Army seeks fixes to vulnerable satellite communications

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Army officials went to Capitol Hill this week seeking lawmakers’ approval to stop buying satellite communications systems that are susceptible to jamming and shift funds to more modern alternatives.

The system Army troops currently use — known as the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T — would not be up to the task in a future war against a technologically savvy force, Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford told the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee.

The newest WIN-T version that was designed as a mobile command post is especially problematic, Crawford told lawmakers. “The feedback we got was that there were significant challenges with the security of the satellite capabilities.”

U.S. Army specialists at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, working with WIN-T Increment 1 equipment earlier this year. Credit: U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. Roy Olon
U.S. Army specialists at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, working with WIN-T Increment 1 equipment earlier this year. Credit: U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. Roy Olon

Crawford asked the subcommittee to bless a new Army plan to shift $545 million from WIN-T and other programs to fund alternative technologies.

“One issue is our overreliance on satellites,” he said. The Army wants to start testing commercial modems that would help protect signals from hostile jamming. And it wants to try out commercial encryption software that enhances network security without reducing bandwidth.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) chastised Army leaders for having failed to identify these problems sooner and for suddenly seeking to reverse course on a program that already has cost $6 billion.

“Some things caught us off guard,” Crawford said.

A year-long review of the entire Army’s battlefield network led to the decision to halt WIN-T procurement. Congress also ordered a separate study by the Institute for Defense Analyses. They both came to similar conclusions: WIN-T is too bulky and complex to set up and operate, and not resilient enough for combat.

The wakeup call came when Russia invaded Crimea and displayed its electronic warfare skills. “In 2014, Russian signals intelligence drones and Russian artillery worked quickly and efficiently to target Ukrainian troops by triangulating their radio emissions,” wrote defense analyst James Hasik. “And as the Ukrainians learned, emitting in any pattern that says headquarters will attract lots of cannon and rocket fire.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley informed lawmakers in May that he was rethinking spending priorities. It its fiscal year 2018 budget, the Army requested nearly $400 million for tactical radios and $487 million for WIN-T. It now wants to redirect $544 million to research and development of new technologies.

The mobile satcom version of WIN-T, known as “increment 2” was approved for production in 2015. It has been fielded to Army light infantry and Stryker brigades. Crawford said prime contractor General Dynamics Corp. will continue to deliver units until 2021 but the Army would like to have a new system in the works by the mid 2020s.

To become less satellite-dependent, a future system would need a different infrastructure that integrates different forms of communications and does not require the Army to bring heavy satellite dishes and cellular towers to a war zone. “The infrastructure needs to be at the enterprise level, not with the operator,” said Crawford. “We need to create a universal transport layer so the operator is not concerned about where the service comes from.”

To fix the jamming vulnerability, the Army would invest in commercial modems, although that would only be a temporary fix, said Crawford. In the long term, the Army will need help from the Air Force, which is responsible for all military space systems. “We need protected communications,” he said. “We need to work with the Air Force on that.”

In recent discussions with the private sector it became glaringly obvious that the Army is buying outdated technology that is not applicable to tomorrow’s challenges, said Gary Martin, Army program executive officer for command, control and communications tactical.

“Security is a big issue,” he said. “We’ve treated security as one size fits all.” The Army is spending millions of dollars on radios developed in the early 2000s, Martin said. “The industry has moved on.”

Whether Congress will go along with the Army’s request is unclear. WIN-T is manufactured in Massachusetts and many jobs are on the line. “I’m not sure I will support changes,” said Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat. She questioned why the Army was “canceling a major program that it had advocated for many years.”