During a 27-year military career I faced a number of technical challenges delivering effective communications to enable Command and Control (C2) and coordination. This ranged from tactical voice and data through to strategic reach back links from remote operational theatres in the artic, temperate, jungle and desert. In the 80s and early 90s, technology was far less advanced than today and resourcing a comprehensive PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency) plan was almost unachievable. Contingency communications were restricted to a public telephone box (which don’t exist in the arctic, jungle or desert) and there was a complete lack of emergency communications. This meant the risks taken were significantly higher than in today’s world. As for Blue Force Tracking – this was something that only happened in science fiction films.
In my previous blog Why PACE Implementations Fail to Deliver Assured Battlefield Communications, I described how some implementations of PACE lead to an overall communications failure. In this second blog, I’m going to share my own 1st hand experience that illustrates how critical it is to have assured battlefield communications, the impacts of not having them and introduce a solution that can help improve PACE implementations for the future.
Before Digitisation, Communications were more reliable
In the 80s and 90s and long before, dependence was placed on the skill set of radio operators and technicians to work and maintain the radio equipment. The systems used were less complicated. They were less focused on data and were analogue. In my eyes this increased the probability of setting up successful links and when voice and data didn’t work on VHF or HF you could switch to Morse Code (a skill set in its own right). This method was used to engineer links and pass information when the quality of those links were extremely poor. Today the systems are either working or not working due to their digital nature. Analogue Primary and Alternate systems were seemingly more resilient, therefore there was less reliance on Contingency and Emergency options.; Also mobile phones didn’t exist so there was never an easy fall-back option. This meant heavy reliance on the information passed during a verbal orders process, astute interpretation by the operator/soldiers where success was achieved through following the plan and adapting effectively by utilising knowledge and experience. There was no option to dial a friend!
Sometimes it is difficult to articulate to those that have not deployed on military operations how chaotic it can be in the first few weeks. Much of this is down to tuning in to the environment, learning what works and what doesn’t, where is safe and where isn’t. How does the opposing force or allied forces operate and what is normal practice for the local community (which is often culturally different). On top of this is understanding what needs to be achieved and the planning associated with accomplishing those goals. To gain essential intelligence (ground truth) and information, liaise with local authorities and other forces (including own, partnering countries and any of the friendly factions involved) and orientate key troops require communications links to be in place. This provides command and control, coordination and safety. But most Primary (VHF/UHF) communications systems will only provide limited coverage, in some cases just a few miles down the road. This drives a need to install some kind of infrastructure to enable range extension. An alternative system could be HF but again this will have limited reach when operating in built up areas. Herein lies the conundrum. If you require communications to support deploying troops to establish the lay of the land and de-risk future operational tasks in the theatre you first need to deploy some sort of communications infrastructure. This scenario is based upon an environment where mobile phone networks are not functioning or use of them can creates its own inherent security risk. In this case the troops deploying to implement an infrastructure do so at high risk and do not have supporting communications during the process until a network is established i.e. if something goes wrong, something as a simple as a road accident, there is no means of letting anybody know.
My Experience Setting up Primary Communications in 1990s Bosnia
Please, pull up a sandbag - I would like to share a personal example. I deployed to Bosnia in the early 90s. Based in Sarajevo, there was a need for area wide VHF coverage to support the varying types of operations. To achieve this, it was estimated that 3 rebroadcast sites would need to be established.; Generally the higher up the rebroadcast station is, the better coverage it will provide. These types of installations also require electrical power and physical security. Sarajevo is surrounded by mountains and many of these had friendly forces holding positions on top of them. These forces would provide the necessary security and options for power. Next focus was to predict which of the available sites would provide the coverage required. However, setting off and arriving at a military post (especially if it is a site held by a different nation) requires permissions. This can take days.
Once the approvals were in place, our team set off to install the range extension equipment. We were on our own - out of communications range of the HQ within minutes. To get to the first site required a 4 hour drive. After navigating a road filled with car size craters called ‘Sniper Alley’, where factions would take pot-shots at military and civilian vehicles alike, we approached the outer cordon checkpoint for the city; Once through we were confronted by checkpoint after checkpoint (sometimes just a few hundred metres apart) as the roads passed through different faction’s territories. Each checkpoint was manned by armed faction personnel and they were not happy with our presence there. In an often chaotic manner, the guards would conduct checks inside vehicles and confiscate anything they felt like. Once our papers were checked they pulled their anti-tank mines back from the road and we were allowed to pass.
After the first 2 hours and about 20 checkpoints, we arrived at the bottom of the selected mountain; a very high mountain previously used for an Olympic downhill skiing event. We checked in and started the journey. The check in process was the only safeguarding available. If we hadn’t reached the summit site within 2 hours, a decision would be made whether to send out a search party. To put this in perspective there is a ‘golden hour’ rule that is applied to the first hour after a serious injury has occurred. If something happened to us on the route up to the top, it could be 3 hours before anybody found us!
