Defined by their remoteness and extreme climate, the polar regions present an array of tactical and operational challenges to US forces as sea icing, repeated thawing and freezing cycles, permafrost, and frequent storms can complicate otherwise simple operations. However, often overlooked are the challenges to communications, which are critical to Navy and Coast Guard vessels operating in the polar regions. Perhaps once possible to ignore, these challenges are becoming more pressing as the Marines, Navy and Coast Guard increase their operations at higher latitudes and place more emphasis on the arctic and more arguments are made for sending Marines and soldiers to the arctic for training and presence. In order for US naval forces to compete in the polar regions and fight if needed, the military needs to invest in persistent and reliable communications capabilities. One solution is high-altitude balloons.
Arctic experts have long understood the difficulty of communicating in the arctic, noting that “While communicating today might be easier than it was for Commodore Perry 111 years ago, it’s not that much better.” Arctic communications are especially difficult for a number of reasons. Satellite-based options are limited or nonexistent because the vast majority of satellites maintain equatorial orbits, which means the polar region’s extreme latitudes fall outside satellite range. Though a few satellites follow non-equatorial orbits, there are simply not enough to provide continuous connectivity at the bandwidth needed for modern operations.
There are also natural barriers to communications in the arctic. The ionosphere covering the polar regions has a high-level of electron precipitation, which is the same characteristic that produces the Northern Lights. However, this interferes with and degrades the high-frequency (HF) radios that the military normally uses for long-range communications in the absence of satellites. Additionally, the extreme climate and cold weather in the arctic presents another challenge to communications infrastructure such as antennas and ground stations. Arctic conditions make it harder to access and maintain ground arrays, batteries expire faster in colder temperatures, and equipment can easily be buried by falling snow and lost.
Finally, the near complete lack of civilian infrastructure complicates arctic communications. The polar regions comprise about eight percent of the earth’s surface, accounting for over 10 million square miles of land on which only about 4 million people live. Most are clustered in small communities, resulting in sparse commercial communications infrastructure across the region. However, persistent and reliable communications are absolutely essential for the successful employment of maritime forces in the arctic.
One solution is for naval forces to use high-altitude balloons that provide temporary communications capabilities. Balloons are far cheaper than satellites and much more responsive. They can be quickly deployed where coverage is needed and fitted with communications payloads specific to the mission. They are also low-cost and effective enough that they can be used not only in operations but also in training at austere locations.
Balloons offer a degree of flexibility critical for operations in remote environments like the arctic. Differently sized balloons can be fitted with specific capacities for mission-tailored requirements and priorities. The size of payload, loiter time, and capabilities are primarily a function of balloon size. Large balloons and stratospheric airships can stay aloft for months, while smaller “zero pressure” balloons might last hours or a few days. Given their diverse uses and capabilities, high-altitude balloons have already been used to provide communications in hard-to-access environments by organizations such as NASA, the US Air Force, and Google. For example, researchers at the Southwest Research Institute and NASA have supported atmospheric balloon flights over the poles that lasted up to a month – more than enough time to meet operational needs.
Though there are various ways to launch and lift high-altitude balloons, recent advances show that hydrogen gas is the best candidate. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory recently discovered a new way to generate hydrogen with aluminum and water. With this new ‘MIT process,’ researchers have already demonstrated the ability to fill atmospheric balloons with hydrogen in just minutes – a fraction of the time it takes using other methods. The MIT process promises to be not just faster, but also cheaper and safer than other methods of hydrogen generation. It also means that units can generate hydrogen at the point of use – obviating the need to store or transport the volatile gas or other compressed gasses. The researchers have demonstrated effective hydrogen generation with scrap and recycled aluminum and with non-purified water including coffee, urine, and seawater.
The deployment of balloons utilizing this new hydrogen generation process would be extremely simple. A balloon system could conceivably be developed where the system is simply dropped into the ocean from a ship, airplane, or helicopter with a mechanism that causes it to self-deploy when it comes into contact with seawater. This single system – one that does not require stores of compressed gas or an electrolyzer to generate hydrogen – would also take up far less space than other balloons and the associated equipment required to get them aloft. Balloons full of hydrogen gas could also act as giant batteries as the hydrogen can also be used to power communications equipment or sensors.
