Information Warfare: Russia Hacks The Battlefield Internet

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October 12, 2017: In September 2017 the U.S. Army asked Congress to allow it to revise its budget to deal with some serious network vulnerabilities. Specifically the army needed to halt work on its battlefield Internet, known as WIN-T (Warfighter Information Network-Tactical) so that some changes can be made to ensure the system is not only more resistant to hacking and jamming but also capable of being patched (software fixes) much more quickly. Many in Congress were upset about this but those few with access to the classified briefings were not. Nor were many military personnel working on communications and EW (Electronic Warfare). The army specified a potential Russian threat but it is known China is trying to catch up in this area. Civilian users of the Internet are constantly warned about new security threat to wireless access to the Internet and the military is not immune to these new threats.

Russia is the usual suspect because Russia has a history of developing some innovative and effective electronic monitoring, jamming and hacking equipment. Case in point is a new Russian communications and monitoring system called Murmansk-BN. The idea behind Murmansk-BN is to monitor wireless communications for thousands of kilometers from Russian naval bases to make those bases less vulnerable to attacks (surprise or otherwise.) This was a concept the Russians worked on throughout the Cold War but were never able to create a workable system that could demonstrate these concepts on a large scale. Murmansk-BN is the latest manifestation of that effort and it is still unclear just how effective it is, at least as far as the public record goes. The system has been active in the Crimea since early 2017 providing coverage of Eastern Europe and much of the Middle East. Western experts believe that the availability of more powerful electronic and software tools makes Murmansk-BN more likely to appear in a workable form. But so far there is no proof, at least none that has been made public. The same can be said the numerous battlefield EW systems Russia has used recently in Ukraine and Syria. Russia has used these two combat zones to test a lot of new weapons including EW ones. This includes airborne and ground based electronic monitoring and jamming systems. NATO nations, especially the United States, send EW experts to work with the Ukrainian troops to help cope with the Russia EW efforts and, more importantly, to collect as much data as possible on the new Russian systems and what they were capable of. Israel was doing the same thing in Syria. Although not an officially participant in the Syria fighting Israel has been very active monitoring Iranian backed efforts to upgrade its forces (mainly the Lebanese Hezbollah) and regularly carry out airstrikes against targets in Syria. The Israelis are regarded as a world class developer of EW and Internet security software and hardware. It appears some conclusions about the threat were reached, at least by the U.S. Army as regards WIN-T and the threat was considered serious enough to do something as obvious as halt major work on WIN-T to improve security.

Meanwhile Russia has been showing its ability to hack even the most secure cell phone systems, something American diplomatic officials in Russia, using the latest “secure” cell phones have found that security easily penetrated by Russians.

This latest U.S. Army request is also seen as a side-effect of the new (since 2015) “terrify and train” approach to getting commanders, especially of combat units, ready for what they will face in wartime. Just putting officers through an “educate and familiarize” course on Cyber War is not enough so the army has also created cyber protection teams to give units they are assigned to a taste of what horrors await them in wartime on the network warfare front. This is an improvement over Cold War era policies that generally discouraged exposing combat units to realistic demonstrations of what kind of jamming and other electronic techniques the Russians had developed to cripple American military communications in wartime. That was the pre-Internet version of a network attack. Sometimes American units on training exercises did get a taste of electronic jamming and deception and it proved so disruptive to operations that it was discouraged. But many officers, and a lot of the tech-savvy troops knew that they type of ignorance would make the Russian electronic warfare even more effective in wartime. Some of this new software includes apps for commercial cell phones that will provide alerts when that phone is being hacked while using the Internet.

American combat units got a small demonstration of how disruptive this Russian EW could be in 1991 when Iraq used the few, generally older, Russian jammers and other electronic weapons against advancing coalition troops. These electronic weapons were more of a nuisance, but word got around that if these devices had been more recent models and used on a larger scale they would have made American operations less effective and gotten American troops killed.

Partly as a result of this when the Internet arrived later in the 1990s and many young officers and troops quickly adopted it. After 2000 these Internet savvy officers were quick to realize that anyone who used the Internet a lot had a huge military advantage, but was also vulnerable. It took the army a while to get most senior officers on board but by 2010 the army was forming a separate command devoted to Cyber War and especially Internet defense. Because of that the army was able to prepare for big changes, as needed, for its new battlefield Internet project that was centered on WIN-T. This effort has been underway since the late 1990s and nearly all army units have some components of it in daily use. Some WIN-T components are on the second or third generation of software or hardware. Now the army is telling Congress that this evolution and adaptation has to be revised so it can happen faster and with less notice.

An example of already evolving WIN-T hardware is the current introduction (since 2015) of a lighter and easier to set-up version of its battlefield Internet. The army has developed Win-T node (routers and satellite communications) equipment is much smaller, small enough that it will fit in a hummer (instead of a five ton truck). The new node gear can be set up in two hours (rather than 24 hours with the older stuff). The new node gear has been made much easier to operate and maintain as well as set up. In addition the new version will operate on the move. All this makes it possible to keep the battlefield Internet fully operational even when units are moving around rapidly. The army apparently plans to turn off some features of the new node hardware until their security can be improved.

