FORT SILL, Okla. — In war-torn eastern Ukraine and Syria, experts say Russian forces are using sophisticated equipment and techniques to shut down battlefield communications, effectively leaving enemy forces blind.
Thousands of miles away, in a classroom at Fort Sill, soldiers are learning how to defeat those kinds of attacks.
The southwest Oklahoma Army post is home to the Army Electronic Warfare School, which trains troops how to disrupt an enemy's communications systems using electromagnetic signals rather than conventional weapons like bombs or bullets. Soldiers also learn how to defend against such attacks.
The Oklahoman reports that the program puts soldiers at the forefront of what defense officials are calling a key component of the Army's overall strategy, teaching them to work in an environment where enemies' equipment and techniques can change by the time soldiers finish the 13-week course.
"It advances daily," said Maj. Steven Sams, the school's director. "It's an ever-changing, ever-evolving threat environment."
To cope with that constant change, the school gives soldiers a highly technical education, beginning with the properties of electricity and radio waves before moving into electronic warfare systems, Sams said.
While they're at the school, soldiers are exposed to a broad range of electronic warfare techniques, from jamming enemy communications to defeating radio-controlled roadside bombs. The program also trains soldiers to cope with a so-called hybrid threat, or an enemy that uses cyber attacks as part of a larger strategy that also includes conventional warfare, Sams said.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, falls into that category, Sams said. But Sams stressed that the school doesn't train soldiers to fight the terrorist group or any other specific enemy, but instead to handle any electronic threat that may arise.
"We don't train just for Afghanistan," he said.
About 500 students graduate from the program each year, Sams said. To succeed, soldiers need strong math skills, he said. But students don't necessarily need to bring any technical knowledge with them to the school, he said, since the school's programs cover everything they'll need to know.
"I'm not too worried about what they know when they get here," Sams said. "I get cooks, I get infantrymen, I get tankers, I get aviation mechanics."
Electronic warfare is a large and growing component of the U.S. military strategy. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a group of national security experts and defense officials that electronic warfare was one of several areas where the U.S. Defense Department was investing in hopes of countering threats and "challenging activities" made by Russia.
Defense officials have said the Russian military is using its sophisticated electronic warfare capability to jam Ukrainian military communications in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, Carter said Russia is becoming an increasing threat on land, at sea and in cyberspace. Carter said the U.S. needs to be able to counter that threat.
"We're investing in the technologies that are most relevant to Russia's provocations, such as new unmanned systems, a new long-range bomber, and innovation in technologies like the electromagnetic railgun, lasers and new systems for electronic warfare, space and cyberspace, including a few surprising ones I really can't describe here," he said.
Col. Jennifer Buckner, commandant of the U.S. Army Cyber School at Fort Gordon, Georgia, said U.S. forces are encountering more enemies that use unconventional tactics, including electronic warfare. The job of the Fort Sill school, and the Army's electronic warfare training program overall, is to make sure soldiers can understand and counter those threats.
U.S. adversaries adapt quickly, Buckner said, so it's important that the military be flexible enough to adapt when needed, as well. Electronic warfare capability is a big part of that flexibility, she said.
"We see a lot of our adversaries employing unconventional means and tactics and capabilities because they don't otherwise have an advantage over conventional forces," she said. "I don't think it's surprising that they would look to alternative capabilities in any kind of conflict or combat scenario."