Award-winning innovation could help the US Army significantly improve the protection of its deployed tactical networks.
Troops from the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division had cause for celebration in early November. Two of their comrades, Captain Christopher Flournoy and Staff Sergeant Michael Holloway, won the annual Dragon’s Lair competition. Dragon’s Lair was initiated in 2020 and is supported by Army Futures Command. In its own words, the programme works to foster “creative thinking” across the US Army. The goal is to “spur innovation to better quality of life and improve the service as a whole.” Any soldiers from any career field or background, and members of their families, can enter.
The competition’s format will be familiar to anyone who has watched Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den style television shows. Ideas are fielded and these are narrowed down to several finalists who submit their proposals with a winning idea chosen. Capt. Flournoy and Staff. Sgt. Holloway were this year’s victors with their Electromagnetic Warfare Decoy Emitter (EWDE).
Hiding in Plain Sight
Like most great ideas, the EWDE is beautifully simple. The decoy is designed to protect soldiers from being detected in the electromagnetic spectrum. The EWDE does this by mimicking and transmitting the Radio Frequency (RF) signature of a tactical transceiver with the decoy also doubling up as a frequency jammer.
At first blush, it may appear that the EWDE was a solution in search of a problem. Tactical radios on the battlefield employ a host of Communications/Transmission Security (COMSEC/TRANSEC) protocols. These protocols are intended to protect radios, and their networks, from discovery, jamming and traffic exploitation. However, as Capt. Flournoy notes, COMSEC/TRANSEC cannot always protect a radio, and hence its user, from discovery: “While a tactical radio is capable of encrypting data being sent through the spectrum, there is no way to hide these emissions. The only current method to hide radio waves is by not using them at all.”
Capt. Flournoy told Armada that a signals officer had highlighted the problem of red forces being able to “identify and direction-find friendly units based on emissions from our communications equipment” in November 2022. The first step occurred in January 2023 when 3rd Infantry Division soldiers and researchers established an innovations workshop. “The idea was developed to create an emitter to obfuscate the battlefield with emissions.” This ‘hiding in plain sight’ approach “would prevent the enemy from being able to differentiate legitimate communications emissions from fake emissions,” says Capt. Flournoy. Development of the EWDE continued into the middle of 2023 before it was tested that September. In less than one year, Capt. Flournoy, Staff Sgt. Holloway and their colleagues had answered the signal officer’s need. Ease of use was “one of the biggest selling points for our emitter,” Capt. Flournoy stressed. Should the EWDE go into production “it needs to be simple for anyone to use.”
Developing the EWDE was no easy task: “The most challenging aspect was ensuring the frequencies emulated looked like legitimate emissions as well as getting the approval to use an experimental emitter.” The emitter consists of a control device using custom software developed for the EWDE’s emitter. The latter comprises an analogue synthesizer which emits custom frequencies. Instructions are sent from the control device to the emitter using LoRa (Long Range) spread spectrum radio communications protocols. Capt. Flournoy continues that the EWDE is currently at Technology Readiness Level-4 (TRL-4). According to US Department of Defence definitions TRL-4 denotes that the design has been validated in laboratory conditions.
With the technology proven, the next step is to make the EWDE available to tactical formations. “There are several efforts across the army to make this type of capability a programme of record,” says Capt. Flournoy. “Most of the early development of this capability has come from government efforts but an industry partner would be needed to mass manufacture the emitter as well as maintain the emitters over time.”
As the US Army’s march towards Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) continues secure communications will be paramount. Ensuring the intra- and inter-force connectivity of all deployed assets and personnel demands a breadth and depth of networking never seen before. These networks will be imperative for the flow of information around the battlefield to improve the army’s quality and pace of decision-making. Yet MDO may deepen the network’s vulnerability as a centre-of-gravity. The realisation and deployment of the EWDE could help significantly improve army COMSEC/TRANSEC.
by Dr. Thomas Withington