Next generation communications including software defined radios will ensure special forces can use voice and data across a full spectrum of missions.
In line with emerging requirements to maintain critical levels in connectivity across contested operating environments, special operations forces (SOF) around the world are working closely with industry partners to identify suitable solutions to ensure tactical communications at the ‘edge’.
Only when SOF units are assured levels in primary, alternative, contingency and emergency (PACE) communications can they effectively conduct the full spectrum of mission sets which can range from direct action and special reconnaissance through to military assistance and humanitarian aid/disaster relief.
Examples of assisting technology include the roll-out of software defined radios (SDRs), capable of providing SOF operators with simultaneous voice and data in addition to the support of in-field software upgrades including waveforms.
The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is pursuing similar efforts across its inventory of Next-Generation SOF Communications product line which includes L3Harris Technologies AN/PRC-163 handheld and AN/PRC-167 manpack.
An undisclosed number of AN/PRC-163s are already in service with US SOF components while the AN/PRC-167 had its first operational assessment pushed back to the third quarter of 2020 due to delays associated with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The development of these new SDRs comes at a time when USSOCOM is paying close attention to operations associated with the age of Great Power Competition (GPC) where SOF units can come into contact with peer adversaries, particularly from the Russian Federation and People’ Republic of China.
Areas of interest being pursued by the Tampa-based command include focus on multi-functional, mobile, small, light and power efficient systems, in addition to waveforms with reduced electro-magnetic signature; high bandwidth; protected satellite communications; multi-band access; and smaller antennae.
Both USSOCOM two-channel radios provide simultaneous voice and data services with the additional upgrade to operate a third channel through the integration of a Mission Module. L3Harris continues to design additional mission modules following the release of the first type which is dedicated to support Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission sets.
According to retired US Army SOF officer, Rob Culver, now director for Department of Defense business at Domo Tactical Communications (DTC-now part of Codan Group), such communications solutions must capable of supporting special operations in the “long war on terrorism” as well as “conflict with peer and near-peer adversaries and the escalation from low intensity conflict to large scale combat as well grey zone conflict”.
Speaking to Armada International, Culver explained: “There is an increasing demand for MANET [mobile ad hoc network] tactical communications which incorporates commercial technology and software. The demand to push communications and computing power to the tactical edge, increases the demand for the wireless transport of high data payloads such as HD [high definition] and Full Motion Video (FMV) through a mobile ad hoc network.
“In the mix of companies competing with DTC for market share are the usual traditional defence communications suppliers, as well as growing number of small business new to the defence and security marketplace. Overall, the market for tactical communications for SOF looks to be growing and appears to be especially good for software defined radios with low latency, high-capacity mesh networking offerings,” he added.
According to Culver, SOF units conducting counter-terrorism and/or operations against highly capable peer adversaries including requirement for secure, Low Probability of Intercept/ Low Probability of Detection (LPI/LPD), anti-jam and anti-spoofing communications.
Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and cyber effects operations stated recently that opposing forces may not simply attempt to jam or cut communications but rather hack into them to spread disinformation.
“Cyber Security is a current and emerging requirement. Along with the security of the software and the waveform, there is the need for low ‘signature’ capabilities,” she stated while paying reference to the ability of enemy forces to accurately detect SOF positions to coordinate precision fires and defeat a force.
“SOF are often characterised by the need to quickly project force over long ranges without the infrastructure and logistics backup of more traditional military operations. Codan’s HF radio systems can play a critical role here by providing infrastructure-free terrestrial reach back of hundreds or even thousands of miles with minimal setup all through a simple and intuitive user interface.
“With the integration of DTC’s Tactical MANET IP Mesh Technology into the Codan portfolio, we can seamlessly combine this long-range reach back capability with high bandwidth local MANET communications in order to deliver a shared situational awareness picture (PLI, voice, video etc.) together with the ability of any MANET mesh user to directly access the long-range HF reach back link via the Codan XTEND smartphone application,” Culver explained while describing how Codan solutions provide low latency, high data capacity, high node count and mobile solutions “for use across the spectrum of conflict in both manned and unmanned applications”.
DTC solutions include covert audio and video solutions, designed to support clandestine mission requirements of SOF units amongst other operational requirements. Products support “military special operations forces worldwide in their efforts to combat terrorism and crime”, which provide “high evidential standards” to support the identification and monitoring of terror threats, monitoring organised crime and high risk operation. DTC was unable to provide further details due to operational security concerns.
Less well-equipped SOF units around the world are also seeking to upgrade their tactical communications capabilities to support emerging demand signals from across the contemporary operating environment.
Examples include the Armed Forces of the Philippines Special Operations Command (AFPSOCOM) which has contracted wireless communications specialist Inrico to support modernisation efforts across the Philippines Army Special Operations Command.
