SOF require flexible, resilient and secure communications on land, in the air and at sea.
However, a rapidly evolving operating environment is demanding even more of Special Operations Forces (SOF) operators who can be tasked with conducting the full spectrum of operations, ranging from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions to the support-to-resistance missions associated with great power competition.
As a result, Special Operations Task Groups (SOTGs) operating on land, in the air or at sea are demanding flexible, resilient and secure communications solutions throughout operational theaters.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than along NATO’s eastern flank in Europe, where U.S. and coalition SOTGs continue to have communications disrupted and/or intercepted by near-peer, peer and high-capability adversaries in the form of Russian armed forces.
As defense sources associated with Ukrainian SOF and armed forces attest, Russian armed forces across the border, as well as proxy forces in the Donbas region, continue to employ mature electronic warfare concepts of operation, and tactics, techniques and procedures to create a C2-disrupted or -denied environment.
Communications solutions available to the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as well as international SOF partner forces around the world range from handheld Software Defined Radios (SDRs) capable of being upgraded in the field with new waveforms and software, to larger manpack, vehicular and airborne radios that provide greater levels in output for enhanced range.
One of the largest SDR providers to USSOCOM as well as the wider international SOF community is L3Harris Technologies, which on Nov. 21, 2019 received its latest $86 million Full-Rate Production order as part of an overall $390 million contract to supply the command with Falcon® IV AN/PRC-163 Next-Generation Tactical Communications (NGTC) SDRs.
Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, Jeff Kroon, L3Harris vice president of Tactical Communications Engineering, illustrated a series of demand signals arising from the special operations communications market that led to the development and continued upgrade of the AN/PRC-163 NGTC.
“Globally, SOF users rely on communications to support mission flexibility, resiliency, operational effectiveness and safety,” Kroon said. “The focus is shifting from counterinsurgency missions to readiness amidst near-peer threats, thus increasing the need for resilience and protection from electronic attacks of all kinds.”
This shift is causing many countries to recapitalize their tactical communications solutions with the latest and greatest solutions in the market, according to Kroon. This means new radios, new waveforms and new levels of security.
“Resilience, survivability and adaptability are key aspects to communications in modern warfare, and new requirements for cyber hardening are vital as the tactical IP network extends to the edge,” Kroon said.
Specifically, L3Harris has warned how legacy IP-based waveforms and radios with inadequate security now represent a vulnerable entry point to an otherwise secure network that extends to a larger wide area network throughout the modern battlespace.
“Type 1 NSA-certified encryption is paramount in protecting these tactical edge networks, and, in turn, the entire wide area network to which it connects,” Kroon said. “Uncertified equipment, such as commercially available and programmable radios, are not government tested for vulnerabilities such as malware introduction, spoofing or other types of electronic threats that could compromise SOF operator safety. SOF requirements around the world are transitioning to fully resilient communications waveforms and cyber-protected hardware assets.”
The introduction of the AN/PRC-163 NGTC provides a significant step-change in the tactical communications capability of SOF operators across USSOCOM. The dual-channel SDR is supported by the TSM-X™ Mobile Ad Hoc Network (MANET) waveform, which is capable of connecting more than 200 nodes across a battlespace into a single mesh network.
The SDR provides multi-channel communications and can be connected to L3Harris’ ISR video mission module to support close air support and joint fires support, for example.
In October 2019, L3Harris announced the first Full-Rate Production order for the AN/PRC-163.
“We are delivering these two-channel handheld radios at an escalating pace to meet the increasing demand,” Kroon said. “As with any of our Software Defined Radios, the AN/ PRC-163 becomes more capable with every new firmware release. The introduction of new mission modules, like the ISR Generation 2 mission module, allows the rapid insertion of new capabilities into the tactical formation without the need of a separate device, additional connectors or batteries.”
AN/PRC-163 SDRs can also be networked to the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), which was designed by the U.S. Department of Defense as a software solution to be viewed on end-user devices including smartphones.
ATAK-enabled smartphones are already in service throughout USSOCOM and the wider international SOF community, providing operators with a “secure, mobile, interactive geospatial tool [and] common operational picture,” according to a USSOCOM spokesperson.
USSOCOM personnel generally wear ATAK as a chest-mounted solution or as a standalone end-user device used to support tactical chat, Link 16 datalink connectivity, HALO/HAHO military freefall, route planning and navigation, in addition to radio controls, the spokesperson added.
