by Kris Osborn
Satcom and radio network can be “hardened” and made more resilient against the kinds of electronic warfare and cyberattacks likely to occur in a major-power, near-peer type mechanized war.
The Army’s mobile Satcom and high-bandwidth communications network, Warfighter Information Network Inc. 2, has been fielded to at least 16 Brigade Combat Teams and has performed well in combat during ongoing ground wars.
Unlike WIN-T Inc. 1 which transmits combat relevant information between “fixed” command centers, the Inc. 2 network utilizes vehicle-mounted “High-bandwidth Networking Radio” and satellite-dish connectivity to enable mission-command on-the-move; with WIN-T Inc. 2, commanders moving through warfare in combat vehicles can view and share moving digital maps, battle-relevant intelligence information and fast-changing force-location information.
The technology is engineered to empower soldiers and commanders in battle to make faster, more-informed combat-relevant decisions by virtue of having an ability to transmit and receive voice, video and data across the force in real-time – while on the move. Army developers of WIN-T emphasize that the system provides a crucial backbone of next-generation “networking” enabling faster and more informed combat maneuvers – therefore providing a decisive edge over an adversary.
For instance, commanders using WIN-T Inc. 2 can view updated moving digital maps showing terrain along with friendly and enemy force positions while moving. Users can pull up timely information from an intelligence system called TIGR – Tactical Ground Reporting System – which provides updated intelligence such as maps showing insurgent or roadside bomb locations and incident reports from certain high-risk locations. TIGR and other Battle Command functions such as artillery fires, airspace de-confliction or a combat mapping technology called Command Post of the Future are designed to operate seamlessly between commanders and convoys in transit and large display screens viewed by leaders at fixed or static command posts.
WIN-T Inc. 2 is also described as a “self-healing” network able to transition from radio to Satcom nodes as needed, depending upon line-of-sight, RF connectivity, terrain or bandwidth dynamics. Inc. 2 is especially relevant because it is designed to extend the reach of the network from Brigade to Battalion and even Company level to further ensure cross-force connectivity.
However, despite WIN-T Inc. 2’s success in counterinsurgency-type combat against enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan – most of whom lack the advanced technology needed to challenge, disrupt or interfere with WIN-T operations – critics of the network are raising questions as to its ability to perform necessary combat functions amid jamming, electromagnetic interference and cyberattacks from a technologically advanced enemy. In essence, will WIN-T Inc. 2’s GPS Satcom links and high-bandwidth radio withstand attacks in a more “contested” environment? Will the advantage of the technology be outpaced or rendered obsolete by new weapons and threats?
Concerns along these lines have reverberated from a variety of sources, such as from a recent Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E, report and prominent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The principle concern is about whether the technology can evolve such that it can sustain combat relevance and resiliency sufficient to ensure it operational functionality in coming decades? -- despite the large amounts of money and developmental effort expended in pursuit of WIN-T.
These potential vulnerabilities are well understood by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who has directed a vigorous analytical review of the Army’s combat networks, including WIN-T Inc. 2. It seems apparent that a review of this kind will closely assess the extent to which a system such as WIN-T Inc. 2 can be modified, upgraded or enhanced such that it can perform as needed in the most high-threat, or contested, environments.
For instance, much is known about the Anti-Satellite weapons now in development by potential near-peer adversaries, and the fast pace of technological change makes GPS connectivity and assured or protected communications networks more challenged and vulnerable. All of the US military services are sharply focused upon harnessing emerging technologies able to enable “precision, navigation and timing” in a GPS-denied environment where Satcom is attacked and rendered inoperable. Also, in a commensurate effort, the Pentagon is also taking great measures to harden or increase information assurance for GPS connections themselves. Accordingly, it is conceivable that Satcom connections will quickly become more resilient to hacking and electronic attacks.
Nonetheless, when assessing this phenomenon with a mind to WIN-T, it raises the question as to what would happen in a combat scenario if GPS were destroyed and the WIN-T network was left to function purely through a terrestrial, ad-hoc network of software-programmable radios.
This question has found a permanent resting place in the minds of WIN-T Inc. 2 developers at General Dynamics Mission Systems who are quick to acknowledge the perils of a fast-changing, modern threat landscape.
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Engineers and WIN-T developers at GD are currently working on a range of “hardening” strategies, tactics and technological adjustments to address changing threats, Bill Weiss, Vice President and General Manager, Ground Systems, General Dynamics Mission Systems, told Scout Warrior.
Ad-hoc terrestrial networks of software programmable radio bring previously unprecedented advantages to the battlefield; forces can use high-bandwidth waveforms to send IP packets of data, voice and video across the force in real time – without needing a fixed infrastructure of any kind. This, quite naturally, allows for substantial mobility and connectivity in austere or challenged environments where other kinds of hard-wired networks or GPS systems would not be available. Each radio in these systems functions not only as a device to transmit information, but also as a “router” or “node” on the network extending cross-force connectivity.
“A directional antenna system will listen in every direction and send a beacon out to find its neighbors and establish a link,” Weiss said.
However, many militaries around the world were quick to take notice of the electronic warfare tactics employed by the Russian military during its attacks in Ukraine. This showed, among other things, that emerging technology now makes it easier to locate, and target, various kinds of electromagnetic signals emanating from things like radios. As a result, a software-programmable network of radios might have a difficult time reducing its signature, and therefore its vulnerability, in this kind of modern high-threat environment. The advantage of emitting a wireless signal can also then become a liability.
General Dynamics engineers say they are developing several key techniques to address these vulnerabilities. One of them, quite simply, is that signals from WIN-T Inc. 2 can be reduced by constant movement. A moving emanating signal is, of course, much more difficult to locate, Weiss explained.
Also, WIN-T developers are making progress with an emerging strategy described as “keep-out-zones,” a method of deliberately emanating electromagnetic signals in the direction of friendly forces and, by design, away from an enemy.
“Some radios broadcast in an omni-directional fashion. The antenna in WIN-T is sophisticated. It has the option to stream a beam and only radiate in a certain direction,” Paul Bristow, Chief Network Architecture for General Dynamics Mission Systems, told Scout Warrior.
“Silent Watch” and “receive mode” are other threat-reducing techniques wherein a radio can temporarily shut off or reduce its signal to avoid detection.
Still another dynamic in this equation is that, while radios emitting signals for communications can be targeted, electronic weapons launching attacks themselves emit a signal – thus possibly giving away their position and becoming vulnerable to a counterattack.
WIN-T developers also say technical progress is being made with efforts to refine and operationalize emerging “precision, navigation and timing” technologies able to facilitate relevant connectivity in the event that GPS is compromised.
Ultimately, much of the debate hinges upon a key question – should WIN-T be replaced? Cancelled? Or continuously improved? General Dynamics developers emphasize that WIN-T is constructed with what could be called a new baseline in US military acquisition – “open architecture.” This means that, by using common IP protocol and identified, interoperable standards for hardware and software, emerging technologies can much more successfully be integrated with existing systems. Based upon this premise, new software designed to address new threats, fixes, patches or even new hardware can be implemented in a seamless fashion. This technical apparatus, General Dynamics developers say, positions the WIN-T network such that it can continue to quickly evolve and sustain its functionality despite the continued emergence of new, high-tech, advanced threats.
This kind of approach, GD developers say, has already enabled designers to massively reduce the hardware footprint of the mobile WIN-T Inc. 2 system; it is now smaller and lighter to the point where a WIN-T equipped Humvee can sling load beneath a CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter.