Summit Reveals Spectrum Management Shortfalls

January 15, 2008
Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

The issues may sound very familiar: inadequate tools, no standards or each service purchasing solutions for its own problems without regard for operating in a joint environment. The difference is that the topic is not interoperability but spectrum management. Military leaders are working diligently to address the issues as quickly as they can. But personnel wearing the e-boots on the ground are frustrated by the lack of progress and the workarounds they must create to solve warfighters’ problems in the field.

Although many of the challenges in interoperability and spectrum management are the same, some of the problems perplexing spectrum managers not only are quite different but also need solutions with further-reaching ramifications. These were some of the topics discussed during the five-day Spectrum Summit held in Arlington, Virginia, in December. And although the spectrum in the conference title referred to the electromagnetic kind, it also described the variety of attendees. From the top, leaders including John Grimes, assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration and U.S. Defense Department chief information officer, and Vice Adm. Nancy Brown, USN, director of command, control, communications and computer systems, J-6, the Joint Staff, were on hand to bring attention to the topic and listen to the challenges being faced in the field. At the grassroots level, spectrum managers from all of the services and command and control leaders from each of the combatant commands were in attendance to bring their concerns to the table.

No matter what the rank or position, the consensus among participants was the same: spectrum management problems are complex and more likely to become worse before improving. Among the multitude of issues that must be addressed or resolved, all are equally troubling, as they have already impacted operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, many agreed. These include a shortage of automated spectrum management tools, the growing number of emitting devices, the lack of data standards, policies that are either nonexistent or are not being enforced and the services each buying equipment without regard for the spectrum they will require to operate in the field.

But assessments of the current state of spectrum management were not all negative. On the positive side, attendees agreed that at least to some extent the need for training in the specialty is beginning to be addressed. For example, the U.S. Army has reinstated its military occupational specialty (MOS) for spectrum managers and had added training for the new MOS 25E, electronic spectrum managers. To address this shortcoming in current operations, approximately 300 U.S. Navy electronic warfare specialists were assigned to the Army.

In addition, electronic warfare coordination cells are being established that will help resolve problems experienced in current operations when devices that were designed for communications set off improvised explosive devices because they shared a frequency. And Army officials believe that the Warfighter Information Network–Tactical will address several of the problems the service currently is experiencing.

Although the services and joint community are on the right track, several larger issues loom that will require more intricate and far-reaching solutions. For example, while auctions bring in much-needed revenue to the Defense Department, they also continue to shrink the amount of spectrum available for use by the warfighters. This economic double-edged sword cuts even deeper. The commercial sector buying the spectrum uses it to introduce new products to consumers, boosting the U.S. economy. This is not a trend the nation can afford to reverse, military leaders agreed, and it will require determining the right balance between economics and security.

Hands-on warfighter training through exercises also has fallen victim to the limited resource. At times, the services have planned training events only to find out from spectrum managers that the frequencies they need to carry out the effort are not available.

Finally, while U.S. leaders can work diligently to settle many of the issues U.S. forces face, the United States does not own spectrum all around the world. When the U.S. military must operate in areas outside of the United States, it is at the mercy of governments in other countries. Permission may not be granted, and when it is, the equipment they bring with them may not operate in the assigned frequencies.

Conference speakers identified several specific needs they believe industry can supply. Acknowledging that a multitude of spectrum management tools exist, they called for ways to automate these tools so less time is required to manage spectrum in the field. Additionally, modeling and simulation tools that enable managers to plan spectrum use in advance are needed. On the technical side, the call also went out for standards that would help mitigate problems currently occurring in the field. And on the policy side, those who have found themselves with e-boots on the ground implored acquisition decision makers to stop granting waivers in the acquisition phase just to put devices out into the field faster. This, they said, results in equipment that cannot be used because of spectrum issues when it reaches troops and instead ends up sitting on the shelves.

Additional topics discussed during the Spectrum Summit will be published in the March issue of SIGNAL Magazine, available online on March 3.