Imagine waking up in the unknown with no knowledge of your surroundings, without a single piece of working technology. You can’t contact anyone, you can’t determine your location through GPS, and you can’t access the internet for how-to videos on survival. Now, imagine you’re in enemy territory and bullets are zipping through the air around you.
How probable is your survival?
Over the years, people have become reliant on technology to pull them out of sticky situations. Similarly, advances in technology have propelled the way militaries win wars or prevent them from happening. What happens when these technological dependencies suddenly disappear? How will people function if an adversary blocks communications for ground forces?
When achieving a master’s degree from the National Defense University, Chief Master Sgt. Brandon Krueger, 1st Combat Communications Squadron operations superintendent, dove into this topic with a 72-page thesis.
“My thesis outlines more of an expectation management and cultural problem within the military than a technology problem,” he said. “There’s a focus amongst all the expeditionary communications units in the Department of Defense right now trying to figure out how we operate in a contested communications environment.”
A struggle for the expeditionary communications career field is explaining their capabilities to customers in a way they understand. Krueger refers to it as the “Marvel movie effect.”
“People see Marvel movies and they see these wazoo communications technologies that don’t really exist,” he said. “Most of my guys can’t explain to their users why they can’t get access to these kinds of technologies. What’s going to happen when our communications get contested and we just have nothing? What happens to that ground force commander, or that O-6 level commander in a Joint Operations Command when they don’t have access to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance when their satellite communications are being interfered, and we go from operating in the 21st century to a World War II type of environment?”
While researching the topic for his thesis, Krueger discovered the common solution for this issue was investing in more technology. However, there isn’t a catch-all solution technology can deliver. The best technology can do is provide options.
“The answer is always, ‘get more equipment,’ but the problem is more nuanced than that,” Krueger said. “There’s talk about airborne platforms; maybe we make every airborne platform in the sky an airborne communications relay? That’s a great idea, but what if we’re fighting in an anti-access/area denial environment where we can’t get airborne platforms overhead because they’ll get shot down from enemy integrated air defenses?”
Rather than solve the issue with more technology, Krueger suggests focusing on the cultural aspects of contested communications.
“We need to look at what we’re going to do culturally in order to get people used to the idea the communications they’ve grown used to in the Global War on Terror might not be accessible,” Krueger said. “Culturally, as a military, we began to rely more on bandwidth and data as our enemy was less likely to contest it. Now as we shift to a different environment, our reliance on bandwidth and data is huge and our adversaries’ ability to contest it is just as large.”
Being mentally prepared before conducting operations allows ground forces to make big decisions they normally wouldn’t have to make.
“There was always the ability for senior leaders, even as far up as combatant commands and the Pentagon, to be able to control operations on the battlefield to a level we never thought possible,” he said. “If we can’t expect to have that level of control in a future conflict, what are we doing to enable those ground forces to be able to say, ‘I don’t know if I’m doing what’s right, but I have some general commander’s intent and I know what my objectives are, and I can execute based off of those objectives.’”
In the meantime, Krueger is applying his expertise and overall knowledge, as outlined in his thesis, to strengthen the 1st CBCS’ ability to operate in these contested environments.
“When I got to combat communications, they were already in the initial planning stages for exercise Heavy Rain,” he said. “That’s when I decided I was going to insert myself into that exercise because I have a huge interest in electronic warfare and contested communications.”
As the operations superintendent, Krueger’s role for Heavy Rain was to baseline their capabilities. In other words, he observed the Airmen to see what they knew while providing suggestions for improvement along the way.
“We hadn’t done an electronic warfare exercise in quite a while,” he said. “The ability to identify interference and overcome its effects wasn’t really built up.”
During Heavy Rain, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge on what to do in a contested communications environment.
“If you don’t know what interference looks like and your satellite dish goes down, how do you know if it’s interference or normal maintenance wear and tear?” Krueger said.
Every time Airmen lost communications, the combat communicators assumed it was interference. Because of this, Krueger suggested throwing in scenarios where the equipment would fail for other reasons to give them a chance to accurately identify the issue. This allowed them to become more aware of the situation in order to thwart the interference when it actually occurred.
Krueger’s goal is to move in a direction where contested communications become part of every future exercise so Airmen are better equipped during these scenarios.
“Once we develop our techniques, tactics and procedures, and the rest of the command feels comfortable with it, we will start rolling it out on more exercises related to agile combat employment,” he said.
Overall, Krueger’s chance to attend NDU and write a thesis on a subject important to him and his career field afforded him the opportunity to sharpen his awareness on contested communications. This also allows him the opportunity to provide Airmen thorough feedback, which is essential to strengthening Air Force capabilities as a whole.
“That course changed my life,” he said. “I had the opportunity to get so deep into what I was studying and really become a subject matter expert. The ability for enlisted members to go to school and become a master of their professional area is huge, and underutilized in my opinion.”