Marines take cyber warfare to the front lines

During Bold Alligator, Marines use ONR’s Tactical Cyber Range, which includes augmented reality glasses, to carry out cyber and electronic warfare in the field.

It’s been over three years since the Pentagon formally declared cyberspace a domain of warfare, but the typical image of a cyber warrior usually involves an operator sitting in front of a monitor in a network command center. The Marines, however, recently demonstrated cyber war on the battlefield, with a mix of technologies that includes Google Glass-like augmented reality glasses and other systems to conduct cyber and electronic warfare in parallel with physical military operations.

During the amphibious Bold Alligator exercise last month off the coast of Virginia, Marines working in signals intelligence, or SIGINT, could monitor, intercept and interpret radio and radar signals while on maneuvers in an urban combat environment, and do it without information overload.

The package of technologies, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, is called the Tactical Cyber Range and it combines networking, communications, sensors, unmanned systems and augmented reality technology in an on-the-go arrangement.

“Our goal for the Tactical Cyber Range is to extend cyberspace training to the radio frequency physical environment to better integrate information related capabilities with traditional fires to support mission objectives at the tactical edge,” Maj. Christian Fitzpatrick, ONR tactical cyber special projects officer, said in an ONR release.

During Bold Alligator, a joint, bi-annual exercise intended to test new technologies, Marines used the Tactical Cyber Range to both emulate enemy communications in a crowded electromagnetic spectrum and work to disrupt them.

“The Tactical Cyber Range really helped me coordinate realistic SIGINT and cyber training for my analysts and operators,” Staff Sgt. Johnathon Krahnke, a SIGINT team lead, said in the release. “The environment was realistic and noisy, and my Marines had to work together to solve the tactical problem. This would be a valuable capability for the Marine Corps to define cyberspace tactics, techniques and procedures.”

A key to carrying out cyber operations in the field is avoiding information overload, which is where tools such as the SIGINT/cyber augmented reality glasses come in. The product of a collaboration between ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combatting Terrorism Department and its TechSolutions Program, the glasses project data in front of users in a way that lets them maintain awareness of their surroundings well enough to still operate their weapons systems.

“The augmented reality glasses allowed me to perform and prioritize multiple tasks while conducting our missions,” said Sgt. Erik Matson, a cyberspace operator. “I can envision every Marine wearing this technology on the battlefield of the future.”

Development of tools such as the Tactical Cyber Range is part of the Navy’s—and the Defense Department’s—ongoing plans for information dominance. The Marine Corps Information Enterprise Strategy, for example, calls for exercises just like Bold Alligator, in which cyber personnel can train in realistic operational environments. ONR said it plans to use its technologies to improve the Joint Information Operations Range used by all the services in planning and testing information operations.

“The vision is to have all urban training ranges aboard all Marine Corps bases outfitted with the capability to support dynamic, full-spectrum training for Marines involved in signals intelligence and cyber operations,” Fitzpatrick said.

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