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The art of hide and seek in warfare

By Bandile Sikwane, Senior Research Communication Practitioner, CSIR Relations

War is not pretty, it is not elegant, it should not be glamorised. It is something to be avoided at all cost.

These are not exactly my words; they are also not Colonel (ret). Gerrie Radloff’s words, but we mutually agreed on them when I interviewed him several weeks ago ahead of the Association of Old Crows (AOC) conference of the Aardvark Roost, the South African chapter of the organisation, which took place early last month. Seeing that he is the President of the AOC Aardvark Roost, we were talking about the AOC and warfare, but not just any warfare, we were talking electronic warfare or EW. I told him I was curious about a specific phrase that the AOC Aardvark Roost used in its website.

According to its website, the AOC Aardvark Roost, like its parent organising, was formed to cater for individuals who have a common interest in EW and who wish to foster and preserve the art of EW; to promote the exchange of ideas and information in the field of EW; to recognise the advances and contributions to EW; to document the history of EW and to commemorate fittingly the memory of fellow Crows.

I was intrigued by the phrase “…the art of electronic warfare”. So I put it to him that EW in itself is science and mathematics and ultimately war, how could it ever be described as art? A surprising thing happened because I really thought this question would not sit well. In fact I was preparing myself for a very short interview in deed. His response was prefaced with a slow smile, at that moment even his eyes seemed to smile. “That’s a very interesting question,” he said, “I’m glad you asked it.”

In order for me to appreciate his explanation, he argued that he had to tell me a story: During World War 2, in 1942 to be precise, three large German war ships and six destroyers were trapped at the Harbour of Brest in France. Hitler had ordered them to return to home base, but the only way of returning to home base was to make a risky dash through the English Channel. Prior to making the dash for the English Channel, the Germans used EW very cleverly by incrementally transmitting noise jamming to the British coastal radars to make it appear like typical atmospheric disturbance on the radars of that era . The British, convinced that it was indeed noise caused by interfering atmospheric disturbances, adjusted the manual gain control of their radar screens to compensate. As the Germans continued repeating this over a period of time, the British kept on adjusting the gain on their radars until they were completely tuned down, to the extent that normal targets were also not being displayed any more. As a result, the three large German warships accompanied by six destroyers were able to sail up the English Channel for 483km undetected, with the British believing that their equipment was faulty. When the British finally realised what was going on, the Germans have progressed too far for them to intercept and stop them.

“Electronic warfare is a really abstract kind of war to people not involved with EW. It is waged somewhere in the ether, in the electromagnetic spectrum,” explained Col. Radloff. “It is like a cat and mouse game,” he added. “Yes it is highly mathematical and scientific. But the art is in how you use the science and mathematics to hide or to seek and de-cloak your enemy.” As the above story shows, for 483km and 13 hours, the Germans were able to evade their enemy,” pointed out the retired Colonel.

“So, to put it simply, electronic warfare is the art of hide and seek, using technology, science and mathematics, elaborated the Colonel.” Any scientist/or engineer that is able to imagine ways-and-means of uncovering and hiding from the enemy in the electromagnetic spectrum battlefield, is truly an artist.” He concluded that the same also applies to the operational doctrines and tactics used in conjunction with the technical capabilities of EW systems and equipment.

He shared many similar stories to illustrate his point until I could see what he was saying. He wasn’t trying to make warfare alluring in anyway. In fact, we both agreed that this is not an ideal world. For in an ideal world, this ‘art form’ would be completely unnecessary. Having seen what warfare does to people, animals and countries, comparing any form of war to art and bestowing on it a form of beauty would be extremely inappropriate. This is because war is not pretty, it is not elegant, it should not be glamorised. It is something to be avoided at all cost.