A Relay Race: Communication Relay Drones
Much of the conversation surrounding the advent of naval drone warfare has focused on those platforms performing the more ‘kinetic’ types of warfare – anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, air warfare – and those of the voyeuristic surveillance variety. However, a quick look at the composition of the carrier air wings of the U.S. Navy or the dispersed air units of a land campaign reminds us that supporting elements such as electronic warfare and command and control (C2) remain an integral part of modern combined operations. While it may not be as “sexy” as the ability to deliver a missile on target, the ability to maintain battlefield communications is arguably more important as it is an enabler of nearly all other actions.
In January, The Aviationist described the U.S. Air Force’s reiteration of the importance and utility of airborne assets providing communications by developing a new line-of-sight system:
The U.S. Air Force is trying to turn the targeting pods carried by some of its legacy fighters and the B-1 Lancer bomber, into flying wireless routers that would allow ground troops to communicate each other.
The U.S. military and associated defense contractors have experimented in the use of UAVs as communication relays over the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, outfitting extant UAVs with communication relay packages (CRPs) to extend the range of terrestrial communication – primarily radios. At sea, UAVs outfitted to act as communications relays could fill a variety of roles.
First, as their name suggests, aerial communication relay drones (CRDs) could act to expand the reach of vessels and shore facilities to either additional unmanned aerial, surface, or subsurface vehicles; or to outlying manned vessels such as RHIBs or other small craft. Even if not the primary means of communication, or necessary for a second craft’s operation, CRDs could provide dedicated data paths with enhanced exchange rates to pass more information on more reliable connections. This would be all the more important in an operational environment with disbursed tactical components – such as the mothership concept – with increasing competition for limited communication paths.
Second, CRDs could act to re-establish communications with outlying stations, between vessels, or between vessels and shore facilities in the event primary comm paths are degraded, denied, or compromised. Whether it’s the effects of jamming, environmental interference, data corruption, equipment malfunction, or the outright loss of that equipment (such as the perennial fear of anti-satellite actions) the ability to restore secure and reliable communications is critical capability.
Once again, the more a navy follows a distributed model of naval warfare, the more it will rely on comm paths to effectively wage war, and the more crucial it will be to be able to restore them. Drone autonomy can help mitigate this reliance with built-in protocols in the event of loss of comm, but it does not prevent the loss of information flowing to the C2 nodes (i.e. decision makers lose sight of what’s going on) or between units, with a potential loss in tactical efficiency. In truth, the more comfortable a navy becomes with autonomous drone operations, the more units a single C2 node will command, and the more expansive an operational area it will need to communicate across. Adding to the problem, the more modern naval warfare relies on these comm paths and the more fragile they appear, the likelier they will be the target of adversary actions.
A third role for CRDs would be as a critical tool during humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) efforts. Natural disasters have a nasty habit of taking down communication infrastructure such as cell towers, and even when they don’t, humans have a less nasty habit of trying to get in touch with their loved ones – thereby overwhelming what remains of the communications grid. CRDs could help fill the gap. Observation of recent international calamities has in fact led the U.S.’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to explore the use of UAVs to do just that, pressing ahead with ideas for the Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture. Such an ability would also be useful in case of expeditionary operations into areas where such infrastructure never existed.
The capacity to restore comm paths, or establish alternates, could be achieved in a variety of manners. CRDs could be purpose built or they could be so designated when a communications relay package/payload is fitted on to a multipurpose drone. Depending on the mode of communication, CRDs could be designed to enhance extant communications past its normal quality, range, or security or they could provide simple bare-bones back-up. CRDs could operate continuously in orbit or they could be held in reserve. There are a lot of options to explore and a lot of tactical considerations to experiment with. Perhaps the most important from a technical feasibility and cost/benefit analysis standpoint will be to parse through the various modes of communication that might be improved or restored – from radio to infrared to wireless to cellular.
While they haven’t received nearly as much attention as their sub-hunting, rocket-launching, or enemy-peeping kin, CRDs could fill a role just, if not more, important in the future of naval warfare.
This article by Scott Cheney-Peters is reposted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.