracking Zeppelin’s every move – but it didn’t go undetected.
A crew of 48 radio operators aboard the Zepplin picked up radar signals from Britain’s Chain Home system, but in a stroke of luck, discredited the signals, believing that they had come from a station in Germany.
World War II was yet to begin, but the war to win the airwaves had started.
On the 1 Sept 1939, less than one month after Zeppelin returned from her trip to the British Isles, Germany invaded Poland. World War II erupted.
Germany and England both entered the war believing that they possessed in radar a unique advantage over the other, but neither foresaw the profound effect the scientific breakthrough would have in years to come.
Throughout the war, Electronic Warfare (EW) proved to be fundamental. It played a vital role in winning the Battle of Britain in 1940 by tracking German planes as they formed over France. It also played a fundamental role in D-Day, by enabling the Navy and Airforce to execute various diversions and countermeasures to confuse the German Army, so that the troops could land in Normandy.
Even at these early stages of the technology, EW was having a profound impact on keeping the military and the public safe.
The development of Instantaneous Frequency Measurement receivers in the 60s, and moves towards computerisation in the 70s, led to EW becoming even more sophisticated in its reporting. However, advances in the technology were shrouded in secrecy.
An “iron curtain” had fallen over Europe and a world of espionage, secrecy and intimidation ensued as a result of the Cold War, Cod War and Falklands.
Phil Ventress, who was Head of Fleet EW Operational Training within the Royal Navy where he served for 27 years before he joined Thales in 2001, said that during this time EW operators were known as “secret squirrels”. They used the technology to gather highly sensitive information that was withheld from the public and “nobody was allowed to know their names, where they came from, or where they went”.
This became starkly apparent in the Falklands.
On the 4 May 1982, a young EW Able Seaman on HMS Sheffield blew his whistle to declare an incoming Argentinian aircraft that had been detected using EW technology.
No one responded to the whistle.
Six minutes passed, and the Able Seaman blew his whistle again.
The young seaman had detected an Exocet missile headed directly for the ship - but once again, no one responded to his warning.
“Because you couldn’t see it, it was like we were making this stuff up,” said Ventress, who is now Head of Strategy and Product Policy at Thales. “The operator and equipment did exactly what it was supposed to do, yet nobody listened.”
The huge secrecy surrounding the mysterious technology meant that it wasn’t until the navigator of the ship could physically see the missile hurtling towards them that the threat became reality.
HMS Sheffield was the first British warship lost in action since WW2 and it still lays at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, along with 20 men who were unable to be saved from the burning wreckage.
Six days after HMS Sheffield was targeted there was a multiple attack on HMS Hermes. However, neighbouring ships HMS Exeter and Birmingham used electronic warfare to counter those missile firings, exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum to protect the Hermes.
In darkness comes light
“I always think it is a shame that it has ‘Warfare’ in its title,” said Ventress. “If you do it right, it is welfare and they did it right after the Falklands.”
For the next 15 to 20 years there was huge investment in EW. Policy also changed so that any Navy vessel that suspected it might be under missile attack would trigger defensive manoeuvres, such as turning toward the threat, accelerating at maximum speed and firing chaff.
In 2004 Thales undertook a research programme with the Ministry of Defence, with the aim of achieving Full-Spectrum Wideband Digital for EW.
Increasing levels of civilian and military signal incursions visible on the spectrum, had meant that operators were struggling to cope with the number of signals and the equipment was starting to suffer from saturation.
“It became impossible to say for 100% what was happening,” said Ventress. “EW was no longer being trusted by the command.”
In a bid to ensure that the lessons learnt in 1982 did not become obsolete, the Royal Navy necessitated having three prototypes of Thales’ latest wideband digital capability systems on their boats that were headed for the Middle East.
Today, Thales is nearing completion of a full refit programme for the Navy’s entire surface fleet with the latest new fully digital Radar Electronic Support Measures system, VIGILE-D, which features a unique digital antenna.
No one else has the depth and breadth of capability and expertise.
Thales’ pioneering technology in EW continues to enhance situational awareness and provide strategic advantage all over the world – with the main aim of protecting the military and public.
Read more about the historic milestones that have influenced advancements in Thales’ world-leading technology here.