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Tactical Communications Intelligence in the modern battlefield: navigating present threats and future trends

David Beckett, Business Development Director at TCI (part of SPX CommTech), explores modern tactical communications intelligence in defence and the trends that will shape the coming years – from omnipresent AI to accessible satellite communications

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Over the past few years, and particularly in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, we’ve come to realise that real-time communications intelligence (COMINT) is the most critical asset any team can have. War fighters and defence teams today, across conflicts large and small, require precise information from multiple sources to effectively address emerging threats. However, to do so successfully, information exchange must be instantaneous so that the best tactical and deployment decisions can be made.

Technology has fuelled great progress in COMINT. Yet, by its nature, it has also increased complexity across the battlefield because of its extended use on both sides of the conflict. Now, effective counter unmanned air systems (counter-UAS) are needed to address the mass deployment of intelligence gathering drones and their weaponisation by malicious agents.

The evolving threat across ground, sea and air

Significant developments have taken place in modern COMINT to keep up with the proliferation of UAS during conflict. From detecting the mere presence of malicious third parties to identifying the exact location of artillery operations, UAS COMINT supports Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations and target acquisition. What’s more, commercial drones are being deployed for initial identification of targets before higher value UAS provide precise targeting information allowing the right weapons system to counter the target.

In particular, the mass deployment of both commercial and military drones in the Russia-Ukraine war has been a catalyst for accelerated development of counter-UAS solutions. As threats continue to extend beyond land to air and sea, teams are spending more resources monitoring broader unmanned activity.

One of the most significant outcomes in COMINT has been the speed at which drones and UAS are being deployed by troops at every level – in multiple roles from platoon to brigade level, to ground-base air defenders. In response, defence teams need to implement multiple layers of systems and tools to counter the diverse target set, from military-grade intelligence gathering UAS or a weaponised commercial drone.

Being mindful of the trends ahead

In response to this volatile context, we’re trending towards a number of innovations and capabilities that will shape battlespace COMINT in the future – both strengthening defence teams and making things harder for malicious actors.

Among them is the progression of multi-domain operations, which allows modern defence teams to be more agile, flexible and coordinated in responding to threats across all land, sea and air. It involves bringing together the land, sea, air, electronic warfare and cyber domains into one coordinated activity. Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C5ISR) is at the core of this as well as COMINT and UAS detection which provide critical access to real-time battlefield intelligence.

AI will trend towards becoming omnipresent in all defence capabilities from communications, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR), COMINT to weapon systems. For example, recording the Radio Frequency (RF) profile of a hostile UAS will allow defence teams to build a ‘threat library’ of data that feeds machine learning and AI to automate future search and identification of unidentified systems. This analysis is crucial in determining the different level of threat a specific UAS will pose in the future, and the best response options to counter it. As these libraries build up, the information they gather can be merged from various sensors to make more informed decisions, aided by AI. Going forward we expect it will be much easier to approve the use and AI application in a soft kill counter-UAS, than it would be to include AI and remove the human element from a hard kill weapon system.

We also expect to see a move away from the heavy reliance upon satellite navigation systems which provide position, navigation and timing information. Should the satellites not be available for this intelligence, for instance due a malicious interception, platform-based solutions such as atomic clocks and oscillators will become increasingly crucial on the battlefield to unlock the key information of UAS solutions.

Satellite communications are becoming more accessible through standards such as MUOS (Multiple User Objective System), a beyond-the-line-of-sight system that is much harder to detect, and much more resistant to interference. Most importantly, this system has a much greater capacity and availability to users on the ground than traditional satellite communications. We’re also seeing mesh radios increase robustness of information delivery as they’re less prone to interruption in communications.

Finally, although not a direct capability on the ground, we anticipate an increase in the ability of governments to adjust acquisition models to rapidly procure equipment at the speed of relevance. Any delay in acquisition and deployment of a solution could render the system out of date when it reaches defence teams on the battlefield. We are seeing NATO countries working towards avoiding vendor lock-in, ultimately placing users in the driving seat for the rapid optimisation of their capabilities through modifications over the air – for instance reprogramming systems to include new waveforms and encryption.

Delivering the right solution for defence teams

Like many companies, at SPX CommTech, we are constantly monitoring the evolving battlespace dynamics to better understand where enhanced capabilities are needed the most. We also work very closely with defence teams to keep up with their needs and develop new solutions alongside them where they will make the greatest impact. In doing so, we keep our technical developments and their application as wide as possible. For instance, our drone detection COMINT capabilities can help automate ground-based air defence systems. Our fundamental goal is to introduce more software defined functionality and performance which will allow teams to upgrade the capability for a specific use, when needed, and the flexibility and agility to rapidly reroll or optimise equipment for any other missions.

Today’s new and emerging threats are driving the need for updated signal intelligence capabilities that not only detect, collect and analyse the newest signals, but geolocate them as well. To meet the demand for ever increasing areas of operation, solutions must be easy to deploy and even easier to operate. We’ve recently introduced an upgrade to the BLACKBIRD COMINT and drone detection and geolocation software to further support teams with critical ISR requirements. The BLACKBIRD software module adds RF-based drone detection, identification, direction finding, geolocation and tracking to existing COMINT systems. It automatically scans the RF spectrum, detecting and cataloguing signal activity.

Up until the conflict in Ukraine, we hadn’t seen COMINT rolled out at such a fast and dynamic scale. Going forward, as we monitor this and other threats across the globe and the evolving application of UAS, counter-UAS and COMINT, we’ll continue to prioritise easy access to technology. While doctrine is very much still being developed, empowering teams through COMINT will enable them to see the bigger picture and be even more strategic in their operations.

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