Report: NATO worried about comms gaps, Russia’s jamming power

Army mobile communications

Secure, interoperable communications are essential in an increasingly mobile military.

Recent U.S.-NATO military exercises have revealed difficulties in maintaining secure communications among western allies as they focus greater attention on Russian forces and electronic warfare capabilities in eastern Ukraine.

Covering a joint training exercise this week in Lithuania, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Army commanders are increasingly concerned about Russian EW systems and jamming capabilities posing a threat to allied communications.

The newspaper also cited western intelligence officials as saying Russian forces have improved their ability to encrypt communications about military movements in Ukraine.(Something the FBI says ISIS also is doing.)

The U.S. has previously sold sophisticated communications gear to its NATO allies. The Journal reported on July 7 that American export controls currently prohibit the Defense Department from selling communications gear containing the most secure encryption algorithms. For example, the export version of a secure Army radio made by Harris Corp., the Falcon III, does not include the same level of programmable encryption as the domestic version.

At the same time, U.S. commanders are worried that Russian forces in Ukraine could intercept, jam or decode allied transmissions. Earlier this year, Ukraine actively sought help with electronic warfare weapons from the United States and other western nations.

"It can be a challenge to communicate securely on a tactical level,” the newspaper quoted Brig. Gen. Michael Tarsa, deputy commander of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, as saying. That makes coordinating allied military operations more difficult.

The United States and NATO have been working on secure, interoperable communications for some time. NATO late last year held its largest cyber exercise to date and takes part in events such as the annual Joint Users Interoperability Communications Exercise.

But interoperability issues have persisted and given improving Russian EW capabilities, the Journal reported, NATO is developing new radio technology that could eventually be deployed across the military alliance. However, previous NATO communications interoperability efforts have fallen short of the alliance's goals.

In the meantime, U.S. and NATO commanders told the newspaper U.S. troops who can use encrypted radios are serving as "liaisons" with Lithuanian units to provide secure communications. With lingering concerns about U.S. encryption capabilities following into Russian hands, the swapping of radio operators between allied units is likely to continue.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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