So far, the US Coast Guard has been leading the way with arctic communications. The service has highlighted improving communications in the arctic as part of their first line of effort in the 2019 Arctic Strategic Outlook and as a key initiative in their 2015 Arctic Strategy Implementation Plan. Along with the Marine Corps, the service has also been experimenting with Lockheed’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), a next-generation satellite communication constellation intended to replace the constellation that the Pentagon relies on today. But even the systems’ creators are clear that in extreme polar regions, MOUS may only offer eight hours of coverage per day. Constellations of small and cheap cube satellites might also be a partial fix for the communications dead zones, but hundreds or thousands would be required to cover a region as large as the arctic. The Army and the Air Force are also interested and intend to invest $50 millioneach toward arctic communications. The Army has previously experimented with using high-altitude balloons to support multi-domain operations and might be a key partner in developing an arctic communications capability, and the Air Force is looking at using commercial broadband satellites to meet service and joint communications needs in the arctic.
Communications issues are a consequence of the polar operating environment and an obstacle for the military services operating there. But just because the environment is difficult does not mean that US forces have to go without persistent and reliable communications. High-altitude balloons could plug the communications gap not just for maritime forces but also for the Army and special operations units operating in these extreme latitudes. Developing and deploying high-altitude communications balloons, lifted by hydrogen gas generated by the MIT process, offers near-term capability for US forces operating in polar regions with underdeveloped communications infrastructure.
Walker D. Mills is a U.S. Marine Corps officer serving as an exchange officer in Cartagena, Colombia, the 2021 Military Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum, and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future War.
The views expressed are his alone and do not represent the United States government, the Colombian government, the United States military, or the United States Marine Corps.
Feature Image: A NASA long duration balloon is prepared for launch on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo Station in 2004. (NASA photo)
Written by Terence Bennett, Naval Applications of Tech discusses how emerging and disruptive technologies can be used to make the U.S. Navy more effective. It examines potential and evolving developments in the tech industry, communication platforms, computer software and hardware, mechanical systems, power generation, and other areas.
“The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way!’”— Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in an interview in Information Week, March 9, 1987, p. 52
By Terence Bennett
The famous phase, ‘One if by land, and Two if by sea’ recalls Paul Revere’s ride to warn of the impending British approach, but it is also an example of an early light communication system. From lighting large signal fires during the time of Homers’ Iliad to lighting smaller fires on Greek picket vessels to warn of a Persian attack, light communication has been used in military application for centuries. Additionally, the use of signal lamps – whale oil, then kerosene, and ultimately electric lamps – has been a staple of modern maritime communication. The Aldis Lamp, invented in the early 1900s, which uses Venetian blinds to easily cover and uncover a light bulb, is the most recent iteration of this technology. Its pairing with Morse code allowed for a sophisticated form of visual communication that has yet to be replaced. This technology was critical during the Battle of the Atlantic, when radio silence and highly coordinated tight formations were imperative for the safe transit of Allied convoys.1Although ship to ship communication has shifted almost entirely to radio communication, Aldis lamps are still ubiquitous on the bridge wings of U.S. Navy ships due to their simplicity and effectiveness. Light communication has again shown the potential to assist ships in secure and reliability communication. Light Fidelity communication is a new technology with widespread application in both ship-to-ship and internal ship communication.
In today’s increasingly complex world of Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) systems and cyber attacks, there is a returning place for this ancient form of at-sea communication. A new form of light communication system called LiFi, or Light Fidelity, uses generic Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) to transmit high-speed data through the visual light spectrum, and could be used for ship-to-ship communication.
