July 24, 2017
The US Army may be taking a knee in its pursuit of modernizing its battlefield radio communications. After fifteen years of pursuing its Warfighter Information Network Tactical (WIN-T) program, the service seems to be reconsidering the specifics of its path towards robust, on-the-move networking. Recent observations of Russian battlefield successes with electronic warfare have been disquieting, leading the Army and the Congress to question whether what’s being bought really is what’s necessary for success, or even survival. Whatever the art of the possible, tactical communications are an end-to-end problem that must be addressed as such. Some mix of innovation in electronics and operating concepts will be necessary, but US forces ought to be confident that they are better positioned to adapt than their adversaries. In short, no one should panic in the short run that the game is already lost.

For over a decade, our colleagues at the Lexington Institute, notably Loren Thompson and Dan Gouré, have been writing about their enthusiasm for WIN-T. Contractor General Dynamics Missions Systems describes the system as “the backbone of the US Army's tactical network.” It has also been gestating for over a decade, as an outgrowth of the stillborn Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program. In December 2005, WIN-T was all about “winning the race to net-centricity.” If that was too Rumsfeldian, in April 2006 Lexington was just arguing that secure communications should be one of the “modernization priorities for the Army and Air Force.” A more practical endorsement in October 2009 recounted an after-action report out of the 3rd Infantry Division after the fall of Baghdad, calling the previous network “an antiquated system that must be replaced as quickly as possible.” The procurement objective, that essay continued, should be “on-the-move, long range, secure voice and data communications systems.” 

That all sounded most upbeat, but in May 2012, an effort to reduce funding was assailed as “compromising tactical connectivity.” The next month, measures for economy loomed as “another acquisition debacle.” The pushback came after the Army started questioning just how wonderful its wunderfunken really were. A further essay from Lexington in August 2013 extolled some of the Army’s successes with the most recent version at the time, Capabilities Set 13. Then, in November 2015, we read that if the Congress slowed the pace of procurement, “the consequences could be fatal.” The most illuminating comment, however, came in the opening to an essay for The National Interest in August 2016:

    If you think that the key to U.S. Army modernization is combat vehicles, long-range fires or new aviation assets you would be in good company. That’s what most people believe. You would also be wrong. The most important element of Army modernization is command, control and communications. The remarkable pace, agility and accuracy of operations by Army units over the past decade, alone and as part of a joint force, is the result of their ability to acquire, exchange, fuse and exploit information between echelons, units and even vehicles and aerial platforms.

To their credit, Thompson and Gouré have been talking about the importance of battlefield electronic warfare for over ten years. During much of that time, the Army hasn’t been quite as interested, arguably because it had more immediate problems. Ba’athists, Al-Qaedists and Taliban were quite good with landmines, but only sporadically threatening in the electronic spectrum. Exploiting that medium was almost purely an allied advantage. However, in the long run, as Lexington was reminding us, the prospects for actual electronic combat couldn’t be ignored.

Way back during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Syrians had fun playing havoc with the Israelis’ radio communications, and with simple barrage jamming. That brute force technique puts out large quantities of electromagnetic power across a wide spectrum of frequencies in order to obliterate everyone’s ability to communicate over the airwaves. The Israelis survived, of course, but it wasn’t pretty. After watching that debacle, and also in response to similar problems encountered during the Vietnam War, electronics firms developed frequency-hopping radios like the Have Quick and the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS). Such radios automatically and rapidly change frequencies in a seemingly random fashion, but actually according to a secret, pseudo-random sequence known to both transmitter and receiver. In theory, the jammers have a hard time keeping up.

Hopping around interference can be enough to get the signal through, but sometimes getting any signal through is actually too much. Frequency-hopping can be observed as well, if the opposing kit is sufficiently sophisticated. In 2014, Russian signals intelligence drones and Russian artillery worked quickly and efficiently to target Ukrainian troops by triangulating on their radio emissions. This was not a new technique, to be sure, but the speed and lethality were surprising. As Thompson wrote just last month, Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley “has stated repeatedly that fixed command posts are not likely to survive for long in the fast-moving conflicts of the future.” Under modern conditions, where targets are quickly fixed, moving fast is important just for survival.

What can be done? I asked then-Army Secretary John McHugh about this issue during an event at the American Enterprise Institute in August 2015. He absolutely acknowledged the question, and after a longish but vague answer, noted conclusively that “TRADOC is working on it.” Some of the answer may indeed be a matter of training and of operational doctrine. At sea, warships control their radio emissions so that enemies can’t fire cruise missiles down the bearings along which signals would leak. When ships do communicate, they try to connect on tight beams to satellites, or by the old-school approaches of signal flags and flashing lights. None of these techniques, however, are quite so feasible overland, where lines of sight aren’t so clear. Until recently, establishing satellite communications has typically required time sitting in one place. Thus did Thompson argue in June 2017, that without the latest version of WIN-T, which provides that connectivity on the move, “Army commanders will be easy targets in [the] next war.”

In general, the Pentagon has been getting serious again about electronic warfare, and in particular the Army has been coming along too. General Milley and Acting Secretary Robert Speer told reporters after Congressional testimony last month that the Army is thoroughly reviewing all its battlefield communications systems, to investigate “a whole series of vulnerabilities.” Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense, who also has been diligently following this issue, caught the general’s comment in May that the review would be finished by about now. Just the other day, he reported how that review may now be lengthening, as the Army and the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) conduct a series of roundtable discussions with industrialists on the entirety of the service’s communications networks.

