Army Experiment Plays Electronic Warfare Hardball
NetModX systems face attacks adversaries don’t yet possess.
During the Army’s Network Modernization Experiment 2020 that kicked off last week, researchers are attacking fledgling systems with electronic warfare capabilities that near-peer adversaries are not expected to possess for years to come, officials say.
The Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C5ISR) Center—a component of the Army Futures Command’s Combat Capabilities Development Command—is leading the annual experiment known as NetModX 20, which is taking place July 20 to October 2 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. NetModX allows soldiers the opportunity to provide feedback on developing systems and informs Army acquisition decisions, science and technology specifications, requirements and strategies. In this particular case, systems that do might eventually end up in the Army’s arsenal as part of the capability sets to be fielded in 2023 and 2025.
The experiment includes roughly 20 systems focused primarily on command post survivability and mission command resiliency. Key experiments include technologies for hardened waveforms in support of protected communications, protected satellite communications, defensive cyber, command post survivability and protected communications for the teaming of manned and unmanned vehicles.
“NetModX is a science and technology, white coat, field experimentation that the C5ISR Center puts on annually. We’re really taking the science and technology projects from within the center and putting them in an operational environment,” explains Joshua Fischer, the C5ISR Center’s acting chief of systems engineering, architecture, modeling and simulation. “The way things work in the research and development community … you develop the technologies in the lab. You do your experiments. You do your tests in the lab and get your results and things look great, but it doesn’t represent real life. The next step is to take the technology into a relevant environment.”
That relevant environment includes being hit with simulated electronic warfare capabilities similar to those possessed by near-peer adversaries. “We are not doing it in an electromagnetically austere environment. We’re incorporating some threats into the experiment—different electronic types of attack," Fischer says. "That way, the technologies are challenged, and the project leads and industry and the program executive officers can understand how the technology reacts in the presence of this threat or that threat.”
The C5ISR Center researchers share threat data with system providers under Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), and industry can invest in protecting their systems. “With the CRADA agreements, we’ve shared with them what the threat can do in general, what the capabilities are for 2020, 2025 and 2030, but we’ve also taken the technologies into the labs. The Data Analysis Center has a very sophisticated electronic warfare lab where we bring the systems in, and we attack it using techniques that our more advanced adversaries can put against it,” says Michael Brownfield, chief of the Future Capabilities Office at the C5ISR Center. “What’s transformational about that is that now they’re using their internal research and development dollars to rapidly respond to our feedback.”
He adds that some vendors have made impressive progress in hardening their systems over the past year.
Army leaders emphasize that system developers need to “start with the threat,” says Brownfield. But the NetModX systems are not just facing current threats. “We’ve done a lot of background research into what our near-peer threats are capable of when it comes to communications, so we know what they can do now and what they’re projected to do in the near term and the far so that we can project and make our comms resilient to excel on the battlefield.”
The electronic warfare attacks include not only capabilities potential adversaries have in their arsenals, but capabilities they could acquire quickly and easily. “We’ve looked at what our near-peer threats are capable of, the equipment that they have, and then the equipment that they could take off-the-shelf and converge in a relatively quick manner,” Brownfield explains.
Furthermore, the researchers are privy to information that adversaries will likely not gain. “We have inside information on how our waveforms operate. So, they won’t have the luxury of getting our equipment, putting it on a lab bench, understanding how the waveform operates, understanding the protocols and then developing attacks against it,” Brownfield notes. “We’re doing pretty sophisticated protocol-level attacks. They’re harder to mitigate than what the enemy can throw at them. We’ve actually been harder on them than the enemy will be right now.”