The hybridization of theater networks : an example of operational duality
The Starlink constellation and commercial mobile operators made a decisive contribution to the Ukrainian armed forces, before finding their limits in autumn 2022. This experience confirms the need to design natively hybrid theater "networks", based on a controlled, secure and resilient network foundation, capable of dynamically and simply aggregating commercial resources.
We receive a wealth of open-source information from the Ukrainian theater. This information feeds, often confirms and sometimes refutes our convictions as an industrial specialist in critical communications. With over a year's hindsight, what lessons can we draw for the critical communications systems of armies engaged in high-intensity conflict?
Using commercial networks on the Ukrainian front
Let's look at the facts. During the first six months of the conflict, Ukrainian forces boasted of having used the Starlink constellation for military operations: contribution to artillery guidance by Aerodvizdka amateur dronists during the battle of Kiev in March, use by mobile special forces infiltrating in depth during the battle of Kharkiv in September, attack on the port of Sebastopol by a naval drone in October, etc.... Starlink undoubtedly played a major role.
But since October 2022, this communication has been much more discreet. Starlink no longer functions in occupied zones. These malfunctions are said to be the cause of aborted Ukrainian operations. Several explanations have been put forward. On the one hand, while the number of satellites in a constellation puts it beyond the reach of a kinetic attack, they remain fragile to other assaults, as demonstrated by the loss of 40 Starlink satellites to a solar storm in February 2022. In low orbit, these satellites are easy targets for similar attacks from the ground. On the other hand, it is difficult to prevent their use by the enemy. For example, on February 13, 2023, a Russian naval drone attacked the Ukrainian Zatoka bridge, copying the modus operandi used in Sevastopol. However, two days later, Starlink announced that it had deactivated the mobility function and would no longer support military operations.
The same applies to the 4/5G connectivity provided by Ukrainian mobile operators: during the Battle of Kiev in March 2022, forces on both sides made massive use of the infrastructures still in place, no doubt due to a lack of sufficient supplies of secure radio sets. There's no doubt that the rapid creation of whatsapp loops contributed to the agility of the troops involved ... but this system also quickly showed its limits, with the interception of numerous communications, the "neutralization" of Russian generals whose presence on the front had been revealed, and even the bombing in December of a Russian troop rally detected by the simultaneous beaconing of several hundred mobiles on the public network.
Two lessons can be drawn from these few facts:
1) In theaters where they are available, commercial networks are invaluable: they provide undeniable convenience for the flow of information essential to operations, at an unbeatable cost per Mbyte, and can therefore fill some capability gaps...
2) ... but they remain vulnerable and sources of vulnerability, unlike resilient military networks designed to manage a certain number of transmission risks.
The idea is simple: to enable transmitters to quickly and simply adapt their secure military communications base by taking advantage of commercial networks available on site, to the benefit of operations and according to the level of risk assumed by the command: this is what we call network hybridization.
The concept of hybridization is not in itself new. Stabilized external operations make extensive use of commercial resources, particularly for wellfare applications. However, in high-intensity operations, we need to be able to execute this genuine network maneuver in the tempo of the mission: in a matter of minutes, rather than with weeks or months' notice.
Resilient base, network orchestrator
The foundation must therefore be designed to enable this rapid, adaptive hybridization. This means supervision and dynamic modification of routing tables and security elements. This allows units to be effectively networked, enabling them to exchange the traffic required for operations.
It relies on solutions natively designed for rapid deployment and security: point-to-point radio-relay systems, satcom stations using sovereign satellites (Syracuse, for example), VHF, UHF, HF, etc., with one counterpart to the expected level of protection: throughput. Indeed, the more the quality of the transmission channel deteriorates under the effects of enemy jamming, or even more simply of the lack of coordination inherent in rapid deployment and constant mobility, the more the throughput decreases. In fact, it is to counter this threat that military "waveforms" are designed to continue operating with noise levels several orders of magnitude higher than the signal level, unlike commercial systems optimized primarily for economic performance.
Indeed, it is to counter this threat that military "waveforms" are designed to continue operating with noise levels several orders of magnitude higher than the signal level, unlike commercial systems optimized primarily for economic performance.
Once deployed, the networks act as a real multiplier for the benefit of the maneuver: ensuring priority for command flows, data roaming between allied networks in a coalition deployment, or even optimal operation of the defense cloud to ensure rapid, controlled deployment of applications.
One final point: communications infrastructures are among the first high-intensity targets. In the Ukrainian theater, at least 10 command posts were destroyed in one year. It is therefore essential to integrate this equipment into suitable platforms (vehicles, shelters, packages) and to minimize cabling and rewiring operations as much as possible, so as to be able to set up and dismantle the system quickly, using private 4/5G bubble technologies, LiFI and motorized telescopic masts.
Authors: Pierre Bénard and Olivier Ondet (original publication here - in French)