Researcher Harald Hass has developed a way to modulate the intensity of a LED bulb like a radio wave, and receive its signal through a photodiode to decode it. The technology was first demonstrated at a TED talk given by Haas in 2011. LiFi works by modulating the normally steady stream of light from an LED bulb at over a million cycles per second (or 1MHz). A photodiode receiving unit can detect these modulations in the form of undetectable flashes and decode them into a signal. Once a photodiode receives the signal, it is decoded like any other signal and the computer determines what to do with the data. The network works on the same principles as WiFi, but at much greater speeds (up to 224 GB/sec). In its commercial application, LiFi will challenge WiFi’s dominance of the networkable wireless field.2 Most advances in the technology have been to develop LiFi use for a standard room-sized area as a replacement for WiFi, but some research has proven LiFi’s ability to transmit at distance. A project in the Czech Republic, called the Reasonable Optical Near Joint Access (RONJO) project, has created an open source light communication system that transmits a 10 Megabit per second link, comparable to a high-speed Internet connection, over a one-mile distance. The project design was released under a General Public Use Free license and the parts only cost about $100. Some amateur users have been running the system for more than ten years and report high reliability communication during day or night, and even in light rain, fog or snow.3
With additional research and customization, the range of this technology could be extended to the twelve nautical mile horizon and still be extremely secure, requiring an adversary vessel to either get between the two vessels communicating or into a position behind one of them to intercept half of the transmission. Mr. Haas’ early version of LiFi reached broadcast levels of 10 MB/sec, similar to the RONJO project. Mr. Haas’ later research uses diode lasers with different light frequencies that are interpreted as different channels, thus allowing for data transfer rates up to 224 GB/sec.4
This technology is especially exciting for its use in special applications. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is currently working with the firms Exelis and Nova-Sol to develop the Tactical Line-of-Sight Optical Network (TALON) for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication. The TALON is still in a testing phase, but is estimated to be deployable within the next five years.5 It works in the invisible spectrum, requires proprietary technology, and although ‘low cost’ by Navy standards, it certainly costs orders of magnitude more than the $100 off-the-shelf RONJO design. Although the TALON system will fill important gaps in our communication architecture, specifically the transfer of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) data, it will be expensive and ultimately designed for a niche purpose as with all proprietary systems.
Because of these limitations, a simpler Sailor-built LiFi system modeled after the RONJO design has a place in the Navy today. In a future battlespace of radar spoofing and communication jamming, the Navy needs secondary and tertiary technologies to support these mission critical functions. Ship-to-ship LiFi could provide a cheap, secure, and, reliable technology for ships in formation. Commanders can build this redundant capability using a ship’s 2M shop (onboard Electronics Technicians), who can build and repair these systems with off-the-shelf components and software. Unlike many Navy systems that require contract support, the RONJO LiFi system would make ships wholly independent of technical support from the shore.
Through experimentation the Navy can take immediate advantage of the advances in LiFi discussed above. By looking at LiFi as a high-tech upgrade of the ALDIS lamp, the Navy can provide a necessary, dependable, and affordable capability to the Fleet. LiFi also has applications for the Navy outside of ship-to-ship communication in internal communication systems.
In April of last year, the Navy started experimenting with issuing Sailors tablets at Basic Training. The long term goal of this eSailor program is to integrate many daily functions through these wireless devices while also giving Sailors a tool to connect with family and friends. By doing this, the Navy will build a scalable and flexible platform for implementing training, maintenance requirements, and general daily functions. The long-term viability of this program relies upon the Navy developing a system to securely and efficiently connect devices to internal Navy networks and the Internet. Traditional technologies have proven difficult to implement and hardwire connections like Ethernet defeat the purpose of going wireless. The most common WiFi frequency, 2.4Ghz, has become mainstream because of its ability to penetrate wood, sheet rock, and even small amounts of concrete and metal. The nature of ship construction though, ¼ inch steel bulkheads in particular, obstructs the propagation of these frequencies.
The Navy needs an internal wireless broadcast network for use with personal tablet devices. The adoption and implementation of the eSailor tablet program rests on the ability for tablets to be used on ships for everyday functions. Sailors will need to connect to central maintenance servers onboard the ship and other internal Navy networks. The security of these internal servers is very important, which has led the Navy to move slowly toward connecting internal servers to anything besides traditional Ethernet connections.
