Disruptive by Design: Managing Signatures for Expeditionary Advanced Base Ops

October 1, 2020
By Brian Kerg

As a way to provide sea denial in support of naval operations, expeditionary advanced base operations are the Marine Corps’ bid for success in disrupting the fait accompli strategies of great power competitors. While highly promising, this concept possesses a critical vulnerability: signature management.

Detection or denial of command and control systems will hamstring expeditionary advanced base operations. Any misstep in communications discipline will reveal the locations of expeditionary advanced bases, putting them at risk. But emerging communications techniques and technologies provide viable solutions to signature management, validating the concept and ensuring the sea services will maintain a critical edge.

Once deployed within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone, naval expeditionary forces are at constant risk of detection and must put a premium on concealment. Further, these forces aim to be deployed to key maritime terrain, allowing them to employ fires against targets ashore and afloat, placing them within a detectable range of shore-based and afloat direction-finding systems. Space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance will also conduct regular maritime surveillance.

To counter, high frequency low probability of intercept (HF-LPI) is a tactic that rapidly varies the power output and frequency of HF channels used to transmit, greatly reducing the likelihood of detection. Though the principles behind HF-LPI are decades old, standard operating procedures must be disseminated across the fleet to ensure personnel are reliably proficient in the technique. Such an initiative would be remarkably simple and affordable to implement today, providing an asymmetric advantage over enemy direction-finding capabilities.

Automating HF-LPI and similar means of concealing presence in the electromagnetic spectrum is the long-term answer for revolutionizing signature management. Adaptive frequency hopping can avoid frequencies that adversaries are scanning or monitoring, and the direct-sequence spread spectrum technique randomizes bit transmission. Fielding systems that automate these spectrum modulation techniques will minimize signal detection, interception and exploitation.

Eventually, inside forces will have to employ their fires system, and signal integrity will trump the need for signature concealment. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing communications technologies with this potential. The Hyper-wideband Enabled Radio-Frequency Messaging (HERMES) system works with extremely wide radio frequency bands while deploying several interceptor and jammer rejection techniques. Similarly, the Protected Forward Communications (PFC) program allows military forces to persist and operate in a contested electromagnetic environment using a structured system engineering method.

Additionally, by artificially raising the signature baseline in the operational environment, naval expeditionary forces will provide a more robust electromagnetic canopy of concealment. A modest adaptation of emerging swarming technologies can provide this capability. Currently, swarming technologies are being developed and fielded to provide combat power via small, cheap unmanned systems. The Office of Naval Research and Naval Sea Systems Command are presently testing a so-called ghost fleet of small, interconnected attack boats.

Similarly, DARPA’s Gremlins program will provide low-cost swarms of interconnected, unmanned aerial systems launched from larger aircraft. Outfitting such swarms with transmissions systems that communicate on the same frequencies, power levels and data rates as communications systems employed by naval forces would provide a swarming mask of signature in any operating environment. By providing a litany of other targets to detect and target, naval planners will have nuked the spectrum, creating an incredible targeting dilemma for adversaries who will have to dedicate an untenable amount of resources to separate the signal from the noise.

The high risk assumed by expeditionary advanced base operations makes signature management a premier requirement for success. By applying emerging tactics, such as HF-LPI, along with emerging technologies, including HERMES, PFC, modulation techniques, and spectrum deception, naval expeditionary forces can manage their signature and maintain signal integrity. Signature management secured in these ways will ensure the sea services maintain our nation’s advantage to prevent, or win, the next war.

Brian Kerg is a Marine Corps officer and writer currently serving as the Fleet Amphibious Communications Officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He is a nonresident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity. Follow or contact him @BrianKerg.

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