TAMPA, Fla. — Special operations signals intelligence teams say they need smaller, more versatile gear that gathers and shares data on the breadth of radio frequencies in all domains — land, sea, air and now space.
The mission has shifted dramatically as the United States ratchets up competition in the frequency bands with peer competitors like Russia and China, a far cry from deciphering mobile phone signals from violent extremists, officials said.
That’s one request to industry within a small slice of a larger portfolio under U.S. Special Operations Command Program Executive Office-Special Reconnaissance.
On Wednesday, a panel of program managers ticked off the varied sensor, communications and intelligence gear the office wants during the Global SOF Foundation’s SOF Week here.
Their efforts to upgrade and improve collection and dissemination of data continues in an ever-more crowded radio frequency spectrum across, and beyond, the globe.
Chris Wilson, acquisition program manager for signals intelligence, spelled out some of the emerging needs as the nation targets peer and near-peer competitors, while it continues to collect information on violent extremist organizations.
The office is developing next-generation sensors and antennas, all domain flexible, tactical sensors, and cross-platform modular payloads for air, surface and subsurface maritime sensors. Their new work includes software-reconfigurable space payloads for satellites and a larger national “reachback” capability for sharing intelligence from the tactical to strategic levels.
The office’s portfolio also includes the Joint Threat Warning System-Air, primarily used by U.S. Air Forces Special Operations Command. The drone portion works through payloads on Group 1 to 3 drones. The equipment detects, locates and exploits signals across the radio frequency spectrum. All of this is for threat warning and situational awareness in airborne platforms.
JTWS-Ground serves a similar function on ground vehicles and individual operators. It fields frequency-specific data collection equipment to detect similar threats at the ground level.
The JTWS-Maritime conducts the same functions, but with gear that can be installed on waterborne platforms and removed for use off-platform.
In June, Wilson’s team is set to experiment with smaller electronics intelligence hardware that can go on or off boats. The current systems are too heavy to remove from boats for operations, he said.
Another area newly added to the portfolio is space-based payloads for high-altitude frequency detection, including software-defined radios and sensors for satellites.
Wilson told the audience a key focus moving forward is using software “squirts” to remotely update or reconfigure satellite-based hardware for different types of missions or needs.
Lastly, the Silent Dagger package is a scalable intelligence cell type of platform in a box that includes laptops, phones, transceivers and other hardware and gives small teams the connectivity and intelligence usually held by higher-echelon units such as brigades or divisions.
“We have this in a garrison capability, and we have this in deployable systems, so it’s forward deployed with reach back to the national intelligence community’s databases,” Wilson said.
The team is also looking to tie smaller sensors to the system so that at the edge of the tactical footprint, operators can feed into and pull out necessary data from those massive databases, he said.
In the next one to two years, Wilson’s said his team is looking for gear with advanced and complex signals, advanced radio frequency filtering, modular payload-compliant sensors and advanced networking for more precise geolocation.
“For a long time, we were really focused on counter-[violent extremist organizations] and when you’re focused on counter-VEO, from our perspective, it’s the communications methods that those violent extremist organizations would use,” he said.
His office was “heavy” on those collection methods — radio frequencies in the mobile phone or push-to-talk transmitter’s range, for example.
“As we shift though, we have to look at capabilities that go after the comms methods for any other type of [radio frequency] capabilities that our strategic competitors would use, including machine to machine and things like that,” Wilson said.
In the three to five-year timeframe, the team needs enhanced antennas, which means low profile, and improved performance for those new antennae.
As operators see a more frequency-crowded battlefield, automated signal processing is key to reducing the burden of manual frequency configuration by operators.
They need to be able to process data and signals intelligence in remote locations without connections to more powerful computing present in large formations or stateside.
High altitude and space payloads are key for integrating space assets. And they must be able to hide their own signals transmissions and collections efforts in the radio frequency spectrum.
Beyond the six-year mark, the team is looking for sensor autonomy and sensor data communicating from field locations to vehicles and air or maritime vessels on the move.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.