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DHS Counter-Jamming Exercise Serves Dual Purpose

Cell On Light Trucks plays an unusual role.
This flag waving over JamX previously soared over Ground Zero beginning two days after September 11, 2001.  The JamX event, coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security, offers lessons learned for enhancing tactics, techniques, procedures, technologies and training to counter electronic signal jamming that could interfere with military and emergency response missions. Photo provided by the Department of Homeland Security

This flag waving over JamX previously soared over Ground Zero beginning two days after September 11, 2001. The JamX event, coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security, offers lessons learned for enhancing tactics, techniques, procedures, technologies and training to counter electronic signal jamming that could interfere with military and emergency response missions. Photo provided by the Department of Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) counter-jamming exercise known as JamX 2022, which was conducted April 25-29 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, served two purposes: to assess the effectiveness of resilient communications training for operational and technical personnel and to assess technologies designed to identify, locate and mitigate spectrum interference and measure the impact of that interference on communications networks.

The exercise is coordinated by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate and the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Information shared during the event is expected to enhance anti-jamming technologies and inform policy to ensure resilient requirements for first responders’ communications systems.

This year’s JamX, an exercise last held in 2017, was divided into two parts. The first, Operation Trinity, involved federal and first responder personnel to assess the training. “The training courses were everything from basic radio disciplines to spectrum interference,” reports Sridhar Kowdley, a technical manager within the Science and Technology Directorate.

He stressed the need for primary, alternative, contingency and emergency communications planning. “If you can’t get through on one channel, switch to another channel. If you can’t get through on another channel, jump to another frequency band. If that doesn’t work, jump to an entirely new system—all the way up to what we affectionately call ‘sneaker net’ where people are running messages around.”

The second part of the exercise, Project Resilience, included academia, federal departments and agencies and industry. “JamX 22 is a critical step toward nationwide communications resilience, bringing together a diverse group of participants with unique operational experiences to inform future research, development and training,” Kathryn Coulter Mitchell, the DHS senior official performing the duties of the Under Secretary for Science and Technology, says in a press release.

That diverse group included about 220 people from multiple states, industry, academia and federal, state and local agencies. “Industry likes it because they don’t get work with these types of signals in the open air, Kowdley offers. “That’s the aha for them so they can develop products and solutions.”

Personnel from the Defense Department’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering also participated, bringing along a Cell On Light Truck (COLT), a system for experimenting with fifth-generation cellular capabilities. The COLT ended up playing an important role. “When we had a carrier drop out of our event, we didn’t have cellular infrastructure. They have a partnership with T-Mobile, so they actually came out to provide the service, not only providing service for the responders on range but also to be a victim system and collect data on their own,” Kowdley says.

JamX included a few other surprises as well. “We never expected certain results that we found. In some cases, it was very, very tricky to jam things,” Kowdley says. “From an operational tactic, we learned a few things as far as how to interfere with systems.”

It will take some time for DHS officials to analyze the data and fully determine lessons learned, but Kowdley says antenna polarization seems to be critical. “Some products we were buying have a certain polarization, and that seemed to make a difference. Shadowing, propagation analysis is another key thing,” he adds. “Also, if you have multi-band systems, looking at the power spectrum density of the jammers versus the actual desired signal makes a difference.”

The exercise included an array of technologies, most of which are designed to locate, identify and counter jamming capabilities. Kowdley cited antennas that null the jamming signals but not the desired signals.

The Science and Technology Directorate added two systems under development: the Miniature Intelligent Spectrum Analyzer, MISCAN, which is a wearable and vehicle-mounted device that detects and alerts first responders to radio interference, and PRiSM, a handheld network scanner and spectrum analyzer.

The goal, Kowdley indicates, is to deliver technologies that state and local agencies can afford, such as spectrum analyzer technologies that could potentially cost less than $1,000 but certainly no more than a few thousand rather than tens of thousands of dollars. 

Red teams tried to prevent blue teams from transmitting messages during the exercise. Kowdley equated the jamming techniques to cyber attacks. “What we did at White Sands is a type of cyber attack because it’s a denial of service. If you attack by jamming the spectrum or interfering with the spectrum, you are creating a denial-of-service attack, which is really what we’re operating against,” he says. “The idea is to operate through the attack.”

DHS officials do not know yet when they will hold the next JamX, possibly in two or four years. But they do expect to concentrate on fourth- and fifth-generation cellular capabilities. “Our focus moving forward will be on the advanced technologies—4G and 5G. And we haven’t done any millimeter wave. We certainly want to look at millimeter wave and some more advanced features both in terms of jamming and resilience,” Kowdley says.