No Ties to Bind Secure Internet Links

July 2005
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Maj. Sammy Smith, USA (r), and Maj. Romeo Caschera, USA, align a dish antenna atop a building in Texas to establish wireless secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) links. Successful experiments by a team from the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Information Operations Center achieved this wireless connectivity over 40 miles.
Land, sea and air forces can have this wireless connectivity over several miles.

Optical fiber may be losing one of its last advantages over wireless as military experimenters have demonstrated the ability to establish secure Internet radio frequency links over more than three dozen miles. This capability can be established to serve land forces on the move, aircraft operating in a small area or ships sailing near unfamiliar coastlines.

No longer will U.S. or coalition forces need to begin digging trenches for fiber as soon as they deploy to a strange theater of operations. A 47-pound, self-powered system that can be set up by two people can provide wireless secret Internet protocol router network, or SIPRNET, connectivity. Inside of an hour, it can provide a bubble of SIPRNET access that can serve the needs of tactical operations centers as well as individuals with handheld digital units.

The experiment that established this capability is known as operation Distant Flare. Emerging from the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) Joint Information Operations Center (JIOC), Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, it was an operational test and demonstration that proved the worth of the technology and architecture. Walter E. Wilson, contractor with the JIOC J-61, STRATCOM, explains that the technology originated with systems and hardware headed to Iraq and Afghanistan. JIOC planners built their system around new wireless handheld devices that would serve information operations teams that are deployed in various combatant commands.

Maj. Sammy Smith, USA, signal officer, emerging technology, JIOC J-61, STRATCOM, elaborates. “If you look at the reports coming back from combatant areas, you have units that are rolling into environments that are not supportive of communications. In an area that doesn’t even have electricity, it would take a signal unit several days to roll out thousands of feet of RJ-45 cable to get these units up and running fully.

“With this technology, all you need is one single access point to SIPRNET. This could be an existing satellite link. You can throw one of these [wireless networks] up in a matter of minutes, and you would be SIPRNET hot,” the major says.

The JIOC teamed with the U.S. Navy regional command in Corpus Christi, Texas, which was seeking wireless SIPRNET connectivity for antiterrorism force protection applications. The demonstration was conducted in February in Texas using naval facilities.

Engineers climbed two water towers to mount the network’s line-of-sight dish antennas as high as they could. Another antenna was placed atop a port operations building at Naval Air Station (NAS) Ingleside. The longest link in the chain was 40.1 miles between an antenna at NAS Kingsville and the one atop the water tower at NAS Corpus Christi. Another link from that water tower to a site across the bay provided an additional 10.8 miles of wireless connectivity. An omnidirectional antenna also at NAS Kingsville provided connectivity within an 8-mile radius. All told, two users about 60 miles apart would have been part of the same high-speed wireless SIPRNET hookup.

In addition to the commercial antennas, users had personal digital assistants (PDAs) for the field testing. Wilson notes that the region’s flat terrain lent itself to the long-range line-of-sight connectivity. But, this is the type of terrain that forces in Iraq often encounter. Engineers needed no elaborate aiming mechanism such as a laser to align the antennas. “We just got the compass out, pointed it, got good signal strength, bolted it down, and we were done in about an hour,” Wilson relates.

That demonstration took place under less than ideal conditions. What Wilson refers to as “the thunderstorm of the year” rolled through in the middle of the trial. This included gale-force winds of 45 miles per hour amid rain and lightning. Yet, the system was able to provide good voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) delivery throughout the connections.

The key technology for the entire system is a SecNet 11 secure PC card made by Harris Government Communications Division, Palm Bay, Florida. This card is a National Security Agency (NSA)-certified Sierra 1 cryptographic processor for secret data and below. The Navy also has certified it for use on submarines, and NATO has certified it for NATO Secret. The card fits into any conventional laptop PC-MCIA card slot.

With this card, handheld devices possess the necessary cryptographic and keying capabilities to become part of a wireless SIPRNET, Wilson explains. The NSA approval provides the necessary piece of the puzzle. Most of the other equipment used in the demonstration was commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) gear that could be exchanged for other hardware from a variety of firms.

This hookup provided a data rate of 11 megabytes per second. As more users joined the link, they reduced its available capacity accordingly. At a certain point in network participation, additional users would require an additional repeater. Signals were transmitted at 2.47 gigahertz at 1 watt of power.

