Upgrading tactical comms

Last updated 24 Sep 14 @ 16:00 |
A- A+ A

As Special Forces and security personnel operating in hostile territory struggle to find secure, reliable tactical communications systems, Giles Peeters argues short burst data may be the answer


As Islamic State fighters move through Iraq, militants retain a stranglehold on eastern Ukraine and al-Qaeda continues its guerrilla warfare in Yemen, the age of the expeditionary security force is truly upon us. Special Forces (SF) and private security companies are deployed, often at a moment’s notice, into counter terrorism, counter insurgency or security roles to support governments looking to maintain peaceful, democratic states around the world. But the changing nature of these operations requires an evolution in tactics and resources. Do you remember the days when SF used Morse code and one-time pads to communicate contact and situation reports? Those encoded dots and dashes were the best way to send critical operational information to HQ. The codes were difficult to break in real time, unless captured, upon which all comms were open to decipher.

Then came high frequency radio. As if by magic, voice could be heard across vast distances as signals bounced off the ionosphere into the headphones of your communications officer. The equipment evolved over the years, but the same technology issues prevailed. The power required to transmit an HF signal is considerable. This means cumbersome, heavy batteries, and associated kit – only typically carried by one man and never regarded as an on-the-move portable communications solution. If it gets damaged, it’s gone. But the main tactical comms issues with HF have always centred around reliability and security. If the weather changes on mission, an HF unit can quickly be rendered useless. In this writer’s experience, this happens at the most inopportune moments and the operator is left trying to secure a comms position when the operational situation could be critical. The other issue is security – radio can be encrypted, but even then it is susceptible to direction finding (DF) – not ideal for covert operations. Voice is often live for minutes rather than seconds. Basic radio frequency equipment enables enemy forces to quickly and easily DF a transmission, putting SF in immediate danger. Frequencies can be altered and latest HF technology offers some improvements, but this only offers temporary respite as SF plays a game of cat and mouse on the airwaves.

Radio isn’t the only form of voice comms that suffers from reliability issues. Satcom based on geospatial constellations relies on a circuit switch connection and constant satellite access, which means even the smallest interruption results in a lost signal with both parties desperately redialling. In a time sensitive emergency this causes serious problems.

The question SF groups should ask is, how fit for purpose is voice comms on missions that require the highest levels of agility, reliability and mobility? This writer’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, and subsequent work with Nato and the private sector, suggest in most situations voice isn’t the best solution for SF tactical comms.

In large-scale military deployments there is the potential to secure the operational environment and ensure a reliable relay network is in place for combat net radio. But SF often find themselves going in as the first responders, and don’t enjoy the comms benefits of an established battleground. These hostile regions often won’t have any reliable comms infrastructure in place at all, as even cellular networks have been disrupted. Up until now the answer has been HF and, more recently, UHF/VHF TacSat, but time after time these have proved less than fit for purpose solutions. And a solution to this problem is required, as SF and small security groups find themselves more frequently moving into conflict zones at short notice without TacSat support.

There is no longer an appetite for full-blown military deployments. After drawn out campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan costing billions of dollars, Western governments will play a support and assist role rather than an occupation-based one in future. Small groups of highly skilled personnel can quickly mobilise and move into a territory. Take the US DoD’s recent SF deployments in Iraq. The future will revolve around limited, but focussed engagements. Regions like Iraq, Libya, and Eastern Ukraine are imploding. Western governments will not sit and watch, especially if they have vested interests. This means such countries will become areas in which SF need to quickly deploy with full situational command and control capability.

Instead of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, SF are beginning to explore the potential of short burst data (SBD). It works on a “hold and deliver” basis – once the transmission is sent, even if it doesn’t instantly connect with an overhead satellite, it queues the transmission and pushes it through within seconds. Unlike circuit switch geospatial and TacSat, SBD from commercial companies like Iridium, uses low earth orbiting satellites to transmit encrypted data, beyond line-of-sight (BLOS), in near real time, anywhere on earth. Combining SBD with situational command and control software results in light, flexible cost-effective and agile solutions. And because SBD uses a commercial satellite network, it’s always on and is maintained by the supplier.

Special Forces can easily procure, setup and start using SBD commercial off-the-shelf devices in under 24 hours. The battery power required for transmission is minimal, so SBD devices are small and lightweight. Their size and availability means every member of an SF team can carry one, enabling blue force tracking and situational command and control. Why make a voice call when you can send a text message updating your status with an automatically attached geotag that pinpoints asset location on the common operational picture? The transmission times are so short users can’t be DF’d, and all comms are automatically encrypted. The “always on” satellite constellation removes the need for in-country comms infrastructure, and the commercial nature of the service enables rapid deployment schedules. The fact the solutions are commercial in nature also means they’re deniable if captured. If the SF team has to be increased or supplemented with other first responder security personnel (private security teams assisting NGOs, police or green army for example), then additional devices can easily be purchased and distributed. TacSat is a military capability after all, and these security groups won’t necessarily have access to high military resources, so this becomes the best, most fit for purpose option.

