Russia’s war on Ukraine has been top of mind for many over the last few months. And rightly so. It’s been a devastating and unprovoked invasion that has traumatized a nation and its neighbors.
There are no upsides to war. But there are lessons. And though it borders on shameful to pull up an analytical lens, it is necessary. That’s particularly true for a nation like the United States who, first the first time in recent memory, is witnessing the military operations and capabilities of a near-peer adversary, Russia. In some regard, it’s also witnessing its shortcomings, such as the vulnerability of its military satellite communications.
To help me better understand how the conflict has revealed such deficiencies and is inciting action domestically, I talked with Karl Fuchs, SVP Technology of iDirect Government. iDirect Government specializes in very small aperture terminal (VSAT) satellite communications transmission equipment for the U.S. Department of Defense, among others, and regularly outfits military forces with IP communications technologies like hubs, routers, and network management software.
Working at a defense contractor with Top Secret facility clearance, Fuchs is keenly aware of the conflict and its impacts domestically. Like others, Fuchs notes the apparent lack of secure military communications on the part of the Russian military. A few weeks back, I outlined handful of ways in which compromise communications, on both sides, had hampered each other’s advances. Fuchs thinks that Russia, in particular, was quite unaware of its own shortcomings. That realization is also not lost on U.S. military officials, says Fuchs, who notes it has prompted an increased interest in bolstering communication security.
“I think the real impulse is people are seeing failures of the Russian military, and a lot of it is caused by a lack of secure communications. …People are really starting to have a better understanding for the need for this type of security. Whereas before they had these types of actions, it wasn’t quite as obvious. They knew about the vulnerabilities, but it didn’t really come to the forefront until this event,” said Fuchs.
Improperly secured networks, even those protected by encryption or Communications Security (COMSEC) in commercial communications, can be susceptible if their traffic engineering information is compromised. And paired with other intelligence, it could give up battlefield locations and preparations, said Fuchs.
“There are quite often, in the satellite communications world, in commercial networks, when they need to do things like load balancing. They send the GPS coordinates of the remote device, the remote modem back to the teleport. Now, of course, if an adversary has access and is smart enough and can read those GPS coordinates, you’ve just told them where you are.”
For its part, iDirect Government specializes in a suite of protocols called TRANSEC, or transmission security. iDirect Government makes a line of VSAT transmission equipment called defense line cards that reside at the teleport and have a special processor to run the protocol. Similarly, the remotes that are in the field also have a special FPGA chip dedicated to running the suite of protocols.
Even still, jamming remains pervasive — and evasive — with sophisticated and simple techniques alike able to interrupt communications. Jamming attacks can be as obvious as a radio frequency spike in the middle of a transmission or as inconspicuous as a recorded signal being sent back on top at the same power level, said Fuchs.
“I will tell you that jamming, especially of satellite communications equipment, whether it's GPS or the VSAT equipment that we manufacture, has a very low barrier to entry. It's relatively easy for somebody, even someone somewhat unsophisticated to be able to jam a signal and effectively take out a network. There's a whole bunch of different jamming techniques. Some of them are more sophisticated than others, but if you just want to do something cheap and dirty, it's surprisingly easy.”
To thwart jamming efforts, there are a few options, says Fuchs. One is spread spectrum, a waveform. The other is signal excision, a filter. Signal excision can mitigate a variety of jamming threats and requires no additional bandwidth, he says. Spread spectrum, broken down into frequency hop and direct sequence, are also viable but do demand more bandwidth. A combination works best, he says. iDirect Government offers a product of similar ilk called Communication Signal Interference Removal (CISR), but details are slim under the jurisdiction of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
Looking ahead, Fuchs sees the solution to jamming as holistic one, incorporating a diversity of satellite constellations rather than relying on communications that tend to happen singularly on GEO, MEO, or LEO. Individually, each are susceptible to electronic and kinetic attacks. What Fuchs would like to see is the freedom and the ability to hop from one to the other as battle conditions change.
“If you have the flexibility to move from one constellation to another, your survivability increases dramatically. But it also gives you the ability to do things like lowest cost routing. There might be times when latency is extremely important for your particular mission or whatever it is you’re doing at the moment. And a LEO constellation is the better answer. There might be times when you require extremely high throughput and GEO is the better solution for you at that point in time. Having that flexibility give you a great advantage,” said Fuchs.
As the cost of electronics decreases and satellite communications proliferate, bad actors will get more sophisticated and seek opportunities to take out satellite communications, he warns. He expressed a similar concern for reliance, even for the commercial use, on GPS as the sole position, navigation, and timing (PNT) system. Fuchs is not alone in that assessment, as more skeptics have stepped forward to question reliance on a singular system.