The Navy has many options for securing a traditional wireless network on land, but ships provide many more challenges. One option is to place the router in a low space, like a basement, to shape the signal only upwards and not outwards. Another method would be to set up multiple routers at low broadcast power levels to ensure the signal did not leave the intended area. These methods would be difficult and expensive to set up on a steel ship because of the high degradation of the 2.4 GHz frequency through steel. Instead, LiFi broadcast technology could provide a highly secure method to transmit data inside ships while not adding to a ship’s electronic signature or making the network vulnerable to attack from outside the ship. Due to the recent nature of advances in LiFi technology, commercial products are limited, but many companies are demonstrating exciting potential for the technology. Ultimately, competition in the network industry will make LiFi a long-term affordable solution.6
The Navy’s recent demonstrations with 4G LTE aboard the USS Kearsarge and USS San Antonio proved this highly adaptive traditional cell phone technology works for broadcasting high speed signals in a local area. The system brought voice, text, and video communications to the crew of these amphibious ships. But it also demonstrated the very real difficulty of closed steel doors cutting off radio signals.7 The commercial availability and easy integration of 4G makes it a great candidate for fleet-wide and ship-to-ship communication. Furthermore, it could allow Sailors to make phone calls home without using a ship’s limited secure bandwidth. There is a downside to an over reliance on 4G technology though, its open broadcast architecture. As with other radio frequency emissions, it can be collected passively, giving away a ship’s position and reducing Operational Security (OPSEC). At times, operational commanders will want to turn off these broadcasts to allow a ship to hide.
The Navy has a real requirement to find an internal wireless broadcast medium that is affordable, reliably secure, and can be used when standard radio systems are secured for operational reasons. WiFi fails all three needs because it will be inherently difficult and expensive to set up on a ship – both due to ships’ steel construction and its expense and largely dectable radio footprint. Despite recent successes with 4G at sea, it fails the same tests as WiFi because of its inability to broadcast within a ship and be used during periods of radio silence.
Assuming every lamp on a ship was installed with LiFi bulbs, multiple LiFi enabled tablets would be able to connect to a local ship’s network the same way they would connect to a WiFi network. An obvious requirement for LiFi is having the lights on, which is not a problem on ships, but researchers have even proven that LiFi can work from a barely-detectable dimmed lightbulb as well.
As for security, transmitting LiFi could prove problematic if an adversary was close enough to see it and be able to decode it, but design requirements for U.S. Navy ships provide a natural barrier against accidental LiFi emission. Positive-pressure ventilation systems and the preexisting shipboard requirement to control externally emitted light at sea make ships a great platform for LiFi. Starting with the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the Navy has implemented positive-pressure air filtration systems called the Collective Protection System (CPS) aboard ships. This design concept means that modern warships have significantly fewer windows and openings. This fact, combined with the importance to all ships of controlling their light emission at sea for purposes of Rules of the Road, means that the only light emitting from a ship is intentional.
A majorhurdle that technologists have yet to fully overcome is the unbalanced nature of LiFi transmission. The technology is ideal for providing download capability from an overhead lamp, but the upload side of transmission back to a router is more difficult. The use of traditional WiFi frequencies have been proposed for home use since downloading is the typical bottleneck in internet traffic. Docking stations or limited upload-only Wifi stations could be used around a ship to alleviate this problem.
There will be many engineering challenges to the ultimate adoption of LiFi, but the technology industry is making large investments in LiFi and these advances will make later adoption more affordable. PureLiFi and light bulb manufacturer Lucibel have already created the first industrial scale LiFi system and outfitted a recent conference venue with the bulbs as a demonstration. Velmenni, an Indian startup company, developed a smartphone adapter case with a LiFi adapter.8, 9 Recently, Apple patented multiple LiFi-enabled features including the ability to capture data though the photodiode in the iPhone camera. Apple also appears to be developing a LiFi enabled lighting fixture.10
With the Navy already planning to install LED bulbs throughout ships, LiFi is an elegant solution for a sticky problem. In April of last year, the Secretary of the Navy released a memo directing all new construction ships to be outfitted with LED lamps instead of florescent lamps. The press release states that 170 ships already have LEDs installed on them.11 With a little foresight, the Navy could install the required modulation hardware with the new LED lamps to allow for later implementation of an approved LiFi system.
Together, the RONJO solution to Ship-to-Ship communication and PureLiFi solution to WiFi limitations provide a lucrative opportunity for the Navy. In the case of RONJO, the Navy need only leverage a Ship’s onboard manpower to build and maintain a LiFi system to RONJO specifications. With minor adjusting, this system would work today in calm seas. With some additional re-engineering the potential is far more versatile. In the case of networkable LiFi like PureLiFi, the Navy need only look ahead in shipbuilding. The Navy would need to fund the addition of a modulation capability during scheduled installation of LED overhead lamps in new and existing Navy ships. This technology is being worked on by some of the biggest names in Tech. The Navy just needs a small amount of investment now to benefit greatly from it in the future.
