Ensuring Global Connectivity for Special Forces

Special forces need to keep communications open even in the most austere environments, such as on the Pamir Highway in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, neighbouring Afghanistan. (Kymeta)

Overcoming the challenge of disrupted communications for special forces operating in contested environments.

On 1 September, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) published its ‘UK Space Power’ Joint Doctrine which outlined some of the challenges facing the Armed Forces in terms of vulnerability to space-based Global Positioning System (GPS) signals.

As the report described, GPS signals continue to be “susceptible to jamming or deceptive spoofing” in contested areas of operation- something which has been highly prevalent in the ongoing war in Ukraine since Russian forces invaded on 24 February.

The report described how even low power jammers could be easily and quickly deployed to “prevent the receipt of GPS signals across an area of several square kilometres”.

“There is very limited recourse to non-space based systems given GPS services are integrated into most land systems from tactical radios to missile systems,” the MoD document explained.

GPS is routinely used by special operations forces (SOF) to support positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) as well as strategic satellite communications (SATCOM) providing high capacity reach back to headquarters often located hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

Between 5-6 October, senior commanders from across the European and North American special operations community gathered in Budapest, Hungary to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine and the future of special forces around the world.

One of the most relevant discussions conducted at the GSOF Europe Symposium was that of communications in contested environments, similar to those being experienced first hand by Ukrainian Armed Forces Special Operations Forces (UASOF) in the ongoing conflict in eastern Europe.

Addressing delegates at the event, commander of UASOF, Brigadier General Viktor Khorenko demanded a series of ‘innovations’ for the special operations units under his command. He said that “secure, low visibility and low profile” communications solutions were required which would allow SOF operators to communicate without being detected or disrupted by Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) units.

UASOF are operating a variety of solutions including L3Harris Technologies’ Falcon III RF-7800 series handheld, vehicular and manpack radio sets. Radios are capable of operating the US Army’s Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) waveform which according to the US Department of Defense (DoD) “provides secure line-of-sight transmissions”.

Critical to the success of special operations conducted by UASOF in Ukraine is command and control (C2) of units across the battlefield, something which requires a robust communications network capable of passing high throughputs of data at low latency for near real-time updates from across the battlespace. More often than not, SATCOM is relied upon to support C2 and common operating pictures.

Lessons learned from Ukraine of SOF operating in potentially GPS-disrupted areas of operation are of particular interest to special forces units around the World which might be seeking to protect operators from similar threats, albeit from different adversaries.

In North America, the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is also grappling with the problem of helping SOF to communicate in contested environments.

At the GSOF Europe Symposium, USSOCOM’s acquisition executive, Jim Smith confirmed communications in contested environments remains a top priority for the Tampa-based command although he conceded the organisation did not yet possess the solution they want.

“We’re not there yet,” he told delegates. “I want our operators to be able to talk without getting detected and have their output get to where it needs to without being altered.”

US SOF are operating a variety of software defined radios including L3Harris’s AN/PRC-163 Next Generation Tactical Communications handheld devices which support a variety of Low Probability of Intercept/Low Probability of Detection (LPI/LPD) waveforms.

NGTC software-defined radio
L3Harris Technologies’ AN/PRC-163 Next Generation Tactical Communications (NGTC) software-defined radio as worn by a member of the US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. (75th Ranger Regiment)

Indo Pacific

Such trends are being closely observed in the Indo-Pacific arena where the likes Japan and the Republic of Korea are looking to protect themselves from interference by the People’s Republic of China and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for example, has already been acknowledged by the US DOD as possessing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon systems capable of destroying geostationary satellites equipped with GPS or Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) payloads- critical to enabling efficient SATCOM. 

Discussing the problem of assuring real-time C2 in contested environments such as Ukraine at the GSOF Europe Symposium, SOF commanders from across Central Europe considered how to improve the current situation in support of special operations.

Defence sources explained to Asian Military Review how senior leadership from the Composite Special Operations Component Command – a temporarily deployable SOF command featuring Belgian, Danish and Dutch special forces components – had discussed challenges associated with Communications and Information Systems (CIS) in the contemporary operating environment.

