Military & Aerospace

Mobile Phones: A Disruptive Military Communications Change
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Issue Vol. 34.2 Apr-Jun 2019 | Date : 09 Mar , 2020

Cellular phones aka mobile phones have been one of the biggest disruptive technology changes in human lives in recent times. They have developed rather quickly – from bulky, half-kilogramme, expensive devices to billions of ubiquitous devices in multiple designs and price points. They are light, packed with features and importantly enough, have become so easy to use that they have become an inseparable part of our lives.

Mobile Industry in India

India has shown one of the most dramatic adaptations to mobile technology with the nationwide telephone density rising from less than three percent in 1999 to 91.21 percent in 20181. India now has the second largest mobile user base at 1,171.76 million, which dwarfs the declining landline base of 21.96 million. Out of this, smartphones constitute 400 million growing at 20 percent plus CAGR.2 The Indian mobile phone manufacturing industry has grown from two units in 2014 to 120 units manufacturing 225 million handsets worth $20 billion annually.

Samsung manufactures 120 million of these in India in just one facility annually. The infrastructure has also grown correspondingly with wide coverage and high technology fourth generation networks backed by an extensive fibre optic backhaul network with ambitious and aggressive future plans for higher bandwidths and greater coverage. This paper attempts to examine the challenges being faced by modern armies in battlefield communications and how mobiles could provide a solution for the same while overcoming their limitations.

Current Military Communication Challenges

Newer Technology Driven by Commerce

As in the case with many other technologies, the commercial world today drives technological growth. The sheer scales of equipment to be delivered are the drivers for this change. As stated earlier, billions of mobile phones are in use, as compared to which the military requirement is at best, a few hundred thousand radios with multiple form factors to be delivered over many years.

Technology Curve

While basic technology behind some of the basic military hardware like guns and tanks has not changed over decades, this is not the case with ICT equipment. Moore’s law, which dictated processor speed doubling in about 18 months, has held good and resulted in difficulties in adoption of high technology ICT equipment which cannot keep up with the decades-long gestation cycle of military procurements.

Ease of Use

Most military radios have a complex learning curve and require many man-hours of training in order to be optimally utilised. Soldiers today use mobile phones in their daily lives like other Indians who spend approximately three hours per day on smart phones. Soldiers are thus used to operating the wide range of features of the phones including those with military applications such as text messaging, navigation, image and video capture, and transmission.

Upgradation

A military radio may remain unchanged in hardware for decades and current ones have limited options of software upgradation. An average mobile phone user changes his set in about two years which is somewhat in sync with technical upgrades. Software upgrades on mobile phones generally take place every few months and are delivered over the World Wide Web automatically.

Security

Security remains one of the pillars of military communications. In case of Combat Net Radios (CNR), it is provided by two means, one being use of Frequency Hopping to avoid jamming and second by using secure keys to encrypt communications which works on the algorithm already loaded on the radio. Both involve loading of keys which need to be distributed through the chain of command offline. The loss of a radio set with loaded keys is considered a serious security breach.

Mobile Security works at multiple levels. At the first level, it would involve securing the backhaul network. Next, the calls between the Mobile Base Transmitting Station (BTS) and the mobile user are secured using encryption. At the mobile handset fingerprint/Iris/facial recognition scanner could be used to gain access to the set in addition to pattern changing and entering of a PIN. Each call can be encrypted at the application level (as is being done in messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Signal). Further security can be implemented by enforcing PKI as is being done for banking transactions.

Convergence

CNRs have displays which have functional utility. For the use of maps/images/videos, a separate device has to be used which could be in the form of small tablet. Many do not have built-in speakers and headsets, microphones too are bulky. Mobiles are fully converged devices offering Triple Play services in a single device. These also have high quality built-in speakers and have compact, feature-rich earphones and headphones.

