Those whose job it is to enable command and control (C2) for commanders were confronted in 2014 with a sobering demonstration that the way the Navy and Marine Corps have been trained could get people killed in the next fight. In 2014, Ukrainian separatists supported by irregular Russian forces used electronic warfare (EW) to identify Ukrainian positions, disrupt communications, and ultimately kill significant numbers of Ukrainian soldiers. This has resulted in changes to the way the Marine Corps has conducted recent large-scale exercises, in which the use of EW and counter-EW technology has been a central theme.
Marine Air Ground Task Force Warfighting Exercise (MWX) 5-20 incorporated these changes into a force-on-force exercise that eventually highlighted some concerns about them.1 Through the lens of two case studies—Ukraine’s failures in the fight in the Donbas region in 2014 and the observations of MWX 5-20 in 2020—the Marine Corps has begun to identify and make the changes needed in tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) as well as tactical and operational communication plans. The use of emission control, mission-type orders, and increased training will allow the Marine Corps to maintain initiative and reduce susceptibility to EW in future conflicts. Analyzing each of the proposed changes to TTPs in light of both Ukraine’s failures and the MWX 5-20 experiments will enable the Navy and Marine Corps to better prepare everyone from the highest-ranking planner to the lowest-echelon Marine or sailor charged with enabling C2.
In the Donbas conflict, Ukrainian forces found themselves susceptible to a variety of electronic attacks. Ukrainian Colonel Ivan Pavlenko discussed several of the vulnerabilities at a 2019 meeting, specifying the jamming of the 180 to 470 megahertz (MHz) radio-frequency bands, the destruction of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) using GPS spoofing, and the separatists’ ability to compromise Ukrainian forces’ locations with electromagnetic-spectrum direction finding. Similar events throughout Europe during the past few years, including a GPS outage in northern Europe in 2017, suggest Russia is refining its offensive electronic warfare TTPs. In Donbas, though, these cost the lives of Ukrainian troops. While Colonel Pavlenko mentioned that jam-resistant and frequency-hopping very-high frequency (VHF) radios like those used by U.S. forces blunted the jamming risks, U.S. troops remain susceptible to GPS spoofing and electromagnetic-spectrum direction finding. This should serve as a warning to U.S. military forces, which have become overreliant on vulnerable technologies.
A memorandum offering lessons from MWX 5-20 summarized the overarching problem succinctly: “The Marine Corps is not currently organized, trained, and equipped to meet the demands of combat against a peer threat operating with advantage across domains.”2 The memorandum continues: “EMS [electromagnetic spectrum] is not well understood by exercises forces, institutional guidance is unclear, and the exercise does not impose costs for operating uncovered or without signature reduction.”3 It also notes that “the ground-based electronic warfare sensing system used during MWX to simulate a celestial-based asset has proven more than capable of identifying our forces in spectrum.”
The memorandum observed:
Attention needs to be paid to our use of L-Band (satellite phone) and Distributed Tactical Communication Systems (DTCS) radios. These assets regularly report their positions and time-synchronize through regular outgoing transmissions, even when not actively communicating. The ADFOR [adversary force] EW asset was able to break out specific units by NET ID and conducted a successful call chain/conversation analysis by correlating time, location, and number of transmissions.4
In other words, MWX 5-20 demonstrated that many of the systems the Marine Corps has relied on and that provided an asymmetric advantage in previous conflicts—namely, satellite communication systems—would, in fact, pose a significant risk to U.S. forces in a fight with a peer or near-peer adversary. Lastly, the observations from MWX stated the “[simulated adversary] EW asset supports the kinetic kill chain, to (1) sense in spectrum, (2) confirm with [small unmanned aerial system] or other reconnaissance assets, and (3) target with maneuver or indirect fires.”5
Shut up and Listen
Changes to TTPs need to happen. The most significant would be to impose effective emissions control (EmCon). The always-on combat operations center mind-set of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom must give way to the concept of not engaging in communication so as to reduce or eliminate electromagnetic-spectrum emissions. Hardline communication systems—such as fiber connections to the Department of Defense Information Network (DODIN)—can partially mitigate this. But only partially: such a change would introduce its own risk of attacks in the cyberspace domain, and it is impractical for widely distributed operations such as a large campaign or carrier strike or amphibious readiness groups at sea.
Communication windows offer another partial solution. Communication windows rely on predesignated times for reporting, outside of which units listen passively. This allows for Marines to move their transmitters away from associated units, establish the communication link, displace, and return to a listening posture while preventing an adversary from identifying their location. The net result is a reduced likelihood of a unit’s precise position being discovered and attacked. The MWX memorandum also noted that satellite communication systems require location and time synchronization; terrestrial communications systems require less and should be used in lieu of satellite devices as much as possible. Rigorous EmCon will allow a force to remain masked unless it chooses to unveil itself. Planned and executed accordingly, this means that, by the time the adversary has identified your location, you have already seized the initiative. The bad guys might be shooting, but, by then it will be too late.
