Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year could have a profound impact on the tactical communications domain.
What the world is seeing in Ukraine is a semblance of a peer-on-peer conflict. Granted, Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). She remains reliant on Soviet-era and Russian materiel supplied before relations deteriorated in the wake of Russia’s first invasion of the Crimea in 2014. However, prior to the latest invasion, Ukraine began receiving advanced communications equipment. These supplies increased in size and scope following Russia’s invasion on 24 February. Most media attention has focused on supplies of kinetic weaponry. Lockheed Martin’s M-142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, better known as HIMARS, has emerged as a star of the conflict. Likewise, the Raytheon/Lockheed Martin FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank guided missiles is engaging Russian armour.
Less discussed are supplies of Western communications equipment, and the effect these maybe having on the fortunes of the Ukrainian armed forces. Following the 2014 invasion, the United States began supplying L3Harris RF-7800V Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System transceivers to Ukraine. Better known as SINCGARS, these radios are now considered somewhat legacy systems by NATO members. Debuting in the 1990s, SINCGARS radios are still widely used across NATO. In fact, alliance members like the US are ensuring their new transceivers are compatible with the SINGARS waveform. For Ukraine SINCGARS has emerged, albeit quietly, as another star of the war. Armada has been told by sources in the Ukrainian theatre of operations that the SINCGARS waveform has resisted jamming by Russian Army Electronic Warfare (EW) systems.
SINCGARS’ impressive resilience has not been lost on the US armed forces. In 2017 the US Army’s Programme Executive Office for Command and Control embarked upon a SINCGARS upgrade. Among other adornments, this is rolling out AES-256 standard encryption into the force’s SINCGARS radios. AES-256, of which the United States’ National Security Agency is the custodian, is used for the carriage of US Top Secret traffic. Open sources say that AES-256 encryption is considered unbreakable by today’s available computing power.
While the war in Ukraine has showcased the enviable vigour of SINCGARS, it has also highlighted glaring deficiencies. Nowhere has this been arguably more visible than in the current condition of Russian Army tactical communications. The early stages of the war illustrated what seemed to be a series of Russian communications failings. Army voice traffic was heard on clear high frequency (three to 30 megahertz) channels, eavesdropped upon by radio amateurs in and around the theatre of operations. Traffic often betrayed tales of woe suffered by Russian troops and their commanders as the war gathered pace.
The situation has seemed little better at the tactical edge. The conflict was still relatively young when pictures began cropping up on social media of Russian infantry relying on cheap Chinese civilian handheld ‘walkie-talkie’ style radios. These radios are very easy to intercept and are highly susceptible to jamming. Further revelations followed in August. A report by the London-based Royal United Services Institute thinktank entitled Silicon Lifelines exposed the quantities of Western and third-party electronics in Russian radios. Some of these components were legitimately acquired by Russia before sanctions started to bite following the 2014 invasion. Other components are not subject to export restrictions. some may have been acquired nefariously through false pretences by Russia’s intelligence services. Furthermore, intermediary countries may have supplied uncontrolled and controlled components to Russia’s electronics industry. Some suppliers in Hong Kong were highlighted in the report as acting in this fashion.
The report raises many questions. Why are Russian manufacturers not building these components themselves? Do they not have the wherewithal to do so economically at the volumes required by defence electronics manufacturers? Is it simply easier and more economical for Russia’s defence industry to acquire third party electronics even if done so illegally? Have Russian manufacturers stockpiled third party components for use in their defence electronics. If so, how long might these stockpiles last?
The lessons of Ukraine’s bitter war will be digested in staff colleges, procurement brain-stormings and policy focus groups for years to come. What are the potential effects on the tactical communications landscape beyond the Ukrainian? A caveat should be added that we are but part way through what is likely to be a long conflict. Nonetheless some initial observations can be made.
Perhaps almost too obvious to state, but the centrality of robust, encrypted communications is central. The extent to which SINCGARS has acquitted itself is nothing short of breath-taking. That a waveform fielded over three decades ago remains strong against the best that the Russian Army’s EW units can throw at it is impressive. If Ukraine’s tenacious enemy cannot break this ‘hipster’ waveform, how will it fair against state-of-the-art waveforms the US and her allies will field in current and forthcoming radios? Hopefully, the experience of SINCGARS in Ukraine augers well for initiatives like TrellisWare’s TSM networking waveform. For all intents and purposes, TSM will superseded SINCGARS in the coming years. TSM can carry both US Sensitive but Unclassified and Secret and Below traffic, the latter using NSA Type-1 encryption. TSM will primarily be fielded at the company level and below. Provided there are no major advances in the acumen of Russian electronic warriors, tomorrow’s waveforms should be resilient if the experience of SINCGARS is a guide. Nonetheless, this is no excuse for complacency. Just because Russian Army EW has struggled against a legacy waveform, it does not mean US and allied militaries should be complacent about communications robustness. This should encourage tactical communications engineers to push the outside of the envelope yet further to ensure their hardware and software is simply beyond the nefarious reach of potential enemies.
Another lesson concerns internal and external interoperability. It seems that large numbers of Russian Army radios cannot work with each other. The army was in the middle of a major overhaul of its tactical communications when the war in Ukraine expanded in February. It was thus in an unhappy place. The majority of its manoeuvre units were using legacy, and probably obsolete, transceivers. Elite airborne and naval infantry units had received the newer kit. This should not in itself have been a problem provided both legacy and new radios share common, robust waveforms allowing them to communicate with one another. The reality on the ground seems quite the opposite and this has hampered Russian Army command and control.
Ironically, NATO and allied nations find themselves in a similar position to their Russian rival. France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom are all modernising their land forces tactical communications. By necessity, this will see legacy radios being phased out as new ones are introduced. This means that disparate systems will have to work alongside each other. Are these, and other nations, confident their armies can use new and old radios on the battlefield seamlessly and securely? If they are not, they should be remedying this situation with alacrity.
Interoperability extends beyond individual armies. If the unthinkable happens and NATO’s armies are forced to fight Russia, can they do so in a coordinated manner? Coordination is contingent on robust, flexible communications allowing NATO’s manoeuvre forces to talk and share data with one another. The ESSOR (European Software Defined Radio) waveform provides a common high-data rate, radio agnostic waveform. ESSOR is equipping the armies of Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and Portugal. The waveform will enter service in the coming years allowing traffic to be moved between manoeuvre forces. NATO’s Coalition Wideband Networking Waveform (COALWNW) was to have performed a similar role. However, COALWNW now appears moribund, if not stillborn. Worryingly, the alliance does not appear to have anything to replace it. Going to war without a multilateral wideband waveform designed for coalition networking should be an unthinkable prospect. Should NATO look towards adopting ESSOR or something similar? Brussels can no longer postpone this decision and must take action now before the strategic environment worsens.
The final lesson relates to budgets and programmes. The digestion of the lessons from Ukraine will crystalise into demands for new materiel and upgrades of existing systems. Funds for these acquisitions cannot be appropriated at the expense of military communications programmes. Tactical radios lack the glamour of main battle tanks, uninhabited aerial vehicles and self-propelled artillery, for example. Voters and politicians alike may balk at the significant costs of tools that simply allow soldiers to talk to each other and share information. The Russian Army’s experience shows that bad communications translate into bad situational awareness. This leads to bad coordination and ultimately bad decisions. It is incumbent on policymakers and personnel to stay the course and ensure their communications are not paired back to pay for heavy metal as both are essential.
by Dr. Thomas Withington