Cost

In an era of greater scrutiny of defence budgets, relatively high cost of military radios primarily due to their limited numbers and exclusive features becomes a major factor in acquisition. As an example, the final contract for 214,655 Rifleman Hand-Held radios was awarded by the US Army for $3.9 billion to Thales and Harris, which works out to approximately $20,000 per set. A similar contract for man-pack radios in 2014 was estimated at $78,000 per radio for 1,459 such sets.3 Even the most high-end mobile phones are valued at approximately $1,000. These would, of course, require an extensive infrastructure to operate and a certain degree of ruggedisation.

Data

In an era where even voice rides on data, the limited data handling capacity of military radios inhibits their use for heavy duty data usage like images and videos. Conventional radios operate typically at data rates of 19.2 kbps and even yet to be inducted Software Defined Radios (SDR) can operate at a few mbps data rates only in the MANET mode albeit with greatly reduced ranges. The stated data rates for fourth-generation mobile networks range from 100 mbps to one gbps. As can be seen, these are millions of times superior to traditional radios.

Range

Typical military radios operating in the VHF band have a range of about 20 to 25 kilometres. This limits their usage and the military has to resort to establishing repeater stations or looking for high ground to extend the range. The range of HF, though much greater, is limited by the crowded band and an unpredictable nature of communication in this band. Range becomes a factor in certain military operational requirements, for example, while communicating with widely dispersed detachments of troops, gun positions vehicles or air observation posts operating beyond VHF range from their HQs. Mobiles can communicate for thousands of kilometres in a connected network.

Form Factors

Most military radios require different form factors based on frequency band being used and application. Even SDRs which are supposedly one-stop solutions require different radios for different form factors like handheld, man pack, and vehicular. Mobiles are fully software defined and can host multiple frequencies and the same mobile can be used for multiple roles thereby reducing complexity in inventory management besides ease of use.

Standards and Protocols

Military grade radios operate on specifically designed set of standards and protocols which cater for specific military requirements thereby also increasing the overall cost and time to develop this equipment. Due to sheer volumes, these standards are well set and widely used in mobile networks while allowing customisation. Popular Google-based Android software is an example wherein, while the common element is released by the company, other firms implement the same duly customised for their own particular handsets whilst allowing seamless networking.

Power Arrangements

Power supply arrangements both by AC and DC constitute major concern for military users. AC supply may not always be available or maybe erratic. Military radios require specific arrangements for charging of batteries and these also constitute a significant part of overall radio weight. Mobile batteries can last long and can even be charged through solar chargers as they require low current for charging. Battery banks which are light can also be used to charge mobile phones multiple times.

Applications

Radios do not have any in-built applications. Any such application would have to be hosted on a Data Terminal Equipment which needs to be carried separately and bears an additional cost as well as weight penalty. Multiple military specific applications can be developed and hosted for mobiles and could include secure messaging, video calls, navigation, photography, bulletin boards, emergency messaging to all subscribers, logistics applications like transport and convoy management and many more.

Software Updates

The military radios are upgraded through workshops by depositing these sets. The security and TRANSEC keys are loaded through by distributing these through CDs and thereafter loading by fill guns. All software upgrades for mobiles including optimising hardware like battery usage and that of accessories can be done on air as is being done for commercial networks. All the devices can be upgraded simultaneously.

Directory Management

A complex series of Signal Instructions needs to be prepared designating call signs and control stations. Personalised communications is not possible. Mobiles can hold thousands of contact details and each contact can be accessed individually. Features such as speed dial are also available for frequently dialled numbers.

Communications in Mountainous Terrain

Mountains pose challenges to communications both wireless and line. This is due to non-availability of Line of Sight and the extreme climatic conditions. For wireless communications, this is overcome by use of repeaters at high ground and satellite communications. Mobile communications face similar challenges which can be overcome by better planning of tower sites as also the use of portable BTS.

Challenges in Adoption of Mobile Phones for Military

Mindsets

The military has been the foremost user of two-way radios since their inception. It has thus spawned a massive industrial complex with companies investing heavily into R&D and production of these radios. The military on its part, has become used to operating with radios and considers any changes with trepidation.

