The U.S. Army’s Battlefield Networks Are Vulnerable to Russian Jamming
More radios mean more weak points
A U.S. Army analysis of battlefield networks will likely closely assess the extent to which its flagship satellite communications and radio network can be “hardened” and made more resilient against the kinds of electronic warfare and cyberattacks likely to occur in a major-power, near-peer type mechanized war.
The Army’s mobile satcom and high-bandwidth communications network, the Warfighter Information Network Inc. 2, has been fielded to at least 16 Brigade Combat Teams and has performed well in combat during ongoing ground wars.
Unlike WIN-T Inc. 1, which transmits combat relevant information between “fixed” command centers, the Inc. 2 network uses a combination of vehicle-mounted radios and satellite-dish connectivity. Commanders can view digital maps showing terrain along with friendly and enemy force positions while on the move, or pull up information from an intelligence system called TIGR — or Tactical Ground Reporting System — which provides intelligence such as maps showing insurgent or roadside bomb locations and incident reports from high-risk locations.
TIGR and other command functions such as artillery plotting, airspace de-confliction and a combat mapping technology called the “Command Post of the Future” are designed to operate seamlessly between commanders and convoys in transit and large display screens at fixed command posts.
WIN-T Inc. 2 is also a “self-healing” network which can transition from radio to satcom nodes as needed, depending upon line-of-sight, R.F. connectivity, terrain and available bandwidth. Inc. 2 is especially relevant because it’s designed to extend the reach of the network from the brigade to battalion and even company level.
However, despite WIN-T Inc. 2’s success in counterinsurgency-type combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, critics of the network are raising questions as to its ability to perform amid jamming, electromagnetic interference and cyberattacks from a technologically advanced enemy.
Concerns along these lines have reverberated from a variety of sources, such as a recent report from the Pentagon’s Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E, and prominent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The principle concern is about whether the technology will become vulnerable in the coming decades — despite the large amounts of money and developmental effort expended in pursuit of WIN-T.
These potential vulnerabilities are well understood by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who has directed a review of the Army’s combat networks, including WIN-T Inc. 2. A review of this kind will assess the extent to which WIN-T Inc. 2 can be modified, upgraded or enhanced so it can perform in the highest-threat environments.
For instance, much is known about the anti-satellite weapons now in development by potential near-peer adversaries, and the fast pace of technological change makes GPS connectivity and communications networks more challenged and vulnerable.
All of the U.S. military services are focused upon harnessing emerging technologies to enable “precision, navigation and timing” in a GPS-denied environment where satellites are attacked and rendered inoperable. The Pentagon is also taking measures to harden GPS connections themselves.
Nonetheless, when assessing this phenomenon with a mind to WIN-T, it raises the question as to what would happen in a combat scenario if GPS satellites were destroyed and the WIN-T network was left to function purely through a terrestrial, ad-hoc network of software-programmable radios.
This question has found a resting place in the minds of WIN-T Inc. 2 developers at General Dynamics Mission Systems who are quick to acknowledge the perils of a fast-changing, modern threat landscape.
Engineers and WIN-T developers at General Dynamics are currently working on a range of “hardening” strategies, tactics and technological adjustments to address changing threats, Bill Weiss, vice president of ground systems for General Dynamics Mission Systems told Scout Warrior.
Ad-hoc terrestrial networks of software-programmable radios bring previously unprecedented advantages to the battlefield. Forces can use high-bandwidth waveforms to send I.P. packets of data, voice and video across the force in real time, without needing a fixed infrastructure of any kind.
This, quite naturally, allows for substantial mobility and connectivity in austere environments where other kinds of hard-wired networks or GPS systems would not be available. Each radio in these systems functions not only as a device to transmit information, but also as a “router” or “node” on the network extending connectivity.
“A directional antenna system will listen in every direction and send a beacon out to find its neighbors and establish a link,” Weiss said.
However, many militaries around the world were quick to take notice of the electronic warfare tactics employed by the Russian military in Ukraine.
This showed, among other things, that emerging technology now makes it easier to locate, and target, various kinds of electromagnetic signals emanating from things like radios. As a result, a software-programmable network of radios might have a difficult time reducing its signature — which turns the advantage of wireless signals into a liability.
Communications arrays during a test of the WIN-T at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. U.S. Army photo
General Dynamics engineers say they are developing several key techniques to address these vulnerabilities. One of them, quite simply, is that signals from WIN-T Inc. 2 can be reduced by constant movement.
A moving emanating signal is, of course, much more difficult to locate, Weiss explained.
Also, WIN-T developers are making progress with an emerging strategy described as “keep-out-zones,” a method of deliberately emanating electromagnetic signals in the direction of friendly forces and, by design, away from an enemy.
“Some radios broadcast in an omni-directional fashion. The antenna in WIN-T is sophisticated. It has the option to stream a beam and only radiate in a certain direction,” network engineer Paul Bristow of General Dynamics Mission Systems told Scout Warrior.
“Silent Watch” and “receive mode” are other threat-reducing techniques, wherein a radio can temporarily shut off or reduce its signal to avoid detection.
Still another dynamic in this equation is that, while radios emitting signals for communications can be targeted, electronic weapons launching attacks also emit a signal — thus possibly giving away their position.
WIN-T developers also say technical progress is being made with efforts to refine and operationalize emerging “precision, navigation and timing” technologies able to facilitate relevant connectivity in the event that GPS is compromised.
Ultimately, much of the debate hinges upon a key question — whether WIN-T be replaced, cancelled or improved. General Dynamics developers emphasize that WIN-T is constructed with what could be called a new baseline in U.S. military acquisition — “open architecture.” This means that, by using common I.P. protocols and identified, interoperable standards for hardware and software, emerging technologies can much more successfully be integrated with existing systems.
Based upon this premise, new software designed to address new threats, fixes, patches or even new hardware can be implemented in a seamless fashion. This technical apparatus, General Dynamics developers say, positions the WIN-T network such that it can continue to evolve and sustain its functionality despite the continued emergence of new, high-tech threats.
This kind of approach, the developers say, has already enabled designers to massively reduce the hardware footprint of the mobile WIN-T Inc. 2 system — it is now smaller and lighter to the point where a WIN-T equipped Humvee can sling load beneath a CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter.