Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Overreliance On SatCom

Overreliance on SatCom should be considered a
critical vulnerability. (Photo by MSgt Peter Walz)
We could be fighting completely blind

Over the past decade the Marine Corps has experienced a transformation in the way it enables command and control (C2) with tactical communications systems. More specifically, we have dramatically increased our use of beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) satellite communications (SatCom) for MAGTF operations. Thus our reliance on spacebased assets for providing the necessary communications links has grown exponentially as a result of distributed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the most part this has been a positive step for the Marine Corps and will continue to develop as time moves on.

These expanded communications capabilities provide the necessary links to those who most need critical information across a widespread battlefield. In fact, the ability to conduct advanced operational concepts, such as enhanced company operations,1 centered in distributed battlespace, hinges on these  types of communications. However, the advances we have enjoyed do pose a significant risk—a risk our adversaries are undoubtedly looking to exploit. Overreliance on SatCom can pose a significant threat to the Marine Corps, both operationally and tactically, if a broader and diverse communications perspective is not maintained.

For some, the overreliance on SatCom is akin to the housing bubble prior to 2008. Many investors assumed that home prices would always rise, and the risk of total financial collapse was improbable at best. Even after home prices began to crumble, many real estate investors simply put blinders on in hope that things would swing back quickly. So far they haven’t. The risk of such a bubble was considered very small just a few years ago, and only a few lone voices predicted such catastrophic events. This scenario illustrates a similar view some have regarding our overreliance on SatCom. Simply, if an adversary targets our satellite infrastructure or decides to corrupt the space environment, our degraded ability to access the space layer poses a significant and real threat to how Marine forces can project power from the sea or over the horizon.
Recent press reports show that some of the world’s most dangerous regimes are pursuing advanced weaponry and advanced missile technologies. Likely and potential adversaries could target the space layer, which would be a way of “evening the playing field” in terms of disrupting MAGTF C2. Essentially the loss or degradation of the space layer means possibly fighting with sand in our eyes or, worse, completely blind. Additionally, any attack on the space environment would be crippling financially to the United States, considering the enormous investment and resources used to build and maintain this infrastructure. Not only does space support military operations, but it also supports the entire worldwide economy. Adversaries may choose to adopt a scorched Earth approach against the United States where they accept short-term loss in the hope of a longer term strategic win.

Why the Reliance on SatCom?

From a communications planner’s standpoint, SatCom is used for two main reasons. First, it is usually the only way to communicate BLOS in many situations. Second, it may be the best way to communicate. It is often both. In most cases terrain is the biggest factor. Without SatCom, trying to communicate over rugged or masked terrain is very challenging. Without SatCom, we are required to strategically position multiple LOS retransmission sites, which is extremely intensive in terms of manpower, equipment, logistics, and security. This is most challenging in a contested battlespace with limited friendly forces and often with logistical limitations at play. Recent improvements in SatCom have dramatically changed things for the better. More specifically, advances in satellite modem technology permit greater throughput and more efficiency of existing bandwidth. This has increased network availability and pushed network access to the lowest echelons of the Marine Corps. SatCom has provided wideband data capability and become the new normal for most units rotating in and out of Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

Due to a variety of technical and security reasons, satellites are located in different orbits above the Earth. (See Figure 1.)

Low Earth orbit, medium Earth orbit, and geosynchronous Earth orbit all support various Department of Defense (DoD) network services provided by ground terminal user equipment. Depending on the reason for communications and type of communications links required, the Marine Corps relies on satellite systems that utilize spacecraft in all three orbits. Use of these different space layers offers speed, reliability, and flexibility, all key characteristics of MAGTF communications.

Figure 1. General spacecraft orbits.
In recent years the Marine Corps has rightly expanded SatCom down to the battalion level (operationally, sometimes to the company and platoon levels) and is currently in the process of fielding several more systems to the Operating Forces. It is safe to say that almost every major echelon in the Marine Corps today, and in fact, most of our national security apparatus, is dependent on satellite services for critical time-sensitive information. Figure 2 depicts other essential information/services that rely solely on SatCom.

Figure 2. Critical services provided by the U.S. space infrastructure.
Additionally, due to our current engagements abroad, DoD as a whole has had to embrace commercial satellite services for increased capacity and as an acknowledged way to meet current operational requirements of U.S. forces. Commercial satellite services are not without substantial cost either. In almost all cases, most of the funding for commercial SatCom has been provided by congressional wartime supplemental dollars, which should give pause to many since this is temporary funding and not fixed in Service baseline budgets.

