Signal Corps Shoulders More Than the Network
Warfighters depend on signaleers across the spectrum of operations.
A broad misconception is that the U.S. Army Signal Corps is a single-function organization, but its responsibilities have grown over time, and it is now a vital element of communications support that applies technology to ensure mission success. As much as the Army performs maneuver operations on land, it also performs signal offensive, defensive and stability operations in the cyber domain.
The Army’s Signal officers are expected to perform duties well beyond communications support. Signal organizations are the nexus of cyber and electronic warfare activities.
Today, this work primarily involves managing and manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum. Separating information from raw data or messages from radiation interference is the discriminator between success and failure for signal operations. However, over several generations, signaleers have ignored this goal, creating a gap in the ability to understand and articulate the many functions the Signal Corps performs.
The increasing importance of cybersecurity is one area that has added new dimensions to the Signal Corps and its role in operations. Early computers and networking were largely constructed with no interest in security, resulting in the separation of data security activities from the underlying communications support activities. However, for information assurance and cybersecurity activities to be successful, they must be considered together and at all stages of system and network life cycles.
One frequently used argument for assuming that the Signal Corps remains network-focused communications support is that Signal soldiers and organizations are the primary operators. Today, signaleers’ work involves transmission media such as satellite terminals, high capacity line-of-sight radios, cables and fiber, as well as the routers and switches that enable such networks to grow and communicate. However, this viewpoint misses the broader focus the Signal Corps must attain if it hopes to meet the needs of today’s warfighters.
Because of this loss of focus, it is estimated that the U.S. military is more than a decade behind both Russia and China in the deployment and employment of electronic warfare or code-based weaponry. Until recently, the work of these two disciplines was separated from one another and from communications support. While the Army has begun to recognize that these disciplines are subdisciplines of a unified field, it has only started to integrate them.
A first step toward integration is the cyber electromagnetic activities (CEMA) construct, which is the unification of cyber, electronic warfare and communications support, a long-overdue initiative. Coordination strengthens each, and the more cross-discipline work is done, the faster the United States can close the significant gap between the U.S. and its competitors and adversaries.
The CEMA construct is not new; it is simply a renaming of the fundamental work of the Signal Corps. By thinking of the Signal Corps purely as an organization focused on communications support, the Army has denied the use of natural language and embraced an ill-defined concept that provides no innate context. Without a unified theory, the Army is blindly turning the puzzle pieces of cyber, signal, electronic warfare and communications support without any edges or lines to define them. If this continues, efforts to unify the CEMA/Signal subdisciplines will be tentative and those units’ work wasted.
Another cost of confusing broad signal activities with communications support is the ongoing lack of clarity around the term cyber. Lt. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, USA, commander, U.S. Army Cyber Command, suggested at the 2018 TechNet Augusta conference that U.S. Cyber Command and Army Cyber Command need to be renamed without the term cyber, which exemplifies the problems with the language.
The cyber mission is an important part of the Signal Corps. Offensive signal operations increase the noise on enemy signal channels, whether through electronic warfare attacks at the physical or datalink layers or through introducing a higher layer of interference with information and data at rest or in motion. Defensive and sustainment operations focus on maintaining and repairing signals from background noise.
Historically, the Signal Corps is a corps of innovation. It has pushed the boundaries of long-distance coordination and countered the ability of foes to do the same. Long-range communications capabilities led to the corps helping originate the military weather corps and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Air Corps and radar. The concept of communications support and signals intelligence grew side by side through the split in trained signaleers between Union and Confederacy soldiers in the Civil War. This grew into aspects of military intelligence, including today’s focus on encryption and communications security.
At its best, the Signal Corps has engaged in a range of activities that stretched from the development of new technologies to the integration of information operations in the U.S. military. Today, these activities are almost universally conducted within or through the cyberspace domain, even when these disciplines have been handed off to specialists outside the Signal Corps.
Capt. Ryan Robinson, USA, is the battalion Signal officer for 1-101 Aviation Regiment, “No Mercy.”