Requirement of Infrastructure

Military radios require almost no infrastructure to operate and thus networks can be established in Greenfield areas such as deserts or jungles with minimum effort. Mobiles, on the other hand, require an extensive infrastructure for them to operate. Possible mobile solutions could include:–

  • Tethered Aerial Platforms: UAVs have shown some of the most impressive growth in recent times and have triggered multiple applications. Mobile BTS too have been miniaturised to a scale such that these can be attached to a tethered UAV/Airship to create a cell where mobiles can operate. These can be connected to backbone networks by OFC or microwave links. A mobile BTS of this type was deployed by AT&T to create emergency communications in areas devastated by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in Oct 2017.
  • Persistent UAVs: A network of airborne UAVs including airships could provide mobile coverage over a wide area. The plans by Google to use such a network for delivering high speed data to areas with poor ground coverage, has been trialed extensively as Project Loon.
  • Network in a Box (NIB): Mobiles can be used by connecting to a small NIB which weigh a few kilograms and can be carried as a backpack. This provides a bubble for mobile coverage of a few kilometres around it. These NIBs could connect to the backbone network by OFC or microwave which could be rolled forward as a grid during operation, Tactical LTE Solutions by Nokia, Lockheed Martin, Lynx and Aero Lynx are examples.

Ruggedisation

Military radios are ruggedised for operating in difficult conditions. The mobiles are more sensitive. However, ruggedised mobile phones are available which can offer high degree of resistance to trying operating environment. Moreover, due to lower costs, a higher degree of losses due to damage can be borne.

Broadcast Calls

One of the unique features of military radio network is a broadcast call in which a control station can deliver a voice/data message to multiple subscribers. A mobile phone being a personal device does not have this facility built in. Mobiles can, however, perform a similar function using a customised application which, in fact, can support a two-way conversation with multiple outstations as is being implemented as Press To Talk (PTT) in applications such as Zello, Two way, Key Tele, and many others.

Implementation

The implementation of a nation/theatre vide mobile network can be carried out in two ways:–

  • Dedicated Network: A dedicated military network can be created as is the case for Mobile network operating in the Northern theatre. These entail costs in establishing and maintaining a dedicated network, but offer the advantage of customising user requirements and security.
  • Using Secure Phones over Commercial Networks: A number of firms now offer various versions of phones which could establish an exclusive network riding on the existing commercial networks. The features include:–

◆ Customised handsets with all applications tailor-made for user network.

◆ Complete isolation from other consumers using the commercial network. Only users within the closed user group will be able to see and communicate with each other.

◆ Control of the network using own servers which can promulgate policies like selective facilities to users (camera, calls) based on appointments.

◆ The commercial networks have nationwide coverage and no-coverage zones can be addressed by own mobile stations.

  • So What Happens to CNR?: CNR will continue to have their own unique advantages as listed above.

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However, considering the advantages and limitations listed above, a proportion of CNR and mobiles can be worked out.

  • Other Benefits: With wider adoption of mobiles several other benefits will accrue:–

◆ Landline infrastructure can be done away with resulting in huge cost savings in infrastructure, operators and line maintenance parties.

◆ Speedier roll out in operational areas as no lines will be required to be laid.

Accessories: Several other accessories like fitness bands and personal health monitors can also be used for an optimised mobile experience.

Advanced Technologies: Next-generation networks like 5G will offer far greater bandwidth and features like connectivity to IoT. Also, foldable screens and higher camera resolution offer an exciting array of opportunities to users.

Conclusion

Mobile phones provide an exciting opportunity for soldiers to communicate on the battlefield. These are easy to use, feature-rich, light and compact as compared to conventional military radios. Challenges faced in implementation for a mobile-based communication solution can be overcome in order to provide a secure and seamless network.

Notes

  1. https://main.trai.gov.in/sites/default/files/PRNo05Eng18012019_0.pdf
  2. India Smartphone Market sees a healthy growth of 20% in Q2 2018 as Xiaomi retains leadership, 13 Aug 2018, IDC India, https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prAP44210918
  3. The Army’s costly quest for the perfect radio continues, Sean Gallagher, 08 March 2018, https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2018/03/the-armys-costly-quest-for-the-perfect-radio-continues/
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col NP Singh

is a serving Army Officer.

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