Terence Bennett is a Navy Lieutenant who enjoys researching and learning about new technology. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. Government agency.
1. Haas, Harald, “Wireless Data from Every Light Bulb,” Youtube, August 2, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaoSp4NpkGg.
2. Andrew Williams, The Battle of the Atlantic: The Allies’ Submarine Fight against Hitler’s Gray Wolves of the Sea, New York: Basic Books, 2004.
3. “Home.” Home, http://ronja.twibright.com/.
4. Nicole Arce, “Oxford Researchers Achieve 224 Gbps Connection Using Light: LiFi Will Let You Download 1.5GB Movie In A Blink,” Tech Times, February 18, 2015, http://www.techtimes.com/articles/33295/20150218/oxford-researchers-achieve-224-gbps-connection-using-light-lifi-will-let-you-download-1-5gb-movie-in-a-blink.htm.
5. Charles Casey, “Free Space Optical Communication in the Military Environment,” Dissertation, August 2014, http://hdl.handle.net/10945/43886.
6. Allison Williams, “LEDs Could Replace Your Wi-Fi.” Popular Science, July 14, 2016, http://www.popsci.com/say-hi-to-lo-fi.
7. Spencer Ackerman, “Navy’s First 4G Network Will Head Out to Sea in March,” Wired.com, https://www.wired.com/2013/02/navy-wwan-deploys/.
8. Nikola Serafimovsk, “PureLiFi and Lucibel Introduce First Fully Industrialized LiFi Luminaire – PureLiFi™,” PureLiFi, November 25, 2015, http://purelifi.com/purelifi-and-lucibel-introduce-first-fully-industrialized-lifi-luminaire/.
10. Ray Molony, “Why Is Apple Starting to Patent Light Fittings?” Lux Magazine and Lux Review, January 12, 2016, http://luxreview.com/article/2016/01/why-is-apple-starting-to-patent-light-fittings-.
11. Secretary of the Navy Public Affairs, “SECNAV Directs Navy to Expand Use of LEDs, Navy.mil, April 13, 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=86532.
Featured Image: U.S. Navy file photo. (MC2 Ryan J. Batchelder)
A Story of Climate Change, Destruction and Global Solidarity
The little archipelago of Vanuatu in the South Pacific has been struck by a tropical cyclone of nearly unprecedented scale on the night from Friday the 13th (!) to 14th March 2015. With 165 MPH winds, the category 5 cyclone named ‘Pam’ is the most destructive tropical cyclone in Vanuatu’s history and the second most intense tropical cyclone in the South Pacific basin after Cyclone Zoe of 2002. Zoe hit several small islands in the Temotu Province of the Solomon Islands with a total population of 1700.
Pam was much stronger than Hurricane Katrina. Now, Vanuatu must begin the long process of recovering.
Casualties and damages
As of 16 March, the National Disaster Management Office confirmed 24 fatalities in total, including 11 from Tafea, 8 from Efate, and 5 from Tanna. However, there are still no reliable casualty figures from the rest of the country.
The president of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, told the Associated Press:
“More than 1,000 people have been evacuated to evacuation centers and will be returning to their homes some time later today, if their homes still stand. That’s in the capital Port Vila alone. Confirmed dead in Port Vila is 6 and more than 30 injuries. I do believe the number of casualties will not be high. More than 90% of the buildings and houses in Port Vila have been destroyed or damaged. The state of emergency that has been issued is only for Port Vila. Once we receive an update on the extent of the damage in the provinces then another state of emergency will be issued for the outer islands. Despite widespread damage, Shefa remains the only province declared an emergency at this stage.”
Climate change as suspect N°1
President Lonsdale declared that climate change was contributing to the severe weather his country is experiencing: “Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu. We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year.” He added that his country had been “wiped out” by the catastrophe and would have to build “a new paradise again”.
President Lonsdale received the support of Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, who declared:
“For leaders of low-lying island atolls, the hazards of global warming affect our people in different ways, and it is a catastrophe that impinges on our rights and our survival into the future. There will be a time when the waters will not recede. It is now time to act on climate change.”
Kiribati is slowly disappearing under the seas and some of its population has been sent to Fiji as the first climate-change refugees of the world. Three islands of Kiribati have been struck by the cyclone Pam and Tuvalu is thought to have suffered extensive damage.