And it’s not just SF who are exploiting SBD. All over the world there are examples of security forces using data to increase tactical capability. Counter terror specialist Allen-Vanguard recently combined SBD with its EQUINOX electronic countermeasure (ECM) solution. It was a low-cost addition to a multi-million dollar piece of radio frequency jamming equipment, but it meant that not only could Allen-Vanguard send radio frequency updates to its ECM, but the EQUINOX devices themselves could report the location of electronic threats (such as IED remote activation) and then share this information with security forces in operation. This near-real-time intelligence is invaluable and informs major security decisions on a daily basis. Another interesting M2M example is the work Smiths Detection is doing with SBD. The company’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) detection devices are used by security forces globally. Now, when a threat is detected, its nature and location is automatically transmitted to all the other friendly forces in the area and back to HQ anywhere in the world. In these situations a malfunctioning HF radio is not acceptable; tactical, BLOS comms is instantly required.

But the future for security groups and SF looking to procure affordable tactical communications solutions doesn’t end at SBD. Instead, we’ll see more crossovers with the commercial world. The days when specialist manufacturers were the only ones supplying SF with portable computers, for example, have also passed. Combine an SBD device with a ruggedised tablet computer running Windows and specialised blue force tracking software, and you’ve got yourself a mobile tactical comms platform that you can easily procure, secure and quickly deploy. Give all your SF personnel low cost SBD devices and you create a dynamic comms network in which everyone is automatically updating the common operational picture. There have generally been concerns about security, but commercial AES256 encryption is of a similar standard to the DoD’s Suite B encryption – far too complex for insurgents to bother with. The truth is that this is already happening. Even back in Iraq this writer can remember security personnel making calls on their mobile phones as they did not have anything else. There often isn’t time to return to base or wait for more favourable atmospheric conditions.

Reliable, agile, BLOS communications is an urgent operational requirement for security groups the world over; voice is not necessary to convey critical information. But this should not be seen as an either/or choice. The benefit of commercial off-the-shelf solutions is exactly that – they sit on the shelf until you need them. There’s no need for budget busting research and development, or for an invading force building radio relays. Instead, security forces of the future will operate on a pay-to-play basis, scaling up capability as and when they need it. The commercial sector is constantly evolving and developing, driven by consumer demand; it was inevitable this was an area in which traditional SF tactical comms solutions would soon at least be supplemented by technology from the civilian world.

Box Out

Case Study:

SBD in hostile territory

A VIP’s aircraft is shot down in Northern Iraq. The crash zone is in a mountain range. Special Forces are immediately mobilised to secure the area before retrieving sensitive information from the aircraft and providing the crew and passenger with urgent medical attention. The site is hundreds of miles from the nearest military base and the journey time is five hours in a helicopter. With no in-country communications infrastructure in place, Special Forces take UHF/VHF radio and short burst data devices. Only 15 minutes to go before reaching the dropzone, SF spot ISIS insurgents moving toward the area, having been alerted to the crash by local villagers. SF radios this information back to HQ along with co-ordinates and details on weaponry and manpower. The information is logged and the position of the enemy forces plotted on the common operational picture.

Special Forces are on the ground within 20 minutes, immediately secure the site and take defensive positions based on the direction the insurgents were moving. The helicopter leaves the area to refuel. An SF scouting team of two monitor ISIS progress, and while on reconnaissance spot a much larger group of 30 militants moving through a mountain passage. The aircraft is a big prize and ISIS is keen to secure it at all costs. With the situation quickly escalating, SF radios for reinforcements. But the radio connection fails. Atmospheric disturbance means, for the meantime at least, the radio is inoperable.

But the short burst data devices SF are equipped with are live and operational. Until this point on the mission, each device was sending a positional report every five minutes. This was automatically updating the common operational picture at HQ, which was tracking all personnel movement. The operational lead uses his device to send encrypted text messages detailing the radio issues, the number of insurgents, their location, nature of arms (crucial, as this group has RPGs capable of downing an allied helicopter), and heading. The information is received and acknowledged by HQ with the commander quickly authorising air support and sending an SBD update to the officer on the ground with information on evac. An hour later SF has to engage the first group of insurgents, with the larger group only 20 minutes away. As the firefight continues, air support arrives and neutralises both groups. Heli evac turns up two hours later and the SF group departs the crash scene with the injured crew, VIP, and sensitive information.


Giles Peeters is Defence Sector Director at Track24 Defence. He previously spent 19 years in the MoD, during which his expertise in commercial satellite communications proved invaluable. He moved to the private sector in 2007, and provided blue force tracking to Nato and the EU. He is now the driving force behind Track24’s beyond line-of-sight, blue force tracking solution, SCC TITAN.