Whenever we’ll hear about what the Army wants next, resilience against attack up and down the chain will likely be part of the plan. Fortunately, as Gouré wrote in that essay back in 2013, WIN-T Increment 2 extends down to individual companies networks that are “mobile, ad hoc, self-forming, and self-healing.” Destroy a node in the network, and traffic routes around it, automatically. Ominously, as his colleague Thompson noted just last month, Army units in Europe don’t have that yet. New cannons for that Stryker regiment are being urgently procured; new radios, not so much.

But even if they did have it, would Increment 2 be enough? Moving is one thing, but unless commanders will be burst-transmitting and constantly driving cross-country at high speed, their radios must offer not just a low probability of interception, but a low probability of even detection. As the Ukrainians learned against the Russians, emitting in any pattern that says headquarters will attract lots of cannon and rocket fire. Talking to the Congress about WIN-T in May, the American chief of staff was blunt: “frankly, my concern is these systems may or may not work in the conditions of combat that I envision in the future with this change of character of warfare.” At that hearing, Senator Tom Cotton of Oklahoma more pointedly expressed his lack of enthusiasm:

    I have seen credible reports that WIN-T has ineffective line-of-sight communications. It is too fragile to survive in a contested environment and has an electromagnetic signature so loud that it practically would call for enemy artillery on the top of its user’s heads.

In short, whatever the outcome of the Army’s reviews and discussions, there may remain wide divergence of opinion around Washington about what will and won’t work. Constant movement on “what most people believe” may be holding up the eventual way forward. In their competing spending bills, the Senate Armed Services Committee wants no further funding for WIN-T, but the House Armed Services Committee wants to accelerate the program. Of late, Lexington has been asserting that WIN-T is actually doing fine, and that “problems are concentrated mainly in the handheld and man-pack radios that comprise the Army’s lower tactical internet used by small units and individual soldiers.” Thompson alluded to a presumably classified study by IDA on vulnerabilities in the Army’s communication systems, which he asserted has been misread to include stronger criticism of WIN-T than is warranted. Otherwise, he provided no specific evidence, but that's perhaps not shocking. As I have learned through conversations around the military and industry—and with no surprise—the actual performance of communications systems is, and arguably should be, a closely-guarded topic.

What we do know is that whatever problems might exist at lower echelons, they remain important. For even if Increment 2 really is wonderful for connecting the colonels and the majors to the captains, what gets communications from the captains down to the lieutenants and the sergeants? That’s what handheld and vehicular radios are for. Platoons also make good targets for howitzer and mortar barrages, and with signals intelligence capacities down in their battalion groups, the Russians may have the capability to target American troops whenever their transmit.

This is in part because most of the radios in Army and Marine Corps ground units below the brigade or regimental level today are those old SINCGARS. To be sure, they remain capable, but their capabilities are not enabled primarily in their software, as is the case with modern wireless phones, in ways that would be flexible and rapidly reprogrammable. Software-enabled radios have been in the Pentagon’s sights since the technology was developed in the early 1990s. By 1997, the Army and the Corps were aiming to replace a menagerie of older, hardware-defined radios with the software-defined sets of that quite expansive JTRS program. Over the next fifteen years, that effort repeated foundered on technical overreach. By 2012, David Axe of the Center for Public Integrity could write that “JTRS is dead—at least in its original guise.” The problem, as David Tate and Lawrence Goeller of IDA retrospectively explained in 2014, was that general purpose processors “simply could not provide the computational performance required to implement waveforms within the practical operating constraints of a military radio.” The all-purpose, fully software-defined, field-mobile, battle-hardened radio still doesn’t exist.

In place of that unobtainium, a few years ago the American military started buying still highly adaptable, field-mobile sets like Harris’s AN/PRC-117G Falcon III, which Signal magazine once called “The Little Radio That Could,” and General Dynamics’ AN/PRC-155, a two-channel radio that seamlessly connects platoons to higher headquarters through the Navy’s MUOS narrowband satellites. After several years of spot purchases, in April 2015 the Army awarded Thales and Harris five-year contracts, with varying annual quantities, to supply handheld sets in its AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio program. For as Thompson noted for Forbes in June, “obviously, the whole network needs to mesh in wartime.” To reiterate Gouré’s line, the most important element of Army modernization may indeed be communications—and that extends down to anyone who needs to transmit.

Perhaps my favorite line in all of Lexington’s emissions is in the title of an article in Forbes from March: that the “Army needs one hour of federal spending per year to fix [its] vulnerable links—and can’t find it.” There are lots of priorities. Fitting them all into budgets is impossible. As we learn in business or policy school, that’s why they’re called budgets. The Army and the Marine Corps still need a holistic solution to the problem, and one which meshes with all their other needs. Somehow, the Russian Army is managing to get what it needs on a lot less money. One could be excused for wondering just what is wrong. For all the same, no one is lining up to buy Russian cell phones.

That is, one might also think that American industry, with long experience in both military and commercial electronics, can at least deliver kit at least as good as anyone else’s. As the failures of the JTRS program should remind us, however, what’s physically possible often constrains what’s operationally possible. That gets back to the question of doctrine and training. The US Army is at last rebuilding its own electronic warfare capabilities, and is relearning how to mess with others’ battlefield communications. That may allow its own units to pause periodically, build some small supply dumps, and plant a headquarters flag now and again. From here on, some combination of WIN-T, commercially-developed handsets, Auftragstaktik, and whatever the chief wants in the next iteration will be melded together into a comprehensive communications approach. We may never be satisfied that the whole system works flawlessly, but in real war, that will need to be acceptable. 

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

This article has been updated with input by Loren Thompson, who notes that the unclassified IDA study in May 2017 on the lower tiers of the network was entitled "The IDA report, entitled "A Comprehensive Assessment of the Army's Air-Land Mobile Tactical Communications Network".

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