In December 2020, Inrico was contracted to provide a Push-to-Talk Over Cellular (PoC) communications capability through the deployment of specialist terminals, consoles and management software.
Such an uplift in communications capabilities will support AFPSOCOM’s ongoing operational demands which include internal security operations against violent extremist organisations on land and in littoral and maritime environments.
Philippines SOF already operate Inrico PoC T320 and T199 tactical radios, although upgraded systems will support longer range communications between Luzon and Mindanao.
Upgrades will ensure secure access to tactical communications networks across the Philippines, including monitoring and prevention of cyber attacks. Additional features include AES2565 encryption to protect voice and data communications.
AI in Tactical Comms
Speaking about the Role of AI and Big Data in Military Operations at a Hudson Institute event on 7 December 2020, USSOCOM’s commander, General Richard Clarke promised the Tampa-based organisation would be “putting our money where our mouth is”.
“SOCOM is going to continue to be a pathfinder on unique, repeatable, actual real-world problems we are going to be fighting and make sure we can apply them into the future”, he said while highlighting the emerging importance of the “information environment”.
To date, USSOCOM has driven Project Maven which includes the employment of image detection algorithms to assist in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission sets.
However, Clarke said USSOCOM would be front and centre to evaluate and implement ML and AI across the wider DoD, specifically noting how cloud computing could also supply vast demand for data in the future operating environment.
Seeking to support emerging USSOCOM requirements as well as other SOF customers around the globe is L3Harris Technologies which is looking to future proof its own range of SDRs, particularly in relation to emerging machine learning and artificial intelligence (MI/AL) capabilities which can be used to support autonomous routing of communications as well as support in decision-making processes.
A company spokesperson described how forward-deployed SOF units must be aware of “channel conditions” across a contested battlefield, including “tracking link status and evaluating network performance”.
L3Harris continues to support US Army and coalition working groups regarding next-generation waveforms to support operation in contested environments. Solutions include LPI/LPD waveforms in addition to anti-jam solutions.
“Modern waveforms can proactively sense channels, adjust frequency, move between bands, adapt data rates, and collaborate with nearby radios to accomplish this without any operator input,” said an L3Harris official.
As an example, both the AN/PRC-163 and -167 feature integrated Signals-Based Threat Warning/Situation Awareness (SBTW/SA) solutions which allow the SDR to become aware of threatening energy and signals across a battlefield. Sources can then be identified and classified for targeting by other assets.
“This is an area ripe for future research and development, especially as we look towards aggregating sensor data across tactical networks in the ‘sensor-to-shooter’ construct,” the L3Harris spokesperson added.
However, company sources confirmed that much progress still has to be made in terms of applying ML and AI technologies to smaller form factor, tactical communications solutions including SDRs. Examples include providing SDRs and mission modules with adequate level in power to support ML/AI algorithms.
“Sophisticated AI processing is well established in large infrastructure and desktop applications, while portable equipment is just getting started with more specific tasks like biometric security. New mobile processors are just starting to feature neural processing engines, so we expect these barriers will slowly be overcome,” it was explained.
L3Harris is also offering up its Transport Aggregation Gateway (TAG) solution to support special operations customers around the world. Featuring ML and AI algorithms, TAG features Smart Blending Technology which identifies the most optimal data paths for communications traffic, particularly when operating in contested environments.
Comprising a TAG Gateway Remote Terminal and TAG Concentrator, the solution aggregates together multiple communications networks (including MANET and SATCOM for example) to ensure maximum levels in data throughput.
“TAG automatically optimises capacity by providing network resiliency and elasticity as communications systems join or leave the network. This commercial technology has now progressed to a point where it has become something useful to the DoD,” L3Harris sources confirmed.
“Today, TAG is able to aggregate and blend together the various data capacities of multiple networks, meaning there are no longer any disadvantaged user sets across the battlespace. This means a single data stream is able to exploit multiple network links simultaneously to ensure maximum levels in data throughput,” a source explained.
TAG was first demonstrated to the US Army in December 2018, with L3Harris and commercial partner Dejero spending the time since to mature the solution. Since then, L3Harris has proven the solution on board a variety of special operations vehicles including the Polaris Government and Defense MRZR Light Tactical All Terrain Vehicle (LTATV) as operated by USSOCOM.
Also looking to the future is Codan Group which according to Culver, is observing an “ever-increasing demand for extremely low Size Weight and Power (SWAP) software defined and software configurable radios that are cyber secure and provide LPI/LPD”.
Coalition forces operating throughout the GPC will rely upon assured and resilient tactical communications to ensure tactical overmatch over highly capable adversaries across the contemporary and future operating environment.
However, emerging technologies must be easy to use and allow SOF operators to maintain focused without distraction on the mission at hand.
by Andrew White