Win-T is a key component of the new army communications system (CS 13 or Capability Set 13) created for combat troops as part of an effort that began in the 1990s. In 2013 four combat brigades successfully tested CS-13, which consisted of several different technologies the army has been developing since the 1990s. This includes Nett Warrior (an effort to get networking down to the squad leader), Win-T, BFT 2 (Blue Force Tracking 2 for tracking troop location in real time), Company Command Post (giving company commanders more data), and tactical radios like AN/PRC-117G, Rifleman Radio, and combat smart phones and tablets. The test showed that the stuff in the hands of the troops was easier to use but away from the troop level, especially the node gear, was often too complex and bulky. Thus the need for the new and improved node gear.

CS 13 is the result of over a decade of effort to create better battlefield communications, including a combat version of the Internet. The final selection took place between 2012 and 2013 years as 115 systems were tested by troops and those found wanting (most of them) were dropped. The most common feedback was about troops wanting the same kind of wireless capabilities they already enjoy with their smart phones and tablets as well as military apps for these devices.

The army has been moving in this direction since the 1990s but in the meantime wi-fi and portable electronics like smart phones and tablets leapfrogged the military efforts. The army is playing catch up the best it can. The army had already developed the CS-13 tools which include items like WIN-T, which was designed to allow troops to simultaneously exchange text, data, video, and voice data using a new generation of radios. Personal computers and smart phones (including both off-the-shelf and "ruggedized" military models) can now hook into WIN-T and use the future improved communications and networking. JCR (Joint Capabilities Release) is the latest version of BFT (Blue Force Tracker). JCR is part of an effort to link everyone in a combat brigade electronically while in the combat zone and, most importantly, while in combat. The new gear equips individual troops as well as vehicles. Commanders can use a handheld device or laptop to view BFT locations. The commanders’ app can also be used to take data from troops about enemy locations or where minefields or other obstacles are and post it, so that everyone else with JCR equipment can see and share it. JCR also includes better encryption and improved reliability.

This all is part of an effort that went into high gear in 2003, when BFT was first used, and that turned into a larger project to perfect the “battlefield Internet”. All of this goes back to the American 1990s era Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) project. After 2003 BFT quickly evolved into JCR and became part CS 13. Back in 2003, parts of FBCB2 (mainly BFT) were quickly issued to the troops for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. BFT is a GPS/satellite telephone device that was suddenly in thousands of combat vehicles. Anyone with a laptop, satellite data receiver, the right software, and access codes could then see where everyone was (via a map showing blips for each BFT user). The spectacular success of BFT appealed to generals everywhere. Since 2003, the U.S. Army built new versions of the BFT and this produced BFT 2 and now JCR. This single device has revolutionized the way commanders handle their troops in combat.

Company Command Post gives a company commander the ability to quickly send and receive (and sort out) text, voice, and data with his troops (three platoons consisting of nine squads and special teams of snipers and machine-guns). This provides company commanders, using a laptop and other gear that can be carried while on foot, the same kind of command post capabilities previously restricted to battalion, brigade, and larger headquarters.

The battlefield Internet could not exist without a new generation of combat radios. The key radios in CS 13 currently are the AN/PRC-117G, the AN/PRC-154, and combat smart phone. AN/PRC-117G is a 5.45 kg (12 pound) radio that can be carried or installed in vehicles. About a third of its weight is the battery. It has a maximum output of 20 watts and handles FM, UHF, and VHF signals, including satellite based communications. On the ground max range is 20 kilometers (depending on hills and the antenna used). The U.S. has been using the AN/PRC-117 since the late 1990s, as an interim radio, and found it a solid piece of equipment. The AN/PRC-117 is based on a commercial design (the Falcon series) that several foreign armed forces and many civilian operations use. The AN/PRC-117 has been regularly upgraded in that time (going from version A to the current G).

AN/PRC-154 (or RR for Rifleman Radio) are lightweight (1 kg/2.2 pound) voice/data radios for individual infantrymen. RR includes GPS and a battery good for over ten hours of use. The RR began field tests in 2010. For most of 2012 U.S. Army Rangers used them in Afghanistan. Since then over 21,000 of these radios have been given to troops. By itself, the two watt RR has a range of up to two kilometers. But it can also automatically form a mesh network, where all RRs within range of each other can pass on voice or data information. During the field tests this was done to a range of up to 50 kilometers. The RR can also make use of an aerostat, UAV, or aircraft overhead carrying a RR to act as a communications booster (to other RRs or other networks).

The mesh network enables troops to sometimes eliminate carrying a longer range (and heavier) AN/PRC-117 for the platoon leader. The new combat smart phone is a ruggedized Android smart phone, equipped to handle military communications via the mesh network. This device will supplement the AN/PRC-154. Now the army is making it possible to add the video feeds from small UAVs and robots that all combat units have.

CS-13 provides capabilities that, before September 11, 2001, where not expected until the 2020s. But because of all the American troops seeing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were opportunities to try out new equipment under combat conditions, and this accelerated the development process.

Android has already been accepted for military use in many countries and military-grade security systems have been created to make the battlefield Android devices compliant with military security requirements for wireless devices and portable computers.

But as the most recent army move indicates the advantages of battlefield Internet comes with new dangers, many of them not encountered during all the combat American troops have been involved in after 2001. But now the prospect of combat with a well-equipped (“near peer”) force is closer to reality than at any time since the 1980s. That means more skilled Internet hackers and at least the U.S. Army detected and responded to the threat. Whether or not WIN-T can be effectively modified is another matter.

 

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