Expanded, strict EmCon necessitates two additional TTP changes. Leaders at the top of the chain of command must return to issuing mission-type orders—“mission command.” And junior Marines and sailors need new training to be able to operate under such orders. Commanders will need to learn to feel comfortable receiving only periodic updates from subordinates. They also will need to learn the proper development of mission statements, commander’s intent, and planning for “unplugged” operations. On-scene commanders and subordinates must be trusted that—with proper mission orders and commander’s intent—they will be able to respond appropriately even when, as the adage goes, the plan fails to survive first contact with the enemy. Subordinate commanders can break radio silence when required, so senior leaders must actively monitor communication channels. However, until the Navy and Marine Corps embrace the concept of enforcing EmCon and train to it, they will increase the risk to their people. As the MWX memo put it, commanders will need to answer two questions: “What is the minimal requirement for C2, and what part does EmCon play?”6
While the EmCon condition will ultimately be the commander’s decision, the communication professionals who enable the command and control will have to confront one reality: Marines and sailors are not currently trained or prepared to operate in an EmCon environment. Writing EmCon procedures is a relatively straightforward task. More challenging is training the people whose occupational specialties focus on the electromagnetic spectrum to ensure they can come up on a high-frequency (HF) or VHF net in a passive listening/communication window template.
One reason for this is that the professional education for EMS operators is nowhere near as developed as it is for those who work in information technology. Department of Defense Manual 8570 (DoD 8570) specifies civilian certifications required for operating various parts of information networks, but there is no DoD 8570 equivalent for EMS operators. The challenge is how to find similar training and development for those who work in the radio-frequency spectrum.
One possible answer would be to push a servicewide focus on amateur radio training. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set aside frequencies and training opportunities for transmission systems operators across the country to train and practice in a real environment. The Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) has worked with the FCC to provide training focused on preparing anyone to operate within the EMS. The FCC grants three license levels to operators, allowing them access to specific frequency bands across the HF, VHF, and ultra-high frequency (UHF) spectrums, including satellite communication bands. For example, the level I technician license allows access to 17 frequency bands above 50 MHz and four bands within the HF (3-30 MHz) spectrum, while the level II general class operator license authorizes 29 amateur service bands. The training required to pass the exams for these operator licenses includes information on proper use, frequency propagation, antenna building, and the basic electronic engineering that goes into radio-frequency transmission and reception.
An additional benefit to a renewed focus on working with amateur radio services is the collective experience accessible from amateur operators and clubs. A senior enlisted Marine or sailor may have acquired several years’ experience in the use of single-channel radio systems during a 20-plus year career. Amateur radio clubs, though, are a wealth of knowledge and experience—multiple members with decades worth of RF practice. These amateur operators and clubs frequently support government aid and disaster relief through the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), such as when the RACES and ARES services were activated during Hurricanes Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012, and Maria in 2017.
Elements of amateur radio already exist within the DoD. The Air Force and the Army already have programs called the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS), while the Navy-Marine Corps MARS program closed in 2015. The mission of these MARS programs is to “[provide] contingency communications support on behalf of the men and women of the Department of Defense and other U.S. Government Users in support of their important and diverse national security missions whenever, however, and wherever required.”
Getting It Right
In the past, the United States has been able to leverage its technological superiority in what has been an asymmetric advantage over its adversaries. The general practice for U.S. forces during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns was to place radio systems on the highest point, have constant connectivity, and use this enhanced control to outpace enemy forces. Against a peer adversary, though, these TTPs will result in the adversary seizing the initiative—finding U.S. forces, targeting C2 nodes, and leaving U.S. forces outmatched, as Russian-backed forces did in Ukraine.
In the Commandant’s Planning Guidance in 2019, Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger noted: “Preserving the ability to command and control in a contested information network environment is paramount.” The Marine Corps is working toward this, but it is still searching for solutions. The answers will lie in skills lost by the Marine Corps and the Navy in recent conflicts. Only through training to mission-type orders, under EmCon, and most important, on the atrophied skills of the operators required in an EmCon environment will the services again be able to communicate while hiding from adversaries until it is too late for them to respond. In this way, the Navy–Marine Corps team can seize the initiative from adversaries who have been studying U.S. command-and-control methods for the past 20 years.
1. MGEN Roger Turner, USMC, “MAGTF-TC Observations from MWX 5-20,” MAGTF Training Center Memorandum, 18 August 2020, 1.
2. Turner, “MAGTF-TC Observations,” 2.
3. Turner, 9.
4. Turner, 18.
5. Turner, 18.
6. Turner, 9.