The MAGTF and SatCom

SatCom requires three main elements to work—the space segment (satellites), the ground segment (terminals), and the control segment (teleport/gateways). Military use of SatCom is described generally in two ways, military SatCom (MilSatCom) and commercial SatCom (ComSatCom). The Marine Corps currently leverages both in order to exercise MAGTF C2. MilSatCom is generally broken down into three main areas—protected, wideband, and narrowband. ComSatCom is broken down into fixed and mobile satellite services. Each is very similar but does have some distinct differences.

MilSatCom is classified in three ways:

• Protected. Antijam, cross-linked, and hardened spacecraft. Government owned and operated. Operates in extra high-frequency bands (40 to 60 gigahertz (GHz)).
• Wideband. Government owned and operated satellites. Used for access into the DoD networks. Generally operates in X (7 to 9 GHz) and Ka bands (20 to 30 GHz).
• Narrowband. 25 kilohertz channels or less. Also known as “TacSat.” Primarily used for voice communications and limited data applications. Government own and operated in the ultrahigh-frequency band (270 to 400 megahertz).

ComSatCom is usually classified as:

• Fixed satellite services. Used for commercial Internet access from commercial gateways. Operates generally in the Ku band (12 to 15 GHz). Private sector operates for profit. DoD must compete with commercial markets (for example, Direct TV or Dish Network) for satellite capacity. Must pay for satellite bandwidth.
• Mobile satellite services. Primarily used for voice communications and medium data rate capabilities. Good examples are Iridium, IMARSAT/BGAN,2 or Global Star handsets. Operates in commercial L band (1.5 to 1.6 GHz). Must pay for airtime service much like common cellular phone plans.
Although recent advances in technology have blurred the major differences in MilSatCom and ComSatCom, the Marine Corps extensively uses both in order to effectively execute MAGTF C2. Almost all of its current tactical SatCom systems are capable of leveraging both MilSatCom and ComSatCom, which offers great flexibility. What is most disconcerting is that 80 percent of DoD use of SatCom is provided by the commercial sector,3 which means entities outside of the U.S. Government own and operate most of the satellite infrastructure for the DoD. Some have argued that such an arrangement puts the DoD in a dangerous position—reliance on the private sector, whose incentive to provide service is mainly driven by profit and could during times of national security be at odds with other national priorities.

Potential Vulnerability

Confronting the U.S. military head on would be daunting for any serious adversary. A formidable enemy conducting its mission analysis against the United States may examine our use and heavy reliance on SatCom. We must remember that savvy opponents willing to attack the United States don’t need to be conventional in nature but rather obscure. A decisive and crippling blow to the space environment could have dramatic and long-lasting effects on our ability to conduct MAGTF C2. A radioactive or electromagnetic projectile launched into the atmosphere or, even worse, into low Earth orbit would have immediate negative impacts on MAGTF SatCom ground terminal systems. The resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP)4 would possibly render all systems in a given area of responsibility inoperable. This is due to an ionized atmosphere resulting from a massive influx of charged electrons. These charged electrons would cause catastrophic spikes in electricity. Sensitive electronic equipment not hardened for such extreme conditions would be damaged, making most, if not all, data processing equipment (laptops, servers, routers, etc.) and ground terminals useless. Another offshoot could be loss of global positioning system (GPS) reception. This action alone would affect most network timing sources and create drift in data framing protocols and loss of synchronization between network nodes. Tactical terminals like blue force tracker would be useless in providing blue force situational awareness. Even high-density organic tactical radio assets, which rely on waveforms with timed frequency diversity, would be affected since frequency hop sets are synchronized to GPS clocks.
As a result, the MAGTF’s access to DoD networks could be cut off. The distributed nature of today’s operations would be thrown back to the more centralized operating environments of the 1980s and 1990s, limited to the operating distances of organic LOS systems. Access to key network services would be severed and C2 degraded substantially. A skilled adversary, practiced in less sophisticated yet still effective communications, could then exploit this gap by executing simultaneous combat operations and move with greater autonomy throughout the battlespace. If one thinks in terms of surfaces and gaps (Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting), attacking the space environment would definitely be the latter.

