"Dean is Vice President of Solutions Engineering for Volatus Aerospace Group. He has implemented complex BVLOS UAS programs, including the first BVLOS COA for a law enforcement agency. He is considered an expert in aerial intelligence and real-time situational awareness technology solutions, and is a specialist in providing program management, guidance, and solutions for complex UAS programs."
Dean Attridge: As I consider the ways in which the war in Ukraine has changed modern warfare, I am struck at how our reliance on space-based communications and navigation (GPS, Satcom, etc.) has gone from almost nothing to being a critical and decisive advantage on the battlefield — whoever has “space superiority” has the upper hand. Live streaming video, remotely piloted aerial reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, and precision GPS navigation have enabled us to act quickly, adjusting to real-time conditions like never before. Just the other day, I conducted a live video support call with a Ukrainian soldier located in a trench over Satellite discussing how we needed to change the design of a UAS because of his combat experience that morning.
Yet, just as fast as our militaries have adopted this technology, we have been working just as hard to jam it for our opponents. From electromagnetic devices (jamming) to cyber-attacks (spoofing and hijacking), there is no guarantee that space-enabled communications and navigation will hold out in combat.
I predict that the next bout of development will be focused simultaneously on improving and mitigating the efficacy of space-enabled technologies given the significant impact it is having on outcomes on the battlefield. This means that the situation will only get more challenging as space superiority becomes more central to modern warfare and the technology to stop it gets increasingly sophisticated.
The question is how prepared are we to adapt and adjust when navigation and comms go out?
During my 40+ years working in defense, I have personally experienced the transition from radio and analog communications, encoding messages on sliding charts that we barely understood, to flying an MQ-9 Reaper from Las Vegas on another continent using satellites to control the aircraft.
My military career began in 1984 at the tail end of the Cold War. Back then, individual movements required a lot of planning, preparation, and training, there was no GPS, no live streaming video, no drones, or satellites — the entire tempo of battle was slower in comparison to today. Radio communications was a slow form of communication with limited range. Navigation was still reliant upon a map and compass. And without space-based reconnaissance or live video streaming, information was not always complete and there was rarely advanced warning of enemy activity and attacks like we can get today. People, even whole units, would get lost regularly.
The war in Ukraine has only underlined the stark contrast between those days and the shift to space-enabled warfare. Russia continues to rely to some degree on cold war military tactics and equipment, whereas the smaller Ukrainian army has adopted more modern techniques (such as asymmetrical warfare) and space-enabled technologies (such as drones) to give them an edge that is enabling them to successfully push back. But we are also seeing how GPS jamming has impacted the use of these technologies. In Ukraine they tell me, if you are being jammed, you are near something very interesting. But also, they cannot jam everywhere all the time.
So, what are we doing versus what should we be doing to prepare for a breakdown in space communications and navigation? For example, when was the last time a modern military removed cell- and satellite-enabled equipment from training exercises?
It takes consistent training and reinforcement to maintain the skills for analog methods of communication and navigation. How do you simultaneously keep up with advanced warfare while preparing for the eventuality that it may, at any given moment, breakdown? How much do you choose to trust and rely on the tech? These are tough questions that any military commander will have to deal with now that space has entered the military arena.
Space-based technologies have made life easier and faster, but we must recognize their vulnerabilities. The military that accounts for these vulnerabilities — trains its soldiers for GPS-denied environments and jammed satellite communications and is ready with a Plan B, C, & D — will have the real upper hand. Maintaining space superiority is highly desirable, being robust enough to still fight without it, that’s old school, but possible.
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