The engineers observed U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations in setting up this system. “We wanted to stay within the FCC rules and regulations as they govern wireless,” Maj. Smith relates. “We want this thing to be able to be used anywhere in the world. The United States has the most stringent wireless rules, so if we can stay within those standards, then we can stay within most international standards.”

Wilson sees this configuration as potentially having its greatest impact in places that lack an intact communications infrastructure. Even domestic emergency response activities may require high bandwidth not found in every communications infrastructure, and their messaging may mandate secure links.

This wireless approach provides SIPRNET connectivity without many of the cumbersome accoutrements needed on the battlefield. Rapidly deployed forces that find themselves in an area without SIPRNET bases, hubs or cabling can leave that hardware behind and avoid having to string fiber for three days. Instead, they will have wireless SIPRNET on arrival, Wilson declares.

“It has all the advantages of being wireless, but it has the additional advantage of being very secure,” he emphasizes.

Maj. Caschera and Maj. Smith unpack the self-contained power supply and repeater set for the wireless SIPRNET system. The total system weighs 47 pounds and is designed to be set up by two people in one hour.
Long distance is not the only use for this approach. For example, the omnidirectional antenna can allow patrols within an 8-mile radius to report back to a base station or to a headquarters. These patrols even could provide video imagery for real-time analysis by experts further away if the base station has SIPRNET connectivity with an overall battlespace network.

The system does lend itself to an urban environment. It might require signal repeaters for that type of situation, Wilson allows, depending on conditions. But, urban modeling can help determine where signal holes would occur. The February test demonstrated that handheld units inside of the building atop which sat the antenna were able to connect to the SIPRNET.

Maj. Smith observes that when a J-2 or J-3 officer flies into a theater of operations, that officer must receive operational updates on arrival. If the landing area is covered by an omnidirectional wireless SIPRNET umbrella similar to the one set up in Corpus Christi, that officer could begin receiving SIPRNET updates even before the aircraft touches down.

In addition to desert environments, shipboard applications also can benefit from these wireless SIPRNET links. Wilson relates that Coast Guard boats would like to maintain SIPRNET connectivity with boarding parties. This system would permit personnel on other ships to transmit vital identification information with imagery for verification against main databases. Similar applications suit law enforcement personnel who may need to engage in the same type of identification verification messaging but who worry that insecure links might compromise operations.

The system’s security prevents easy data intercept, but it is not immune to other active countermeasures. An enemy that had enough power under the omnidirectional antenna’s signal bubble could knock out the signal. The point-to-point dish antennas produced a fairly narrow bandwidth that would be more difficult to block, although not impossible, Wilson offers.

Maj. Smith warrants that even though the signal is jammable, it is just as secure as fiber optics, which are cuttable. And, if an enemy is able to intercept a signal, the message has no headers or protocols that might give away its nature.

The major adds that ground forces on the move could establish their own “cones of connectivity” by building a wireless network with wireless access points throughout the force. Then, whenever and wherever it moved, the force would have wireless SIPRNET connectivity under that cone.

He emphasizes that, in addition to rapid setup and ease of use, this wireless SIPRNET also offers considerable cost savings. The readily available COTS gear used in this setup is “extremely low-cost,” he states, and the savings in fiber optic cable will be substantial. “When a unit moves forward, it either abandons all that fiber optic cable in place—which is very expensive to do—or pulls it all up from the trenches in which it had just been buried. Then, it has to roll it up, move forward and establish communications again with the same process of digging trenches and laying lines.

“Instead [with the wireless network] you could be moving forward within your cone of connectivity,” he points out.

This also applies to ships entering an unfamiliar port area. For example, when Navy ships responded to remote Asian coastlines to provide relief after last winter’s tsunami, they needed to establish communications with ground personnel across vast areas that had been stripped of infrastructure. A ship with this type of wireless SIPRNET capability would be able to send a signal well into the stricken land areas to provide emergency high-bandwidth IP links with relief forces. If those forces have the same handheld devices that were used in the Texas demonstration, they would have both video and VoIP capabilities in the disaster zone.

Maj. Smith relates that the next experiment may be to build a wireless network using an Inmarsat terminal. Currently, the wireless SIPRNET system still needs a SIPRNET terminal to serve as a gateway to the secure network. If Inmarsat can serve as that gateway, then forward-deployed teams will be able to build their own wireless SIPRNET system using only an Inmarsat terminal to tie into the network. “The technology is there,” the major says. “We just have to get people out of the old way of thinking.”


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