Asymmetric Dialogue

As U.S. Army Rethinks How Soldiers Will Communicate In Future Combat, Harsh Realities Loom



I write about national security, especially its business dimensions.

There's a debate going on in the U.S. Army about what the military service's next combat vehicle and rotorcraft should look like. When it comes to communicating on the battlefields of tomorrow, though, everybody in the Army seems to agree on what they would like.

It's an iPhone.

The smart phones made by Apple and competing Android brands offer everything that Army leaders would like in their future tactical communications architecture -- mobility, simplicity, versatility, reliability. Soldiers accustomed to using them want something better than the clunky, complicated "comms" gear that brigade combat teams lug around the world.

The Army has been trying to satisfy that need for two decades, ever since a program called the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) kicked off in 1997. JTRS, or "Jitters" to those who follow these things, didn't work out. Nor did several of the other high-tech initiatives the Army pursued in an attempt to pierce the fog of war with digital technology.

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The basic idea was to field a family of radios and waveforms that could be modified by downloading new software rather than replacing expensive hardware. Software reconfigurability supposedly would enable a patchwork of disparate networks to communicate as if everyone was using an iPhone, even in the midst of combat.

That proved impractical. In May of 2017 a scathing report on Army networking efforts from the Institute for Defense Analyses warned that the service's planned next-generation battlefield communications gear was too hard to use, consumed too much bandwidth, required too much electrical power, lacked adequate range, and (worst of all) was vulnerable to enemy jamming.

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To quote the report, "Despite the decades of effort and the many billions of dollars invested, the Army's programs of record continue to fall short of demonstrating a survivable, effective, and suitable air-land tactical network that meets the needs of the warfighter." Under the rubric of suitability, the report noted that comms gear then in development was too hard to set up, required too much space on vehicles, and would hog spectrum needed for other purposes.

So the Army decided to start over. It still wants to deliver the functional equivalent of iPhone technology to soldiers in the field, but it faces some daunting challenges that Apple does not.

The most obvious problem is that Apple designed its phones to operate in a world of fixed cellular towers and buried fiber optic lines. The Army can't count on any of that infrastructure existing in a war zone when it arrives. Soldiers have to bring their network with them, so delivering the kind of bandwidth fiber can provide probably isn't feasible.

A second problem is that the near-peer adversaries America's Army might face on future battlefields understand digital technology just as well as we do. They know how to jam signals traveling through the air so that receivers can't make out what is being transmitted. And they know how to hack into networks to disrupt connectivity.

A third problem is that the communications satellites that might substitute for fixed ground infrastructure are also becoming vulnerable to jamming, cyber intrusion and kinetic attacks in orbit. The Air Force, which leads military space efforts, has a solution in hand for dealing with cyber threats to satellites, but at present there's no easy way of overcoming jamming or countering kinetic aggression.

A fourth problem is that the Army can't simply replace all the outdated comms gear in its force within a few years. It will take decades. And while that is occurring, the new gear must be able to communicate with the old gear. Nobody told Apple that its iPhones had to be able to talk to analog systems developed during the Cold War.

Faced with these harsh realities, the Army has devised a strategy that leverages commercial technology to manage challenges to battlefield connectivity rather than simply trying to negate them. It begins with a recognition that the kind of spectrum dominance America's joint force enjoyed in the early years after the Cold War ended is probably never going to exist again.

That implies some tough trade-offs, because perfect connectivity and total resilience may be beyond reach when you are fighting a country like China (or one of its client-states).

However, by offering battlefield commanders an array of options for communicating with troops, it may be feasible to sustain connectivity even in the harshest warfighting environments. So rather than avoiding reliance on satellites, the Army wants to use both military and commercial satellites to host its global links. Some may be lost in wartime, but most of them won't be.

The Army hopes that one day a vast constellation of inexpensive comsats in low-earth orbit will provide so much redundancy that no enemy can suppress the network. In the meantime, it is contemplating buying services from several commercial satellite operators and creating an airborne layer of communications relay systems (probably unmanned).

It is also jettisoning military-unique waveforms in favor of more widely used waveforms in the marketplace that ease the challenge of adopting commercial technologies. Commercial innovations in areas such as signal processing, power management and spectrum utilization are often more advanced than those available from traditional military suppliers, so the Army will utilize that technology where feasible.

Commercial technologies may be less resilient than solutions the Army previously was pursuing, but by diversifying and proliferating its communications options, the service hopes to overwhelm the resources of adversaries bent on degrading joint-force connectivity.

Its approach to the jamming threat is emblematic of the new strategy. Rather than simply trying to defeat enemy electronic warfare, the Army aims to generate more communications paths than adversaries can suppress. In addition, it wants to force enemies to get closer to communications nodes in order to jam them, thereby putting the jammers within range of Army artillery and missiles.

This isn't the kind of elegant solution to threats that the Army requirements process has embraced in the past, but excessively demanding requirements were a central factor in the failure of earlier attempts at modernization. What the Army aims for now, therefore, are solutions that are technically and fiscally feasible.

If the Army stays on its current vector for fielding next-gen communications gear, that will likely create a windfall for providers of commercial satellite services. The cost of fielding new software-reconfigurable radios based on commercial standards will likely pale by comparison with the cost of communications services the Army needs to secure from private-sector providers.

The end result, though, will be a communications system that approximates the functionality of smart phones in equipment that is easy for soldiers to carry and operate. It will comply with the kinds of standards driving commercial networks today, but not so tightly that innovators are discouraged from proposing novel solutions.

The Army's emerging battlefield communications strategy thus is a radical departure from past efforts. It acknowledges the power of commercial solutions and recognizes the harsh constraints within which warfighters will need to operate in the future. The question now is whether, for once, the Army can manage to stick with a plan for keeping its soldiers connected in wartime.

Forbes