International aid on its way
The first priority now is humanitarian needs. 90% of the buildings have been destroyed and people have nowhere to stay. President Lonsdale has been asking for help:
“Clothing, eating utensils, and bathing, most of the necessary items of the households, all this has been destroyed and damaged. I really request for humanitarian needs and assistance at this stage. Tarpaulins, water containers, medical needs, gathering tools, and construction tools, all these are very important right now.”
Currently, 3,300 people are sheltering in 37 evacuation centers in Torba and Penama Provinces, and on the main island of Efate. UNICEF officials warned that the entire population of Tanna island faces starvation within days. Indeed, the cyclone destroyed all crops on the island. Islanders have just a few days of fruit and root vegetables left. There are very serious concerns about food stocks going forward.
Somewhat more positive, communications have been almost fully restored in Port Vila but other islands remain cut off from the world. People remain without power and ADRA Australia reported that most evacuation centers lacked even basic hand washing facilities. Another source of concern is contamined water supplies and the risk of the spread of dengue and malaria.
Aerial assessments have been carried out by military aircraft from New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand. On Sunday, France sent a military plane, a Casa loaded with relief supplies, a vehicle to enable the recognition, a generator for a desalination plant, sheeting for shelters to protect a hundred families, the Route Opening equipment (chainsaws, and other tools), satellite communications, along with a logistics unit to support the detachment for 10 days. The plane came from Tahiti and took off from Noumea (New Caledonia), which is only 500 km away from Vanuatu. The Casa carried three soldiers, a member of the Civil Security and a member of the Red Cross. A second plane was sent on Monday.
The Australian Defence Force sent two C-17A Globemaster IIIs loaded with food and basic equipment and a C-130J with an on-board evaluation team. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop pledged long-term support for the recovery effort and sent two more military aircraft. AP-3C Orion maritime patrol was positioned in Honiara, Solomon Islands and started aerial reconnaissance of the archipelago. A second AP-3C Orion launched reconnaissance flights in northern Archipe.
In Polynesia, the Air Force is operating with a detachment consisting of a transport squadron of two tactical transport Casa 235s (ETOM 0082) while in New Caledonia, the Air Force maintains the transport squadron (ET52) with two Casa planes and three Puma helicopters. The frigate Vendémiaire, currently in Noumea, will be deployed to the remote island of Tanna on Friday. It will carry a Puma helicopter on board. Another humanitarian C-17 transport plane with emergency supplies took off from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, UK as part of a growing effort involving countries from around the world.
The 268,000 affected people are spread over 65 islands, with security experts likening it to dealing with 65 simultaneous emergencies. Furthermore, the difficulty of travel from one island to another makes it incredibly hard to compile an accurate picture of what the situation is.
I remember going to remote islands of Vanuatu with the French Navy: Ni-Vanuatu had nothing but gave us everything.
To those affected, we have everything. Let’s at least give them something. It’s up to us to make sure that these wonderful people don’t die suffering from hunger, thirst, cold, fear alone on their ravaged island.
In the Peloponnesian War, the 414 BC final battle of Epipole showed the pitfalls of an over-reliance on communications and single circuits. During this last battle of the Athenian siege of Syracuse, the Syracusans countered the attempt of Athens to wall in the city by building a counter-wall in the projected path of Athen’s efforts. The Syracusans had gained a critical blocking position, and Athenian General Demosthenes concocted a plan to dislodge the defenders. The Athenian forces stalled during the daytime battles outside the counter-wall, when their enemies could easily observe and rally against them, so General Demosthenes planned t strike the counter-wall at night. The well-organized nighttime Athenian attack completely overwhelmed and nearly destroyed the first Syracusan garrison. As the alarm sounded, the Athenians rushed forward without allowing themselves time to re-organize and re-identify. When the first real resistance was met, the ensuing disaster captured by Thucydides is worth citing in full:
“Although there was a bright moon they saw each other only as men do by moonlight, that is to say, they could distinguish the form of the body, but could not tell for certain whether it was a friend or an enemy. Both had great numbers of heavy infantry moving about in a small space. Some of the Athenians were already defeated, while others were coming up yet unconquered for their first attack. A large part also of the rest of their forces either had only just got up, or were still ascending, so that they did not know which way to march. Owing to the rout that had taken place all in front was now in confusion, and the noise made it difficult to distinguish anything. The victorious Syracusans and allies were cheering each other on with loud cries, by night the only possible means of communication, and meanwhile receiving all who came against them; while the Athenians were seeking for one another, taking all in front of them for enemies, even although they might be some of their now flying friends; and by constantly asking for the watchword, which was their only means of recognition, not only caused great confusion among themselves by asking all at once, but also made it known to the enemy, whose own they did not so readily discover, as the Syracusans were victorious and not scattered, and thus less easily mistaken. The result was that if the Athenians fell in with a party of the enemy that was weaker than they, it escaped them through knowing their watchword; while if they themselves failed to answer they were put to the sword. But what hurt them as much, or indeed more than anything else, was the singing of the paean, from the perplexity which it caused by being nearly the same on either side; the Argives and Corcyraeans and any other Dorian peoples in the army, struck terror into the Athenians whenever they raised their paean, no less than did the enemy.”
