Telling the ATEC Story The People Behind Test & Evaluation: Michael Stoltenberg

By ATEC G 3-5December 11, 2023

In the world of electronic warfare and radio frequency engineering, Michael Stoltenberg is considered an expert in his field. Currently serving as the radio frequency support lead for the Electronic Warfare Branch at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, or YPG, in Yuma, Arizona, Stoltenberg's journey from an Air Force veteran to a Department of the Army, or DA, civilian is a tale of service, science, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge and excellence.

Stoltenberg, a native of Orange County in Southern California, once envisioned a life of designing buildings and structures. Raised by a single parent, his mother wasn't always around, and he was frequently left alone. While his mom was away at work, he spent much of his time with pencils and papers, drafting, drawing, and sketching the outlines of his future architectural aspirations.

After graduating from Esperanza High School in Anaheim, California, in 1993, Stoltenberg enrolled at Fullerton College in Fullerton, California, and majored in architectural drafting. But as fate would have it, his architectural aspirations were cut short when Fullerton withdrew his major from its curriculum, leading him to enlist in the Air Force in June 1996.

His four-year stint in the Air Force was spent at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, in the 746th Test Squadron. While at Holloman, Stoltenberg was one of the approximately 600 instrumentation and telemetry technicians in the entire Air Force. In his job, which was focused primarily on research and development, he operated and maintained the Satellite Referencing System, or SRS, base station, and utilized the Global Positioning System, or GPS, for jamming and smart jamming. SRS helps pinpoint locations and distances between objects on Earth with great precision, using the signals from the satellites orbiting far above us. Conversely, GPS jamming creates a lot of noise or interference to block or disrupt the signals from GPS satellites, making it difficult to "hear" the satellite signals and determine precise locations. Both systems are invaluable to the military, especially the Army. SRS helps track troops on the ground, while GPS jamming simultaneously masks these locations from foreign adversaries. It was in the Air Force that he mastered the art of electronic warfare, a critical field where invisible waves can decide the outcome of future wars.

Stoltenberg left the Air Force in 2001 and enrolled at the University of Arizona, or the U of A, in Tucson. In December 2006, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in engineering physics and mathematics. Although he is often considered an electrical engineer, Stoltenberg is actually a scientist. He credits his decision to pursue physics to a fellow Air Force member he met at Holloman who had also graduated from the U of A with a physics degree.

In August 2005, he found work in the private sector as an intern with Advanced Ceramics Research, Inc., or ACR, in Tucson. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from the U of A in 2006, he was promoted to radio frequency engineer in February 2007. ACR, a producer of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS, was acquired by British Aerospace Systems in 2009 to support its own UAS strategy. While in this position, Stoltenberg gained extensive experience designing and performing analysis of the radio frequency, or RF, communication equipment on all of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, produced by ACR. Often called drones, UAVs are aircraft controlled from the ground, sometimes from very far away, using computers and controllers. He became experienced at writing and submitting technical reports, operational procedures, and proposals for upgrades to the UAVs. This chapter in his life also served as another stark reminder of the unpredictability of life—in June 2008, he was laid off from ACR.

But as one door closed, another opened at YPG. In September 2008, the TRAX International Corporation hired Stoltenberg as a contract employee to work as an RF engineer for YPG's National Counterterrorism/Counterinsurgency Integrated Test and Evaluation Center. Stoltenberg had first learned about YPG while stationed at Holloman and participating in tests conducted at the the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range, or WSMR, located in White Sands, New Mexico. Along with YPG, WSMR is a subordinate organization of the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

In this position, he was tasked with figuring out how RF targets, which send and receive signals, were working by testing how strong the signals were, how wide the signals could go, how long the signals could send a message, and how the signals turned raw data into a signal that could be sent through the air. He also tested the antennas used by Soldiers to determine how well they would work in sending and picking up signals under real-world conditions. Whenever there were problems with the signals—like static or interference that shouldn't be there—it was his job to find out what was causing the interference. He was also a part of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization's Wide Range Analog Point-to-Point (WRAPP) sub-working group. WRAPP is a system or method of communication that allows two points, such as two military bases, to communicate directly with each other over large distances using radios, antennas, or other electronic devices.

In November 2011, Stoltenberg became a DA civilian and currently works in YPG's Electronic Warfare Branch as a RF engineer. He holds a test and evaluation level 3 certification and is the subject matter expert on RF, electromagnetic environments, electronic attack clearances, and antennas. Stoltenberg shared that spectrum, the invisible frequencies of electromagnetic waves that can travel through space, is a precious resource. Radio waves, microwaves, and infrared waves are just a few of the frequencies contained in the spectrum. He added that very few people understand spectrum or how RF is used in everyday life. Cell phones use RF waves to send and receive calls and texts. Without RF, there wouldn't be mobile phones as we know them. The Wi-Fi routers in our homes and the GPS in our cars rely on RF technology. Whenever we use a microwave to heat our food or use a garage door opener, parts of the invisible spectrum of RF are used.

It's equally important to understand and consider that the energy from RF can be potentially dangerous when misused or used in excess. Before YPG can proceed with conducting tests involving RF, Stoltenberg must obtain approval in the form of electronic attack clearances from the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, which has jurisdiction over commercial and private spectrum operations, and the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, which regulates flight safety. RF testing is of particular concern to the FCC and the FAA due to the disruptive nature of electronic attacks, or EA, and the dire consequences uncontrolled EA can have on air and sea navigation and air traffic control. In addition to getting approvals from both Federal agencies, Stoltenberg coordinates YPG's testing with the Air Traffic Control authorities in Canada and Mexico, as well as local communities, to ensure they aren't affected by the testing being conducted.

Stoltenberg's passion for RF isn't limited to his day job—he has his own equipment at home and is teaching his 14-year-old son, Alistair, all there is to know about RF. He also plans to start his master's degree program in applied physics next year. However, Stoltenberg's life is not defined solely by his professional achievements or unwavering interests in the invisible. Although his early interests in drafting, drawing, and experimenting with RF antennas definitely laid the foundation for his future career, what few people know is Stoltenberg is not just a scientist; he's also a talented and accomplished musician, proficient in playing the oboe and saxophone. He received private lessons growing up and played both instruments in his middle and high school bands. Stoltenberg says he could have just as easily become a professional musician and spent his days playing in an orchestra. He still plays both instruments and says their soulful melodies help to balance out the structured and orderly rhythms of his worklife.

As fortunate as he has been in his professional career, Stoltenberg also considers himself incredibly lucky to have been gifted with not just a life partner but also a kindred spirit in his wife of 18 years, Takako. He met Takako, a native of Japan, while attending the U of A. They were both physics majors who discovered they shared a genuine passion and a scientific curiosity for physics and the mysteries of the universe. When they decided to marry, Stoltenberg traveled to Japan to exchange wedding vows in Takako’s homeland and meet his future inlaws. The trip, he says, was transformative and the experience of his lifetime. Visiting the Land of the Rising Sun gave him a profound respect and appreciation for his wife’s rich Japanese heritage and the cultural traditions he now calls his own.

Besides his vast knowledge in RF, Stoltenberg also possesses a simple yet profound philosophy on life: lead by example and never stop believing in the potential of others. He believes in the power of giving people a chance to learn, to fail, and to grow, and he says we are all capable of accomplishing anything we put our minds to. His journey from merely tinkering around with antennas to improve the signal reception on the television to today being recognized as an expert in his field can serve as a reminder for the rest of us that in the frequency of our days, we each have the power to tune into our own unique signal and make a difference in the world.