Battlefield Cell Networks Research Grows

February 16, 2010
by Maryann Lawlor
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With encouragement from the front lines, Capt. Josh Dixon, USMC, graduate student, Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), is exploring another way to bring the benefits of cell phone technology to warfighters. Although this type of work is going on within other military organizations, Capt. Dixon's study focuses on integrating cell technology by adapting the software-defined radios to host cell networks. With his colleagues, the captain aims at bringing secure cell phone technology to the field at an affordable price.

Capt. Dixon and his five colleagues began their work by examining current cell technology and devices. Although cell phone services have grown by leaps and bounds, the security problem they pose prevents commercial cell phones from being used in hostile environments. The captain points out that today's cell phones can be compromised in a multitude of ways, down to an adversary pirating an individual's cell phone account. So although these devices could be purchased for $200, their high vulnerability prevents them from being adapted to the military environment.

On the other hand, a highly secure cell phone would be priced in the thousands of dollars, making mass purchases fiscally unfeasible. This is the challenge that Capt. Dixon took on to determine, first, if the concept was feasible and second, if the military even wanted the capability.

He was encouraged in his pursuit by Maj. James Robinson, USMC, C4 department, I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) headquarters, and Maj. James Neushul, USMC, G-6, I MEF. Both majors told the captain that not only would this capability be very useful but also would be in high demand. However, despite the Marine Corps leaders’ enthusiasm, Capt. Dixon’s counselor at the NPS pointed out that developing military-grade cell phones must overcome some obstacles in terms of policies and other restrictions prior to deployment in the field.

Capt. Dixon has developed three possible concepts that could address the security and cost barriers. The first is to find a way to tether a radio to a secure network. Although this is not a wireless solution, it would bring a type of cell capability to the field. However, the captain points out that such a device must be user friendly and feature interfaces that would not require months of training to understand. To achieve this, device designers would have to determine which functionalities should be included and which could be thrown away, the captain says.

Capt. Dixon’s second concept involves bringing a bridge device into the set-up. One concept that greatly resembles this idea is called TactiCell. The technique involves two communications boxes that could be placed on a Humvee or similar vehicle. Users would be able to communicate with warfighters up to 16 miles away. This type of device would be useful at forward operating bases, but it is subject to the same vulnerabilities of cell conductivity and therefore cannot be used "outside the wire."

To be useful anywhere on the battlefield, a wireless device would have to demonstrate low probability of intercept, low probability of exploitation and low probability of detection. Capt. Dixon proposes that it is unlikely that a single solution can provide both the security the military demands and the portability the warfighter needs. That said, his third concept proposes leveraging commercial innovative technology, but eliminating the use of WiMAX as the interface. Although the waveform has high capacity and high throughput, the U.S. Defense Department cannot currently use it because it is not secure. The captain believes that when a way is finally developed to make content secure, it could be introduced as the standard, and companies that wish to sell their devices to the military would be required to follow the standard.

This is not an easy task to accomplish, the captain admits. It requires eliminating vulnerabilities while retaining the qualities that make cell phones so useful. "This is going to take years," he says. The approach he poses is developing an application programming interface that is military specific. This would prevent the inherent vulnerabilities in current software and enable users to share information securely. This effort would make it possible for both software and operating systems to be changed without changing the hardware platforms.

"There are dozens of organizations trying to solve this problem," Capt. Dixon notes. At current funding levels, the captain and five other researchers are working on a solution; if more funding is awarded, the NPS team could increase by as many as nine additional members. "This is a political and policy problem, not a technology issue," he adds.

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