Tag Archives: C2

A Relay Race: Communication Relay Drones

"Can you hear me now? No, it's because you grabbed the EO/IR sensor instead of the communications relay package again."
“Can you hear me now? No? It’s because you grabbed the EO/IR sensor instead of the communications relay package again.”

Much of the conversation surrounding the advent of naval drone warfare has focused on those platforms performing the more ‘kinetic’ types of warfare – anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, air warfare – and those of the voyeuristic surveillance variety.  However, a quick look at the composition of the carrier air wings of the U.S. Navy or the dispersed air units of a land campaign reminds us that supporting elements such as electronic warfare and command and control (C2) remain an integral part of modern combined operations.  While it may not be as “sexy” as the ability to deliver a missile on target, the ability to maintain battlefield communications is arguably more important as it is an enabler of nearly all other actions. 

In January, The Aviationist described the U.S. Air Force’s reiteration of the importance and utility of airborne assets providing communications by developing a new line-of-sight system:

The U.S. Air Force is trying to turn the targeting pods carried by some of its legacy fighters and the B-1 Lancer bomber, into flying wireless routers that would allow ground troops to communicate each other.

The U.S. military and associated defense contractors have experimented in the use of UAVs as communication relays over the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, outfitting extant UAVs with communication relay packages (CRPs) to extend the range of terrestrial communication – primarily radios.  At sea, UAVs outfitted to act as communications relays could fill a variety of roles. 

First, as their name suggests, aerial communication relay drones (CRDs) could act to expand the reach of vessels and shore facilities to either additional unmanned aerial, surface, or subsurface vehicles; or to outlying manned vessels such as RHIBs or other small craft.  Even if not the primary means of communication, or necessary for a second craft’s operation, CRDs could provide dedicated data paths with enhanced exchange rates to pass more information on more reliable connections.  This would be all the more important in an operational environment with disbursed tactical components – such as the mothership concept – with increasing competition for limited communication paths.

"Oh BAMS, you're just so hard to talk to these days."
                                           “Oh BAMS, you’re just so hard to talk to these days.”

Second, CRDs could act to re-establish communications with outlying stations, between vessels, or between vessels and shore facilities in the event primary comm paths are degraded, denied, or compromised.  Whether it’s the effects of jamming, environmental interference, data corruption, equipment malfunction, or the outright loss of that equipment (such as the perennial fear of anti-satellite actions) the ability to restore secure and reliable communications is critical capability.

Once again, the more a navy follows a distributed model of naval warfare, the more it will rely on comm paths to effectively wage war, and the more crucial it will be to be able to restore them.  Drone autonomy can help mitigate this reliance with built-in protocols in the event of loss of comm, but it does not prevent the loss of information flowing to the C2 nodes (i.e. decision makers lose sight of what’s going on) or between units, with a potential loss in tactical efficiency.  In truth, the more comfortable a navy becomes with autonomous drone operations, the more units a single C2 node will command, and the more expansive an operational area it will need to communicate across.  Adding to the problem, the more modern naval warfare relies on these comm paths and the more fragile they appear, the likelier they will be the target of adversary actions.

A third role for CRDs would be as a critical tool during humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) efforts.  Natural disasters have a nasty habit of taking down communication infrastructure such as cell towers, and even when they don’t, humans have a less nasty habit of trying to get in touch with their loved ones – thereby overwhelming what remains of the communications grid.  CRDs could help fill the gap.  Observation of recent international calamities has in fact led the U.S.’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to explore the use of UAVs to do just that, pressing ahead with ideas for the Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture.  Such an ability would also be useful in case of expeditionary operations into areas where such infrastructure never existed.

Communication relay drones could provide life-saving cellular and wireless service in an area decimated by a natural disaster.
Communication relay drones could provide life-saving cellular and wireless service in an area decimated by a natural disaster.

The capacity to restore comm paths, or establish alternates, could be achieved in a variety of manners.  CRDs could be purpose built or they could be so designated when a communications relay package/payload is fitted on to a multipurpose drone.  Depending on the mode of communication, CRDs could be designed to enhance extant communications past its normal quality, range, or security or they could provide simple bare-bones back-up.  CRDs could operate continuously in orbit or they could be held in reserve.  There are a lot of options to explore and a lot of tactical considerations to experiment with.  Perhaps the most important from a technical feasibility and cost/benefit analysis standpoint will be to parse through the various modes of communication that might be improved or restored – from radio to infrared to wireless to cellular.

While they haven’t received nearly as much attention as their sub-hunting, rocket-launching, or enemy-peeping kin, CRDs could fill a role just, if not more, important in the future of naval warfare.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

A Proposed Framework for Analysis of Chinese Naval Modernization


Fantasy or foresight?