Similar concerns were raised by Major General Tamás Sándor, Commander, Hungarian SOF (HUNSOF) who called for his organisation and the wider community of European SOF partners to “listen to what our Ukrainian friends are telling us”.

“They can tell us how effective [C2] is in the real world. We had C2 in Iraq and Afghanistan but it is not as available as we thought in this new [operating] environment,” he warned.

“We need to be learning from Ukraine and come up with a unique solution for SOF for an effective C2. There are also some proposed changes on the conventional side for C2 which will effect SOF,” Sándor added.

Also speaking was Brigadier General Branislav Benka, Commander of Slovakia’s 5th Special Forces Regiment who described how he had just visited Ukraine to speak with the Ministry of Defence to discuss lessons learned from the ongoing war. “We are spending hours and days to set up the network and set up the headquarters and tactical operations centres,” he described. “We are doing something wrong. We need to bring a lot of equipment to set up while the peer to peer conflict is running a different way’, Benka added.

“How do we develop a totally different type of C2 system? We are working on this as of now to develop practices and experiences coming from the ground in Ukraine,” he added before also referring to discussions regarding a SOF-specific C2 solution over recent years.

Technology Support 

Thanks to ongoing efforts by the defence industrial base, solutions to overcome GPS and RF-jamming by adversarial EW units continues to become available to SOF around the world.

One of the most relevant solutions is self-forming and self-healing mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs) which mesh together dozens and even hundreds of point-to-point nodes across a battlespace without any requirement to network with geostationary satellites. Specialist MANET radios have become incredibly popular across the international SOF community, particularly as they are a more cost effective solution to expensive, two-channel software defined radios. Examples include Persistent Systems’ handheld MPU5 radio which features the Wave Relay MANET waveform.

According to Steatite Communications, a reseller in the UK, the MPU5 uses Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) technology to deliver “extremely high bandwidth and extended link distances with up to 100Mbps of actual user throughput, transferring high resolution imagery and HD video allowing for real-time information exchange and comprehensive situational awareness”.

“MIMO’s reliability, versatility and high bandwidth makes it ideal for blasting out necessary real-time information, such as GPS locations, maps, reconnaissance video streams, and voice messages in complex urban, subterranean, and maritime environments,” a company statement confirmed.

Also available and in use with SOF internationally is Trellisware’s family of MANET radios which run the TSM waveform, currently in service with the USSOCOM. Examples include the TW-950 TSM Shadow which according to a company spokesperson, supports “simultaneous voice talk-groups, rapid position location reporting, IP data and video streaming in a compact form factor”.

The other MANET specialist provider which also equips SOF units around the world is Silvus Technologies. Their lightest and smallest form factor handheld MANET radio is the Streamcaster Lite 4200 which also relies upon MIMO technology. Half the size and a third of the weight of its predecessor, the Streamcaster 4200, the Lite variant can support up to 20Mbps in throughput at latency levels down to as low as 28ms, according to a company source.

The StreamCaster Lite 4200 from Silvus Technologies
The StreamCaster Lite 4200 from Silvus Technologies is the company’s smallest and lightest radio.

Assessing the threat

Before SOF deploy into a contested area of operation, commanders can also use a variety of simulation and modelling tools to assess EW threats including denial and disruption of GPS and GNSS.

Examples include MASS’s Networked EW Training Simulator (NEWTS) which features the ‘Battleye’ EW Mission Support Tool; Communications Exploitation Training Tool (COMETT); and Signals of Interest (SOI) Repository. The company states that the NEWTS is a ‘non-operational, procedural training application which has been designed to be used over LAN and / or WAN architecture.’

MASS also states that “they can be used in isolation for individual training, but when combined they replicate a real-life EW operations intelligence cycle, fulfilling collective training environments [enabling] a suite of tools that facilitates effective signal intelligence and EW training based in our training facility in Lincoln, or can be purchased for in-house training delivery requirements.”

