U.S. Army 1st Lt. Andrew Moehl of the 101st Airborne Division radios in his team's status with help from Spc. Joshua Rachal in Kandalay, Afghanistan, on Sept. 25, 2010.

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Andrew Moehl of the 101st Airborne Division radios in his team's status with help from Spc. Joshua Rachal in Kandalay, Afghanistan, on Sept. 25, 2010. DoD | Cpl. Carol A. Lehman

Forget Radio Silence. Tomorrow’s Soldiers Will Move Under Cover of Electronic Noise

The Army’s doctrine chief says it’s self-defeating to switch off the networks that enable U.S. military superiority.

Future soldiers will go into battle with their favorite phones, loaded with communications apps, drone steering programs, even offensive cyber weapons — although permission to use specific software and ad-hoc hardware will depend on missions, roles, and ranks. And they’ll move under an invisible shield of electronic noise and decoy information, according to a vision of future Army battlefield networking provided by Army Gen. David Perkins.

As head of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, Perkins peers into the future and directs the creation of new Army doctrines like the one scheduled to come out later this year. But it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that a one-size-fits-all approach to troops’ electronics and other equipment slows down buying, training, and even mobility. What’s more, it’s wasteful because soldiers are increasingly training themselves on devices they carry with them.

“Soldiers are coming into the Army. They say, ‘I don’t want the Army BlackBerry, I want my iPhone 20.’ But our networks aren’t necessarily designed that way,” Perkins said Tuesday at TRADOC’s “Mad Scientist” event in Washington, D.C. “We as an Army can decide, ‘Okay, Private Perkins, I’ll let you download this stuff onto your device but you can’t have this stuff. And then we say, ‘You know what, it’s only going to be able to work for this amount of time and then it shuts off. Meanwhile, General Perkins, you can have all of this stuff on your device, which is maybe more than Private Perkins can have.’”

A version of that system is visible today in the way a lot of Special Operations Forces personnel (and law enforcement) use distributed battlefield intelligence systems from Palantir. Operators and analysts view intelligence pieces differently depending on what their permission level is.  

Or consider the popular home-sharing service Airbnb, which helps homeowners to rent out space in their houses or apartments based on would-be guests’ reputations, etc. Or the ridesharing app Getaround, which  allows a car owner to rent out their car by sending a code to the renter’s phone. The renter can use the code to unlock the doors, start the car, and drive it until the code expires.

Today’s Army is far from that flexible. “I can’t replace all of the tanks in the whole Army every 18 months but I can probably plug a module in and out. That’s not how we design things now; we design the whole tank. The whole enchilada. When you want to update it, you bring it back to depot maintenance,” says Perkins.

Adding this kind of flexibility to the Army’s arms and equipment, Perkins said, would reinforce a key U.S. military advantage: its ability to mobilize and maneuver.

Of course, modularity has its limitations. But more and more pieces of equipment connect to networks, creating more modular — think Lego-like — components will become easier.

New weapons and capabilities, things that are going to change quickly, won’t be hardwired into the system, he said. “The other ones that are not going to change that quickly, maybe they could be more hardwired. We don’t come up with new transmission technology or engine design every 18 months, so that can be hardwired,” he said. “The network that goes into it? The protection systems? Maybe even the lethality mechanisms, they might be one of the things I can plug and play pretty quickly. There’s a module that comes in, I have a new electronic protection package, I can increase the lethality of my weapon system via directed energy or something like that if I plug in this and plug in that.”

Decoys Will Help Secure 'Networked Everything'

This mass networking of troops, tanks, ships, planes, satellites, and everything else to achieve what some have called “cross-domain supremacy” has caught hold across the services. Last week, the Navy’s top officer, Adm. John Richardson, said that his service is aggressively working to better connect nearly every platform at sea, on the beach, and in the air. “I want to network everything to everything,” Richardson said at the Navy’s Future Force Expo, in Washington D.C. Interlinking weapons, ships, satellites, and aircraft offers the Navy its best shot of offsetting the threats posed by rivals eroding U.S. advantages, he said.

Arms control watcher Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at Middlebury College, said Richardson’s enthusiasm made him a touch nervous.

Of course, a battlefield full of soldiers carrying off-the-shelf consumer devices poses plenty of security challenges. For Perkins, the chief one is that the enemy might sniff out electronic emissions and home in on his soldiers’ positions through digital direction finding. But Perkins said the military of the future should resist the urge to simply go quiet.

“Our initial response is: we have to turn off our radios, turn off everything to reduce our [electronic] signature. My point of view is: you’ve defined the problem, but you’re solving it the same way you solved it from an analog point of view...If you turn off all your radios, why have a network? You’re doing what they want you to do. You’re self-jamming.”

He said a better solution might be to bury the signal in noise, decoy emissions, and the like — similar to the way the campaign of French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly set up honeypot email accounts to divert election hackers.  

A similar approach might work for battlefield communications, “Maybe we should go to a needle in a stack of needles? That’s a difficult problem set. What if instead of trying to hide my signal, I try to replicate it 10,000 times,” Perkins said.