Communications Electronics Can Be a Strategic Offensive Weapon

August 2012
By David J. Katz, SIGNAL Magazine

Asymmetrical warfare can be waged effectively with simple technology assets.

The United States and its allies have at their disposal an existing defense capability that can be employed as an effective weapon at the highest levels of conflict. The West’s installed base of expertise in communications electronics can be harnessed as a strategic offensive weapon to constrain nation-states that seek to bypass the overwhelming superiority that the United States and its allies possess in conventional warfare.

The West will face many challenges in the foreseeable future. Meeting these challenges will require bringing ingenuity to bear. By incorporating imagination, innovation and the unconventional into the U.S. response, the military can find better, faster and less-expensive solutions than relying on hard power projection.

The U.S. propensity to rely on armed physical force—boots on the ground, planes overhead and ships offshore—is expensive, sometimes inflexible, and often a harbinger of unintended consequences. Cyberspace has been added to the existing physical battlespace of air, land and sea. Many of its proponents visualize an ideal inspired by movies such as The Matrix that envision electronic, remote warfare fought in hypervelocity with millions of engagements per second.

However, the relatively mundane capability of communications electronics offers significant strategic offensive capability. The offensive use of communications electronics is not a substitute for the threat or deployment of armed force. It can serve as a catalyst and an amplifier to armed forces by adding precision and multiplying effects.

A prime example of where this communications weapon could be employed is Iran. The Iranian regime has become the world’s leading terrorist sponsor. It has been linked to an assassination attempt on U.S. soil and to bombing plots in India, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Argentina and Thailand. If not stopped, the ayatollahs undoubtedly will continue their efforts, improve their methods and eventually succeed in killing or cowing those who oppose them.

The traditional U.S. response—sailing a naval battlegroup into the dangerously close confines of the Strait of Hormuz—places a major U.S. strategic asset at risk but does not deter Iran. Counterintuitively and perversely, it actually supports Iran’s adaptive response to overwhelming conventional force. Iran refuses direct engagement, opting instead to sidestep the brandished knockout punch and use terrorism as a kidney punch in the back to attack the United States and its allies.

The United States instead can focus on low-cost, low-risk initiatives to alter the balance of power from the current regime—which uses terrorism and seeks nuclear weapons—to its internal competitors, including the Green Movement, that do not threaten the West.

If all politics are local, and permanent solutions require permanent constituencies, then the United States can harness indigenous resources to achieve its goals. While many ways exist to lever cultural factors, affect social structures and rebalance the political spectrum, the United States can exploit one simple indigenous resource to empower six effective means of constraining the Iranian regime. These very simple ways of using the U.S. strategic advantage in communications electronics would redirect, almost immediately, the Iranian regime from aggressive expansionism to internal survival—and without using conventional armed force.

The first step could be to use the billion dollar reconnaissance satellites of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the cryptographic expertise of the National Security Agency (NSA) to penetrate the registry databases of Iranian cellphone systems. Matching phone numbers to names and home addresses would allow intelligence experts to track the internal security forces’ cellphone calls. By identifying probable family members and developing the call network for each member of the paramilitary Basij or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), this data—in whole or in part—could be given to pro-democracy Green Movement dissidents. Once members of the IRGC and the Basij are identified by name along with their home addresses and those of their friends and families, the anonymity behind which they operate would be stripped away. The Basij and IRGC leadership then would have to reassign internal security resources away from attacking pro-democracy dissidents and toward protecting themselves and their families.

Consequently, the Basij and the IRGC would have to alter cellular network registries and reissue tens of thousands of SIM cards and/or cellphones. The bottom line would be that their personal communications network is disrupted, forcing an avalanche of new traffic onto the military radiotelephone system to safeguard families and friends from retaliation. Either way, it stretches resources and redirects offensive capabilities to defensive missions, and it might convince marginal members to find less risky jobs.

The next step would be to identify personnel in strategic military units, such as air defense, missile forces and the Qods force. Experts could track their personal cell calls and identify their family networks. Then, U.S. forces would set up intelligence-directed call centers with native Farsi speakers to call their families, identify their sons by name and unit, and warn them of impending danger should they continue serving in that unit. It is one thing for an Iranian force member to read about public denouncements from a U.S. secretary of state thousands of miles away; but it is quite another to get a frantic phone call from his mother talking about a stranger’s call that accurately identified him by name and unit and warned of imminent danger. Unit morale will tank. The smartest people probably will leave, and unit efficiency will crater. For those who do not leave their units, their data could be published or given to the opposition.

A more overt effort would be to provide the pro-democracy Green Movement with the capability to document, from multiple sources and within acceptable Iranian legal standards, the actions of the IRGC security services and Basij paramilitaries attacking pro-democracy dissidents. Individual actions could be catalogued for later legal action, and selected individual activities could be published. The loss of the security forces’ anonymity, coupled with the possibility of individual prosecution once the regime is deposed, would demoralize all but the hardcore followers and convince marginal members to find less dangerous occupations.

Self-organization requires communication. The Green Movement could be provided with a secure cellular communications capability via software download. It might be given additional capabilities to evade or tunnel through Iranian cellular security systems, including possibly the capability to piggyback on Iranian military radiotelephone frequencies. The Green Movement also would benefit from the increased ability to transmit voice or short message service (SMS) texting through government jamming.

These efforts would increase the Green Movement’s ability to communicate on existing cellular networks. If Iranian authorities keep the cellular system up, then both sides are able to use it. If they shut it down, neither side can use it, and the regime looks weak.

Ultimately, the United States might want to provide the Green Movement with mobile cellular switches. If the authorities shut down the commercial cellphone system, the opposition then can construct local, temporary cell nodes to communicate and organize.

All of these suggestions are related just to cellphone systems and the U.S. capability to exploit this communications platform. None of them involve hard power projection, arms or armed force. They all take advantage of the U.S. strategic advantage in communications electronics. These suggestions work through indigenous means by helping indigenous competitors, such as the Green Movement, do what they already are doing.

U.S. ingenuity, if properly harnessed, can find thousands of additional ways to alter the competitive balance in countries such as Iran. Some will work; some may not. Taken together, these measures drastically can alter the competitive balance between a regime that opts for assassination and nuclear weapons and an opposition that does not.

David J. Katz is SRA senior staff, St. Petersburg, Florida.


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