Disruptive by Design: A Signal Protection Plan to Raise the Noise Floor

August 1, 2020
By Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA

A recent posting of a satellite image from the U.S. National Training Center by Col. Scott Woodward, USA, raised a lot of eyebrows. The image shows a cluster of electromagnetic signals emitted from a battalion-sized unit participating in a large-scale training event. These signals were captured as part of the exercise from more than 10 kilometers away. This picture showed what many of us already know: we have an electromagnetic emission discipline problem.

Because we did not fear large-scale attacks on known command posts in Afghanistan and Iraq, we did not worry about blaring electromagnetic signals from satellite terminals, tactical radios or the dozens of locally purchased cellphones our forces used. Nor did we worry about an adversary using unmanned aerial vehicles to deploy sensors from afar. However, times have changed. As we prepare for the next fight, we must demand a strategy to protect our forces from signal detection.

Sophisticated long-range sensors paired with powerful new data analytics tools increase the likelihood of long-range detection. Any device that emits electromagnetic energy presents detectable patterns of fluctuations and pulses within a given radio frequency range. Engineers design antennas to propagate radio waves omnidirectionally, or focused into a directional beam. What affords long-range communication also enables long-range detection. 

Machine learning systems that detect signals from electromagnetic noise have proven their worth. From radiologists searching for anomalies to credit card companies looking for fraud, these tools have taken signal detection to a level previously unimagined. These same methods can find and target radio-frequency emissions.

Because of these new signal detection capabilities, the military must develop a whole-of-force strategy to protect combat forces from electromagnetic detection and targeting. I believe this effort will require four essential goals: dominate the spectrum, minimize signals, mask in depth and continuous passive obfuscation.

To dominate the electromagnetic domain, the best defense may be a great offense. We cannot allow an adversary to detect signals from our high-value targets. Tactical planners should know the ranges of adversary signal detection capabilities and the offset required to prevent detection. Military communicators and electromagnetic experts should be integral members of any planning effort to revise doctrine or develop new tactical approaches.

To minimize signals, the military will need industry’s help. To ensure we always plan for the next contest, we should assume the worst when it comes to signal detection, and system requirements should have safeguards baked in.

By masking the electromagnetic signature of our units, in-depth, we can challenge an adversary to find the highest-value assets during the first volley. Presenting layers of noise may help hide the signals that matter most and preserve combat power for response efforts. Every long-range shot matters, and counter-battery tactics will be critical in the early phases of most fights.

To fight and win in a contested electromagnetic domain will require new tactics to confuse an adversary’s sensors and analytical tools continuously. The future of the electromagnetic fight will also demand the ability to adapt new means of detecting ever-evolving signal patterns rapidly. Likewise, avoiding detection requires new techniques and tactics for deploying, operating and maneuvering emitters.

We may still own the night, but we may be losing the electromagnetic domain. The risk of detection is real, and countermeasures are increasing due to advances in sensor proliferation and machine learning. To adapt to and overcome these challenges, the Defense Department needs a plan to dominate the electromagnetic domain, minimize emissions, mask signals and continuously present patterns of emission that confuse our adversaries’ detectors. The time has come to raise the noise floor.

Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA, created an online forum to foster discussions on emerging technologies at www.militarycommunicators.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views and opinions of the Defense Department, U.S. Army or other organizations with which he has had an affiliation.

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