Planning Considerations

Until more hardened systems are pursued and developed, the question remains, what can commanders do to mitigate such a possibility? First, discuss this scenario with your G–2 (intelligence)/G–6 (communications) to determine possible mitigation techniques. Listed below are some suggested discussion points that may help.
Focus first on terrestrial communications. If a link can be established with terrestrial wideband LOS equipment, make this the preferred method of employment for critical communications links. It offers many advantages, such as increased bandwidth and low latency for data applications, and it is often immune from the loss of the space layer. However, this does mean more emphasis on manpower and equipment in order to increase density of network nodes and closer distances in order to maintain LOS between nodes.
If possible, stage data sources as far forward as possible in the battlespace. Servers that house critical information and are only accessible by satellite links pose a significant risk.
During the planning process, introduce the loss of satellite access into the rehearsal exercises. Possibly red team this scenario and force part of your staff to operate in a degraded/denied SatCom environment. Emphasize the use of hybrid networks that rely on redundant/alternate means of communications for critical links.
Ensure that all critical communications links have secondary and tertiary channels established. Use these links as a matter of practice and force your staffs to communicate over them even when better and more stable communications exist. Examples would be the use of high-frequency (HF) voice/data communications for BLOS distances. Use of HF, although not preferred by many, still is a viable means for MAGTF C2.
For certain units within the MAGTF, employ troposphere communications (e.g., TRC–170) everywhere primary SatCom exists. Troposcatter communications do not rely on satellites but rather use the atmosphere to bounce radios waves to each other. It is very tough to jam this type of communications since the signals are “scattered” and would require significant directed power to adversely affect its operation. This communications method can offer significant advantages in a space denied environment but is not without challenges due to the nature and physics of the technology itself.
If possible leverage or seek to utilize unmanned aircraft systems or aerostat devices with radio (airborne) relay capabilities. In some cases radio signals can be extended over 400 miles without relying on satellite systems. Simply hosting a small voice/data payload on these platforms can help relieve some of the dependency on SatCom links.
These are just some suggestions that offer some flexibility in the planning and execution of MAGTF communications architectures. Putting too many eggs in the proverbial SatCom basket is definitely a recipe for trouble.


Overreliance on SatCom could be considered a potential critical vulnerability in MAGTF communications. Potential adversaries could see this particular type of communications as an opportunity to exploit. A decisive strike rendered in the space environment from an EMP device could have significant negative impacts on the Marine Corps’ ability to execute MAGTF C2. Mitigation techniques offered in this article are only some of the possible ways to ensure that commanders continue to have the ability to C2 our forces in a denied/degraded space environment. All considerations should be weighed in terms of the risks presented. With the real possibility of proliferation of advanced weaponry, such devices in the hands of rogue nation states or, worse, nonstate actors, increases the risk of denial to the space layers. An enemy who seeks an effective means of evening the playing field may seek to disrupt MAGTF C2 by corrupting the space environment—even at their own expense.

1. Conway, Gen James T., Commandant of the Marine Corps, “A Concept for Enhanced Company Operations,” Marine Corps Gazette, August 2008, Internet access February 2010.
Enhanced company operations describes an approach to the operational art that maximizes the tactical flexibility offered by true decentralized mission accomplishment, consistent with commander’s intent and facilitated by improved command and control, intelligence, logistics, and fires capabilities. Enhanced company operations will be reliant on increased access to, and organic control of, functional support, as well as excellence at the individual, squad, and platoon levels.

2.Internet access February 2010 at http://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia_term/0,2542,t=BGAN&i=56310,00.asp. INMARSAT/BGAN is defined as:
. . . international maritime satellite system/broadband global area network. A mobile satellite network service that allows users around the world to connect to the Internet. Provides a secure VPN [virtual private network] for both packet-switched and circuit-switched services for simultaneous voice and data at approximately 500 kilobytes per second. Especially useful where telecom/cellular networks are poor or nonexistent, the remote user needs only a laptop and a small, portable BGAN [broadband global area network] terminal device to connect.

3. Kurtin, Owen D., “Government Use Shapes Future for Commercial Satellites,” Satellite Today, July 2009, Internet access February 2010 at http://www.satellitetoday.com/via/dollarsandsense/31309.html.
Reports indicate that Pentagon bandwidth and satellite network solutions needs have grown to the extent of relying on commercial satellite service for 80 percent of those needs and more than 90 percent in the war theaters.

4. Baker McNeill, Jena, and Richard Weitz, Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack: A Preventable Homeland Security Catastrophe, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, October 2008, Internet access February 2010 at http://www.heritage.org/research/homelandsecurity/bg2199.cfm.
Electromagnetic pulse: An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles. In an attack, these particles interact and send electrical systems into chaos in three ways: first, the electromagnetic shock disrupts electronics, such as sensors, communications systems, protective systems, computers, and other similar devices. The second component has a slightly smaller range and is similar in effect to lightning. Although protective measures have long been established for lightning strikes, the potential for damage to critical infrastructure from this component exists because it rapidly follows and compounds the first component. The final component is slower than the previous two, but has a longer duration. It is a pulse that flows through electricity transmission lines—damaging distribution centers and fusing power lines. The combination of the three components can easily cause irreversible damage to many electronic systems.

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