In Sicily, the simple task of a man not stabbing his own ally in the face with a sword was hard enough with only primordial Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) and comms. In today’s high-speed remote-control warfare and vulnerable high-tech comms, in which seconds can mean life-or-death, the potential to accidentally destroy a friend, miss an enemy, or become isolated is even greater. When the enemy knows the “watch-words,” this potential becomes a certainty as paranoia and confusion set in.
The Offense Challenge
The defender often has the simpler fight. As illustrated in the excerpt and so aptly explained by the indomitable Chesty Puller, “So they’ve got us surrounded, good! Now we can fire in any direction, those bastards won’t get away this time!” The U.S. Navy, in its typical role as the expeditionary power, will almost always have that offense-disadvantage. It has yet to fight an enemy that can attack the precious network of communications that creates such an unspeakable force multiplier in the field. When the network is attacked, the swarm of American ships, missiles, and aircraft itself becomes a liability, as were the Athenians who cut apart their own brothers ahead of them.
Protecting Less with More
The solution to the communication weakness is to stay ahead of the offense-defense struggle through aggressive capital investment and streamlined lines of communication. As with the use of setting AEGIS doctrine to auto-respond to anti-ship missile (ASM) threats, cyber-warfare is far too fast for human operators. Our virtual-defense infrastructure may be significant, but it is slow, human, and defending far too many unnecessary and redundant communications. A response is a smarter investment in cyber-defense capital and a more disciplined use of our vital communications networks.
Streamlining comes from bringing all communications under control, or more accurately bringing under control those using them. We are the Athenians screaming our watch-word at one another because no one bothered to re-organize before charging in. It boils down to paying attention and staying calm; what we have is seventeen sources pinging a ship for the same information that is held in 8 PowerPoint trackers, 2 messages, at least one call over the voice circuits, and 30 emails with at least half the lazy people asking for the information in the CC line. The sheer bandwidth of material that needs protection and monitoring could be decreased with a “ctrl-f” search of email and message traffic. It also leaves a veritable treasure-trove of information lying around in hundreds of different locations, making it easier to steal or detect. Better training – not only in proper communications procedures/methods, but basic computer literacy, – could solve this problem.
The speed of cyber-attacks only allows the “labor” side of the equation to be reactive; capital investment would concentrate more money in autonomous and innovative defensive programs: 10th Fleet’s AEGIS. Proactive patrol and detection can be done with greater advances in adaptive self-modifying programs and programs that can learn or understand context. Recent developments in computing systems point to more organic systems that can”live” in the systems they defend. Biological processors and organic computing allow for hardware that thinks and learns independently, potentially giving defensive networks the added advantage of an instinct and suspicion. The development of mutable indium antimonide magnetic processors mean that the circuit hardware of a device may now be as mutable as the software running it. Imagine the vast new horizons in the OODA loop of defensive cyber systems with hubs sporting the defensive animal instinct and the ability to re-wire their own hardware. The image painted is dramatic and far-off, but modest investment and staged introduction would serve as a better model than the dangerous possibility of a “human wave” mode of thinking. With better fluid cyber-defense systems guarding more disciplined communicators, the U.S. Navy can guard its forces against Epipolaes.
Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. 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.