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High-tech military radios are high-value cyber targets

An essential part of the modern military, radios are at risk for disruption.

Jan. 7, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By KEVIN G. COLEMAN   |   Comments
Marines support 1-1 Cav. during NIE 12.2
A Marine uses an HMS Manpack radio as soldiers observe during a Network Integration Evaluation capability assessment. Software-defined radios offer greater interoperability, but could be targeted by state-sponsored cyber attackers. (Defense Department) ()
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From the handheld units carried by soldiers to the larger systems carried in backpacks and mounted in vehicles, radios are essential part of the modern military.

The market for tactical radios has withstood the budgetary pressures of sequestration. Military investment in communications capabilities — for air, land, sea and space — is estimated to approach $30 billion. The market for land-based tactical radios alone will reach $4.5 billion within the next 10 years, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics.

It is not hard to see why military radio communications systems are today in the crosshairs of cyber attackers. Compromising this component of a military’s critical infrastructure can not only provide an enemy operational intelligence, but can cause operational disruptions and missteps that could result in the loss of a battle.

For years now the military has been moving toward the concept of the continuously connected warfighter. The Army has embarked on an umbrella program called the Joint Tactical Radio System, and late last spring the service announced a competition to procure multiple form-factor JTRS radios.

Stop and think for a moment about the number of microprocessors and the amount of software that make up modern military radios. Now consider one of the latest developments: software-defined radios (SDRs). In an SDR, communications functions reside in software rather than hardware, which allows users to easily change waveforms and frequencies. The concept dates to the mid-1980s, but SDRs are now being fielded, including in aircraft. Defense industry giant Harris Corp., for example, offers the Falcon family of software-defined tactical radio systems.

It should be noted that the United States is not the only country researching, developing and implementing SDRs. Promwad, a Russian electronics design company, has developed a unique SDR specifically designed for the Russian market. One source estimated that Promwad has established the ability to design and manufacture SDR products from scratch in six months to a year, where such an effort would normally take two to three years. Clearly SDRs are in the early stages of the rapid advancement phase of the technology’s evolution.

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SDRs are expected to carry our military’s communications well into the future. Given the critical role this technology plays, you can be sure nation-state supported hackers will devote a considerable amount of time developing a new class of cyber weapon that disrupts or destroys these communication devices. SDRs are also finding their way into a number of other application areas. In fact, SDRs are highly likely to be an essential part of the Internet of Things and sensor networks.

Modern militaries are heavily reliant on communications systems. Disrupt an enemy’s communications and chaos is sure to follow. As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so the defense industry would be well advised to build security into every SDR. After all, military radio systems are high value cyber targets and the number of targets seems endless.

Today we have software-defined radios, software-defined networks and even software-defined data centers. What else will be reduced to software in the coming years is anybody’s guess.

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