Disruptive by Design: The Loitering Relay

October 1, 2021
By Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC

In a tactical environment, commanders project their ability to communicate forward into the battlespace through retransmissions, or “retrans.” Retrans nodes are established when a mobile radio system is maneuvered well forward of the line of advance to provide a link between one node and those with which that node must communicate, receiving the transmission on one frequency and retransmitting it on another. This allows command and control to be maintained even while moving disparate units across a dynamic battlespace, outside of normal radio operating ranges. Ground vehicles with mounted radio systems and power amplifiers, such as the MRC-145, are some of the most common means of establishing retrans. Piloted airframes with communications payloads like the Bombardier E-11A can also provide retrans.

With the growing ability of adversaries to detect the origin of tactical transmissions, however, such retrans nodes become increasingly untenable, risking both the node and the personnel servicing it. The direct threat to personnel can be removed by using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for retrans; RQ-4B drones have been loaded with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payload, becoming airborne relays. But the risk of targeting and severing the retrans link remains, while the cost to shoot down such UAVs is much cheaper than the UAV itself.

Regardless of the means of retrans, such nodes are easily detected by anyone viewing the electromagnetic spectrum and appear as an obvious and enticing target for adversaries. This presents an increasing risk to the ability of tactical commanders to exert command and control over their forces during combat operations.

A possible solution lies in the “loitering relay.” While loitering munitions are capable of remaining on station for extended periods of time to search for and attack targets, a loitering relay would remain on station to instead provide retransmissions. By deploying multiple cheap, attritable relays, commanders could rapidly create a tactical retrans network on the fly, remove risk to personnel, and place so many nodes into the battlespace that an adversary would be challenged to track and target them all.

The means to deploy such loitering relays are many and varied and could build on those technologies already in play to deploy loitering munitions. Take, for instance, the Pneumatically Integrated Launch System, a tube-based launcher that deploys the Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated Unmanned System. In essence, a tube launcher fires a loitering drone. Instead, a multi-tube launcher could deploy a series of small drones with retransmissions payloads, allowing a tactical commander to “fire” a network forward into the battlespace. Variations on this theme offer different combinations of capability, capacity and cost: attritable systems could be fire-and-forget, one-time use relays; recoverable systems could offer the ability for reuse; controllable systems could be maneuvered across the battlespace to support different units; and other systems, instead of remaining airborne, could land on the surface explicitly to provide terrestrial relays. In all instances, firing a swarm of such relays will fill the electromagnetic spectrum with a confounding target list, and support assured communications.

Communicating in a contested environment will only get harder. Forces that seek assured command and control must rise to the challenge or risk seeing their cohesion shattered. Retransmission is no exception, but the loitering relay offers a means for a relatively inexpensive, attritable retrans capability that presents the adversary with a targeting dilemma.

Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC, is a nonresident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare and a student at the School of Advanced Warfighting.Follow or contact him on Twitter @BrianKerg.

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