Junta Comms

The Niger Army appears to use rudimentary communications, primarily relying on civilian standard radios, with a smattering of specialist tactical transceivers.

As these words were being written, tensions were running high in West Africa. On 26th July, a coup d’état led by the Nigerien military deposed Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum. As of early August, Mr. Bazoum continued to be detained by the Nigerien military junta now running the country. Mr. Bazoum was sworn in as Niger’s democratically elected president on 2nd April 2021. The coup has brought widespread condemnation, particularly from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Niger is a member of ECOWAS. The United Nations, the European Union and the United States made similar condemnations. On 30th July, ECOWAS ordered the restoration of democracy in Niger and the reinstatement of Mr. Bazoum. The organisation warned that, unless the junta stepped down by 6th August, ECOWAS would implement sanctions and could use force to restore Mr. Bazoum’s government.

The 6th August deadline came and went. As of the time of writing (8th August), it is unclear whether military action against the junta will occur. It was reported on 5th August that ECOWAS had agreed on a plan for a possible military intervention in Niger. That said, military juntas controlling neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali have vowed to side with Niger should military action be taken. Nigeria is ECOWAS’ current chair and appears to have taken a strong stance against the coup.

Local Cyber Capabilities

The Nigerian military is likely to lead any military action against Niger. An intervention in Niger would almost certainly include an Electronic Warfare (EW) effort against Nigerien military communications.

The Nigerian Army has emerged as one of the best equipped in Africa regarding EW and cyberwarfare. In 2018, the army established a Cyber Warfare Command (CWC). Should war break out, the CWC may target internet protocol data the Nigerien junta depends on for command and control. The CWC could also play a useful role in identifying and exploiting militarily relevant data. The Nigerian Army has signals battalions embedded in its manoeuvre force. These battalions are tasked with tactical/operational level EW in addition to providing manoeuvre force communications.

Little is known regarding what EW equipment the Nigerian Army uses but the force is equipped with Aerosonde Mk.4.7 uninhabited aerial vehicles. Reports say these aircraft have an EW payload potentially capable of collecting Communications Intelligence (COMINT). The aircraft’s 15,000 feet (4,500 metres) ceiling enable it to detect and locate radio signals over a range of 150 nautical miles (278 kilometres).

The Systems

On the one hand tactical communications used by the Nigerien Army should be relatively easy to detect, locate, exploit and attack. Pictures circulating on social media show members of the junta during a press conference equipped with Motorola civilian standard handheld radios. It also appears that the Nigerien Army may use Chinese TYT handheld radios. The latter radios lack any meaningful communications/transmission security. Previous analysis indicates that similar radios deployed by Russian forces in Ukraine have been relatively easy to exploit for COMINT. Some Motorola products employ AES-256 encryption, but as Armada recently reported, this is not unbreakable.

More challenging could be the L3Harris AN/PRC-152A handheld and AN/PRC-117G backpack radios Niger received from the United States in 2015. These radios use frequencies of 30 megahertz/MHz to 512MHz (AN/PRC-152A) and 30MHz to two gigahertz (AN/PRC-117G). L3Harris’ literature says that the AN/PRC-117G has several encryption capabilities. These capabilities include the company’s own Sierra-II encryption standard equipping both radios. Such encryption standards could be difficult to break. Nonetheless, it is possible that the Niger Army only has a relatively small number of these radios.

The ‘known unknown’ in whether the force has acquired tactical radios from suppliers in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the People’s Republic of China or Russia. If so, these may be more challenging for COMINT specialists to detect, identify, exploit and jam.

Nonetheless, attacking the civilian standard radios the Nigerien Army appears to be using could still pay dividends should the delicate situation in West Africa become a shooting war. Cyberwarfare coupled with COMINT gathering and communications jamming could still provide an ECOWAS force with an advantage. Such attacks could help seriously degrade the command, control and cohesion of the Niger armed forces.

by Dr. Thomas Withington