BATTLEYE’s technology-based mission planning tool could also be used for ‘mission planning of in-field communications to determine the impact of terrain, elevation and power supply requirements – resulting in clear and secure communications for personnel on the ground.’ MASS further explains that: “Due to the tool’s ability to highlight the complexity and range of factors that affect communications, BATTLEYE is often used as an impactful training software that helps to reduce risk.” However, MASS was unable to confirm to Asian Military Review whether NEWTS or BATTLEYE was in operational service with any SOF customers, citing operational security concerns.

Finally, the international SOF community is also paying close attention to emerging capabilities associated with low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations.

As the UK MoD’s ‘Space Power’ document highlighted, the “majority of UK military capabilities will continue to rely on GPS in the near term, alternative GNSS capabilities are being pursued to improve resilience.”

Consequently, the MoD and partner nations around the world are looking how the potential loss of GPS signals could be mitigated by reducing dependency on legacy geostationary satellites in addition to the development of alternative solutions and services as part of a ‘system of systems’ approach.

LEO satellite constellations, which are made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller, cheaper and expendable spacecraft compared to larger, much more expensive and cumbersome GEO spacecraft, are able to quickly hand-off connectivity to neighbouring satellites should they detect any disruption in GPS connectivity. Current LEO providers understood to be in discussions with international SOF units include Space-X and OneWeb.

In Ukraine, the armed forces have already employed Space X’s Starlink LEO SATCOM capability at the frontline although this was successfully disrupted by Russian EW units, according to the French Space Command.

One defence source associated with the technology type described AMR how LEO satellite constellations were less susceptible to attack by kinetic ASAT weapons which continue to be developed by China and Russia.

SOF are able to access LEO constellation connectivity through lightweight and compact electronically steerable antenna (C-ESA) solutions (also referred to as flat panel user terminals) which can be integrated on the roof section of tactical ground vehicles. C-ESAs, developed by the likes of Hughes Network Systems, Kymeta, Intellian and countless other providers, can allow SOF teams to not only communicate on-the-pause (COTP) but also on-the-move (COTM), even when travelling at high speed across any terrain type.

Examples include Kymeta’s Osprey u8 user C-ESA which has been integrated on board Polaris Government and Defense’s MRZR 4×4 vehicle which is in service with the USSOCOM as the Light Tactical All Terrain Vehicle (LTATV).

Weighing 125lb (56.8kg) and measures 90cm x 90cm x 15cm, the Osprey is capable of enabling data throughput up to 195Mbps at latency rates as low as 100ms, according to defence sources.

Antenna in the form of flat panel user terminals, such as Kymeta’s Osprey u8, can be attached to tactical vehicles (Kymeta)

Hughes Network Systems has designed a 22lb (10kg) Half Duplex C-ESA which can be integrated on board any tactical ground vehicle; in addition to a Full Duplex C-ESA variant for airborne ISR platforms. Finally, Intellian has designed a 9dB/k C-ESA which is small enough in size and weight be carried by a dismounted SOF operator.

Speaking to AMR, OneWeb’s Billy Bingham, head of Government at the company, described how SOF were often required to conduct missions in austere and remote regions, requiring connectivity to maximise their situation awareness and streamline decision-making processes.

“Capable of automatically tracking satellites even when on the move, C-ESA technologies must be small, lightweight, cost effective and modem agnostic, allowing operators to connect to commercial and military frequency spectrum bands including Ka and Ku.

“OneWeb supports a range of third party C-ESA user terminals, ideally suited to supporting SOF customers anywhere in the World, at any time,” he added before confirming COTP- and COTM-capable C-ESAs will be available to potential SOF customers in 2023.

SOF also benefit from low profile antennae and LPI/LPD waveforms which allow operators to reduce detection, disruption and interception of radio frequency signals by adversaries, Bingham added.


Special operations in GPS/GNSS-denied environments look set to become increasingly common, particularly in eastern Europe and the Indo Pacific.

As they roll out PACE (primary, alternate, contingency and emergency) communications plans, SOF must identify suitable alternatives to legacy geostationary satellite networks to ensure operators benefit from resilient and secure levels in connectivity, no matter what the operating environment.

by Andrew White