There are two extremes in public discourse over China and the ambitious naval modernization campaign that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) has undertaken over the last two decades. On one hand, China is often presented as an existential threat whose massive naval build-up in both weapon quantity and quality, coupled with a newly aggressive foreign policy, makes it poised to directly challenge U.S. dominance of the high seas and hegemony in the Western Pacific. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, China is portrayed as a rational major player within an interlinked global economic system, for which conflict with the U.S. or other regional powers such as Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan, would be unthinkable and ruinous. Regardless of which depiction is more representative of reality, in an era of impending defense cutbacks, budget battles of the near future will repeatedly reference Chinese naval modernization as the driving justification to buy, develop, or retain all sorts of weapons and capabilities.

What has really been missing from much of the public debate over the Chinese navy is a holistic analytic framework to aid understanding of the potential impact of China’s burgeoning capabilities in a Sino-American conflict. This would be done through a better understanding of Chinese intentions in terms of its doctrine and both foreign and domestic policies. Those policies are not necessarily aligned. Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes’ Red Star over the Pacific discusses these issues, but their careful review of the evolution of Chinese naval strategy is not mirrored in discussions of China’s in the blogosphere. A focus on Chinese naval weapons system developments (the latest unveiling of a new Chinese ship, plane, missile, etc) can lead to both hysteria and conflicting calls for action. For instance, while the DF-21 Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile could potentially be a game-changing weapon impacting how war at sea will be fought in the future, it has yet to be fielded. However, some critics have already used its development to argue for the elimination of carriers and large surface combatants (because they are now potentially vulnerable), while others see its development as evidence of malign Chinese intent that justifies an American naval revitalization – presumably achieved by building many more large surface combatants.

A holistic analytic framework would assess 1) The elements of Chinese efforts comprising what is now commonly referred to as “Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, 2) the “quantity and readiness” of Chinese maritime power, and 3) Chinese strategy and policy. These factors form a three-legged stool of sorts, all of which must be in place for the argument to rest that China has the ability and intent to do harm to U.S. forces at sea, and therefore a U.S. naval expansion designed to counter China is merited (rather than one to ensure the U.S. Navy has the combat capability to meet US foreign policy objectives around the world).


• Chinese developments in the cyber domain are often cited as significant threats to U.S. naval operations. These threats range from jamming U.S. satellite and wireless communications networks, disrupting communications and preventing the means for effective Command and Control (C2), to cyber attacks on U.S. information technology, crippling dependent American C2 systems. Is China capable of executing cyber attacks that can cripple U.S. combat operations afloat?
• China has made a significant effort to build and buy a variety of the most modern and capable naval and air platforms currently available. These include new submarines, ships, and airplanes. Are these qualitatively superior to their American counterparts?
• China is also acquiring a variety of cutting edge high-end anti-ship cruise missiles and the already noted DF-21. Will these make it impossible for an afloat task force in its current incarnation to operate at sea in the Western Pacific as the U.S. Navy has grown accustomed to? Will these prove too much for the current generation of American countermeasures?


How much does this matter?


• While all the new weapons mentioned above present an abstract threat to U.S. naval forces in the sense that they seem extremely capable and represent the cutting edge of technology, are they now or will they ever exist in large enough numbers to present an actual threat to U.S. Navy operations?
• In the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the Chinese wouldn’t necessarily need numerical superiority over the U.S. force assembled in response, but how much capability would they need to bring to the fight in order to accomplish the mission? Regardless of how much “quality” navy they bring, how much “quantity” does China need before the balance tips in their favor?
• While all this new technology might be highly capable, Can Chinese forces effectively use it to maximum effect? Can they maintain this equipment? Do they have the logistics and infrastructure to support fielding it in combat?
• Are Chinese efforts towards cyber dominance integrated with their improvements in more conventional naval weapons and capabilities?

Strategy and Policy:

• Why are the Chinese pursuing a naval build-up? Is it driven by a bureaucratic impulse of the PLAN, a nationalist desire to be the regional hegemon, or the result of what China perceives as external security threats by the U.S. or other regional powers?
• What would drive China towards attempting a military takeover of Taiwan? Have they figured out how they would actually fight with the navy they have built?
• Does Chinese maritime strategy reflect the same principles as those of the U.S. Navy’s, in which maritime forces are important because they are the critical enablers for power projection across the globe, or do they simply represent an expansion of land power?

There are many conflicting answers to these questions, pointing towards many different potential conclusions. There is no simple answer as to whether Chinese naval modernization represents a grave threat to U.S. interests or what that means to the U.S. Navy’s acquisition efforts. Regardless, the need for deep and sustained analysis of China is merited and should be a high priority. In the mean time, one should be wary of simplistic analysis using the latest splashy announcement of a new Chinese ship/plane/missile to justify a particular course of action, particularly when linked to future defense acquisition strategies (Build more ships! Build less ships! Shift focus to/from carriers/amphibs/fighter jets/subs/SOF/unmanned systems/cyber!) Chinese capabilities and intentions need to be understood in their totality before driving shifts in U.S. defense policy.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAVstaff. He has previously served as at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.