We quickly found out that the road to the top was like a dry river bed, big boulders loose gravel and cliff edge drop offs. What could possibly go wrong? Luckily we reached the top unscathed, although feeling a few years older. We met with the local troops holding the site, installed the equipment and checked the communications link back to the HQ.
Before departing I discussed the location and mountain route with the detachment commander. He mentioned they regularly came under sniper fire and also that he had just returned from sick leave having been involved in an incident where his vehicle came off the road and had rolled into a mine field. 2 personnel were injured (one quite badly). They had no way to raise the alarm; It was hours before anybody came to recover them. Luckily both of them survived. This incident alone highlighted the fragility of the communications plan.
Terrain and Reliability Combine to Reduce Primary Resilience
Bosnia is a beautiful country with very high mountains and very deep valleys. Proud that we had achieved a link back to the HQ, some 60 miles away we set off for the next location. Once we got onto a main road we checked communications again and all was working. When we passed into the next valley all communications ceased. This was the same from valley to valley until we reached Sarajevo where the coverage was a bit better. We then headed for the next site which had a similar story. 2 days later there was a technical fault with the equipment at the first site and we had to make the return journey. The level of risk taken on every journey to these sites, which was at least 2 to 3 times a week, was high for a number of reasons. A reliable alternate system would have made any of the trips totally unnecessary!
Back then, if we had Bracer™, QinetiQ’s recently released end to end encrypted satellite push to talk radio, which provides one-to-many voice and very low latency position reporting (500ms), our operations would have been significantly de-risked. The system provides highly reliable communications from anywhere in the world, doesn’t need repeater stations and would have enabled an assured PACE communications plan. It would have been an ideal contingency system with a built in emergency beacon function. More about this later!
This example highlights some of the difficulties experienced with setting up infrastructure in a war-torn country. It is not an isolated event and in many cases ends up with fatalities that could have been avoided. Although my experiences and challenges in subsequent operational theatres differed, they all were hounded with the same lack of assurance and minimal solutions to fall back on once the Primary and Alternate systems failed.
Today’s Communications Systems were Designed for Different Scenarios
Most of today’s Combat Net Radio systems were designed to support a formation (like a brigade or division) moving in battle. They are not designed to support every type of operational scenario and certainly not the large percentage of operations that forces are deployed on today. The threat to security has changed significantly over the last 15 years but very little has changed with tactical communications. Although there is a need for this type of system to support general war or large scale campaigns they are not the most common type of deployment. These tend to be smaller scale, where units are operating in remote areas without any communications infrastructure. So in essence, forces deploying on operations do so with suboptimal systems.
The point here is that although technology has boomed over the past 20 years little has changed in the military communications domain. Yes, the systems are more complex, are digitised, have options for a high throughput of data and provide situational awareness. But are they versatile enough to deliver vital capability across the myriad of today’s operational scenarios? The introduction of tactical satellite systems, which increased in the 1990s and early 2000s, provides beyond line of sight reach and increases the probability of achieving successful communications. But channels are very limited and this is further compounded by organisations operating in smaller teams which increases the demand. Therefore this technology is not available to the majority of military units.
The biggest advance in communication technology was the introduction of mobile phones, but this technology has total reliance on fixed infrastructure to create the network. The likes of which is not available or cannot be relied upon in many places where military organisations operate. Yet, this is the same technology that is used to mask the issue with the lack of Contingency and Emergency solutions that are available. It is also a system that is heavily utilised during exercises and is one that has very questionable security associated with it.
Speaking from experience, when communications fail in a military environment lives can be put at risk. Unfortunately, many soldiers around the world have perished due to this fact. What is the solution?
A Game-Changing Technology Option to use within PACE
QinetiQ have introduced an end to end encrypted (FIPS 140-2 Level 3) satellite push to talk system called Bracer™. It’s a secure Iridium Push-to-Talk radio and position location reporting system. Bracer™ can address a large proportion of risks associated with fielding military communications. The system provides the following capabilities:
- It is powered by the Iridium constellation Push-to-Talk service and has global reach and will soon have a satellite phone functionality built into the same device.
- Its Low Size, Weight and Power (450g) make the system easy to carry.
- It is robust and designed for the rigours of the military domain. As a system it is reactive and scalable and can tolerate platform movement up to Mach 2.0.
- It’s also a cost effective solution that can be utilised throughout each part of the PACE methodology and also provide very low latency asset tracking/position location reporting and emergency alert.
From supporting early entry or liaison officers and engineering primary links to providing Command and Control to remote teams, this TRL 9 system has been described as ‘Game Changing’ by those that have adopted it. It enables reliable communications for the first ones out the door through to the last ones to return.
In the next instalment I will provide the detail behind the Bracer™ system and how it could be employed across all military domains (Air, Land and Maritime)………to be continued.