The naval aviator asked me, “Can I get another SatCom circuit to talk on?” As the communications officer on board a big-deck amphibious ship, I had fielded this request at least ten times that week. We had just begun a major exercise with multinational partners. “No, sorry,” I reluctantly explained. “SatCom nets are a rare commodity in the congested, contested, and competitive space environment. With as many assets as are currently in theater, we are lucky to get what we have.”1 It pained me to be the bearer of bad news, but I knew with ships in and out of line of sight, ultra-high frequency (UHF) satellite communication (SatCom) and high frequency (HF) communication were our only realistic options for tactical voice communication.
Even if every ship conducted the exercise within line of sight, it would not have made much of a difference. The U.S. ships lived in the littorals, hugging the coastlines of spectrum-saturated countries. The meager frequencies that we were allotted were so tightly packed that bleed-over was inevitable. I lost count of how many times I was asked to swap radios or move around frequencies to fix bleed-over. I thought then that there must be a better way.
Ten years later, as I took on the role of information warfare commander of an expeditionary strike group, the same problem greeted me but from a much different perspective. Feeling a bit sheepish, and already knowing the answer, I found myself asking my frequency manager, “Can I get another SatCom net?”
Maneuver within the Electromagnetic Spectrum
Radio-over-internet protocol (ROIP) provides information warriors a solution to the fight over the electronic spectrum. ROIP works by taking radio voice transmissions, converting them into digital voice packets, and transmitting them over the ubiquitous information network infrastructure. It is a powerful, cheap technology that is fully mature and widely used. The Navy should embrace ROIP to improve assured command and control.
In a high-end conflict with a peer adversary, control of the electromagnetic spectrum will be hotly contested.2 Maneuver within the spectrum to counter electronic attacks, conceal operations, and influence targeting decisions will play a significant role in determining the outcome of the next conflict. ROIP would enhance the commander’s ability to maneuver within the spectrum.
A pillar of electromagnetic warfare is emission control—modifying electronic signals to hide or confuse the adversary. Each section of the electromagnetic spectrum has advantages, technologies, and techniques that can be leveraged by savvy information warriors to shape emissions.
The UHF spectrum has been the workhorse of Navy satellite tactical voice communications for decades.3 It will continue to be a valuable pathway for the foreseeable future. The HF spectrum, with its long-range, over-the-horizon capability, is a valuable supplement when UHF SatCom voice is not available.
While technology and usage in the UHF and HF spectrums have not significantly changed in the past several decades, how the Navy uses SatCom in the super-high frequency (SHF) spectrum has changed significantly. With the advent of the internet, systems such as chat and email have revolutionized command-and-control processes. In addition, emerging technologies are continually contributing huge improvements in capacity, resiliency, and bandwidth. This trend is sure to continue as high-bandwidth, low-earth-orbit satellite constellations such as Starlink come online.
The Many ROIP Benefits
ROIP brings satellite tactical voice communications to the SHF spectrum, giving information warriors numerous warfighting advantages unique to SHF communications. Because ROIP rides established infrastructure and pathways, both implementation time and cost would be relatively small. Moreover, compared with UHF data pathways, SHF has increasingly greater path diversity, boosting resiliency and survivability of radio transmissions.4
When other frequency bands are turned off during emission-shaping operations, ROIP offers an additional pathway. Moreover, with ROIP, radio communications are mixed with other internet protocol (IP) traffic, making it difficult for an adversary to detect patterns of operation.
Creating a UHF SatCom net requires significant coordination and centralized prioritization to ensure these valuable assets are given to the right units at the right time.5 There will always be more demand than resources can accommodate. ROIP via SHF can alleviate this problem by providing a pathway for traffic on deprioritized UHF SatCom nets. Unlike UHF SatCom, ROIP via SHF suffers from some transmission latency, but this latency is still much better than the current alternative of having no circuit at all.
ROIP can also enable groups of ships on line-of-sight nets to be combined into a single logical net over great geographic distance. Imagine two clusters of ships, with each cluster out of sight of the other. With at least one ship in each cluster up on a ROIP connection, communication within each cluster could occur on a line-of-sight net and between each cluster over a SHF ROIP net. And even if all ships are communicating within line of sight on a non-SatCom net, converting radio transmissions to a ROIP network within the skin of the ship has value. Any computer becomes a potential radio transmission station from which nets can be monitored, recorded, and played back. After-action analysis, voice recording requirements, and investigations are all simplified.
ROIP can improve communication with U.S. partners and allies. Creating cryptographic keying material for the virtually endless combinations of partner nations is a logistical nightmare for radio networks. The advent of the Mission Partner Environment has done much to solve this problem for computer networks with the concept of coalitions of interest (COI) and the Trusted Network Environment (TNE).6 COIs and the TNE allow information to pass across network boundaries securely without the additional infrastructure demanded by a full Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS) enclave, including chat, secure voice, video teleconferencing, and email.7 ROIP would be a valuable addition to an already robust list and be extremely welcome by the partner nations whose ships have limited or no UHF SatCom capability.
The electromagnetic spectrum is a finite and valuable resource. Countries will always impart as little of their spectrum to military exercises and operations as they can afford.8 This creates a problem, particularly for amphibious assault ships that spend much of their time in the littoral. By shifting many of these voice nets to ROIP over SHF, this problem can be significantly mitigated. As networks shift to ROIP, remaining UHF circuits can spread across the allotted spectrum, preventing bleed-over.
In the future, when warfare commanders call communication officers pleading for a SatCom net, they will not be restricted to what circuits are already allocated in the communication plan. An information systems technician can quickly create an ad hoc ROIP net.
1. Christopher J. Castelli, “Closer Commercial Ties Urged: DOD Sees Space as Increasingly Congested, Contested, Competitive,” Inside the Air Force 21, no. 11 (March 2010), 10–12.
2. Marcus Clay, “To Rule the Invisible Battlefield: The Electromagnetic Spectrum and Chinese Military Power,” War on the Rocks, 22 January 2021.
3. LT Jason J. Hughes, USN, “It’s Time to Change the Way We Refer to SHF Satellite Communications—What’s the Flavor of Your SHF SATCOM?” CHIPS: The Department of the Navy’s Information Technology Magazine, October–December 2012.
4. Hughes, “It’s Time to Change the Way We Refer to SHF Satellite Communications.”
5. Government Accountability Office, Satellite Communications: DOD Should Explore Options to Meet User Needs for Narrowband Capabilities, GAO-21-105283 (Washington, DC: September 2021).
6. General Dynamics Mission Systems, “Trusted Network Environment (TNE)—Multilevel Information Access and Sharing,” 2022.
7. U.S. Department of Defense, DoD Instruction 8110.01, Mission Partner Environment (MPE) Information Sharing Capability Implementation for the DoD (Washington, DC: 30 June 2021).
8. Tom Kidd, “Radio Frequency Congestion,” CHIPS: The Department of the Navy’s Information Technology Magazine, October–December 2009.