Traditional VHF/UHF (30-512 MHz) Line-Of-Sight communications will remain the backbone of all SOF communications, on the ground and for ground-to-air coordination.
“We are seeing the convergence of ISR and tactical communications solutions into a single tactical communications ensemble on the operators,” Kroon said. “MANET [waveforms] are gaining momentum and extending tactical IP networks to the edge. Every operator can be equipped with a radio and an End User Device.”
Dual-channel handhelds provide the ability to support 30-512 MHz, Satellite Communications, tactical MANETs and ISR in a single device, providing the flexibility and adaptability that the dynamic SOF operator needs for all stages of a mission, while removing the need to carry multiple legacy devices. The demand is out there for faster frequency hopping, faster data and more resilience, and new waveforms are always under development by governments and industry.
“As new waveforms are developed and released, the multi-channel devices are well equipped to allow the introduction of new capabilities into the tactical networks while still providing a fallback plan or interoperability with adjacent conventional forces or partner forces,” Kroon said.
SOF commands within NATO and the “Five Eyes” community are seeking to maintain interoperability with USSOCOM partner forces; meanwhile, L3Harris continues to develop the manpack variants of the AN/PRC-167 NGTC, also contracted to USSOCOM.
Company officials said the new dual-channel manpack was planned to be unveiled to the market at the SOF Industry Conference in May 2020. However, SOFIC was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was changed to a virtual conference. L3Harris described the new technology as a “game changer” for USSOCOM force components.
The Polish Special Operations Component Command (POL SOCC) received four Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk helicopters in December 2019 as it seeks to maintain similar levels of interoperability with its USSOCOM partners.
Industry sources associated with the POL SOCC said the organization is seeking to upgrade the airframe’s communications solution with L3Harris SDR technology to ensure interoperability with the remainder of POL SOCC’s communications devices, as well as U.S. and international SOF partners. According to Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, the procurement of the airframes will “ensure interoperability with the rapid reaction forces of NATO.”
SOF commands, including the Swiss Special Forces Command (KSK) – which is in the process of upgrading force elements with a variety of SDR solutions – continue to upgrade their communications capabilities.
Maj. Marco Dâmaso, system portfolio manager for special units, Swiss Armed Forces, Armed Forces Planning, said the KSK is interested in the capability to run battle management system software as well as capacity to support navigation in C2-denied or -degraded environments. A competition will be initiated in 2021, with program completion by 2025.
Additionally, active-duty units within the KSK, which include the Army Reconnaissance Detachment 10 and Military Police Special Detachment Unit, are expected to evaluate MANET High Data Rate personal radios with the aim to “increase connectivity and allow potential new capabilities” in the future.
Dâmaso also highlighted the interception and deception of tactical communications by Russian armed forces operating in Ukraine as well as demand signals to support urban operations in contested environments. “Today, there are several solutions to enable the tactical non-GNSS [Global Navigation Satellite System] navigation and localization through inertial, RF [radio frequency]-based and smartphone-based solutions,” he said.
Finally, the threat of Low Probability of Intercept/Detection by peer adversaries across the contemporary operating environment continues to drive a resurgence in High Frequency (HF) throughout the SOF community, which is driving some NATO forces to continue to pursue requirements for such a capability that is harder to disrupt and comprises a low-cost alternative to Satellite Communications (SATCOM).
“Special operations forces around the world continue to invest in HF communications,” Kroon said. “HF radios are now smaller and faster than previous generations. With innovations in the areas of resiliency and wideband data, HF offers more flexibility to the SOF community than ever. HF can support the backhaul link as well as intel from the edge."
"These new innovations, combined with modern encryption algorithms and backward-compatibility with legacy HF systems, are driving many SOF organizations to modernize their HF fleet,” he added. “Concerns about SATCOM-denied environments also drive many users to HF. HF nets have no single point of failure, and that’s the flexibility that SOF communicators require.”
As USSOCOM and international SOF partners continue to urgently predict and equip for an uncertain future operating environment, the importance of secure, resilient and flexible tactical communications looks set to remain a priority for commanders moving forward – especially given that they are a “gateway” to the enabling of next-generation capabilities, including Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence/machine learning-assisted decision-making.