The exercise control group has spoken. All communications are down. The adversary is actively jamming every system in the joint task force’s inventory across the entire area of operations. Signal planners were seemingly well prepared for this operation, but their PACE plan—which outlined their organization’s primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency pathways—is immediately brought crashing down. What begins to unfold in the wake of the pronouncement in operations centers looks more like people working through the stages of grief than coordinated staffs fighting through the situation to maintain command and control of their forces. There is a mixture of denial, anger, and acceptance as each warfighting function struggles under the isolation. For some, there is a sense of business as usual. This is not their first exercise and not the first time they have encountered these sorts of full-scale cyber injects, so they simply carry on and wait for this part of the scenario to be over.

There are a myriad of training events and exercises held across the joint force that unfold just like this. Although the intent is to train commanders and their staffs to deal with a loss of communications, the way the scenarios are scripted often leads to unrealistic practices and significant degradation in the training value of these events. As the joint force continues to prepare for large-scale combat operations, there is a keen awareness that we will not maintain the same level of technological dominance we had during the two decades of the post-9/11 wars. The idea of a “contested communications environment” reflects the recognition by the communications community that the electromagnetic spectrum and cyber domain represent key terrain on the modern battlefield, and that both sides will employ offensive and defensive capabilities to dominate this space. Unfortunately, when exercises empower notional adversaries with omnipotent and omnipresent capabilities, we potentially train our commanders and staffs to be risk averse for fear of detection and retaliation. To counter this, we have been pouring resources into new systems and technologies that promise to deliver solutions we commonly refer to low probability of interception (LPI) and low probability of detection (LPD). While there is absolutely a need for technical solutions to these technical problems, it is only one part of the equation. Despite all fears to the contrary, the lessons we are learning from the conflict in Ukraine point to a much different version of contested communications that we should be using to frame our discussion on how to build resilient communications options that provide survivable and responsive command and control for commanders.

The first thing that we must do to improve our preparation for this contest is to change the way we talk about the problem. As with anything else in the military, we have an acronym to describe the challenge: DDIL. In contested communications, we anticipate that at some point our communications will be subject to denial, disconnection, intermittency, or limitations. Unfortunately, we have thrown the term DDIL around to the point where it fails to capture important nuances and tends to be thought of as binary in nature. We are either in a DDIL environment and cannot communicate at all or we are not in DDIL and business continues as usual. But the reality is that DDIL represents four unique challenges that can have a wide range of disruptive effects on operations. Improving the precision with which we speak about the effects we see is the first step toward improving our collective understanding about the specific problem at hand.

Next, we must improve our understanding of our equipment, how to deploy it to maximize its LPI/LPD capabilities, and when not to use it. There is a common fear that if adversary forces are not reducing our ability to communicate, that may be because they are more interested in using our electromagnetic signature. This assumes the enemy is capable of instantly locating any signal that is not jammed or deciphering it into actionable intelligence. While it might be true that the capability to do so exists in adversary forces’ inventory, that does not mean they are actually in a position to use that capability effectively. Using the same precision of language required when discussing maneuver and effects in the land domain, we need to increase the specificity with which we talk about force composition, disposition, and strength with respect to ourselves, our adversaries, and our partners in the cyber domain and electromagnetic spectrum. This is not to say that we should underestimate our adversaries, but rather that we should invest the time to better understand these systems and the effects they can actually have on the battlefield.

Armed with a refined common operational picture of friendly and adversarial actors and effects along the electromagnetic spectrum, the signal community will be better postured to help the commander understand, visualize, and describe the risk associated with employing a communications system. Similar to operations in other domains, it is helpful to categorize this risk into four categories: risk to force, mission, capability, and strategy. How would using or not using this system impact the survivability of the force? What is the probability of detection or interception, and how significant would the impact be on the success of the mission? Does using a capability for a specific mission expose it to our adversaries, and potentially remove it from future employment? Finally, how might it affect the commander’s plan for employing the unit’s other capabilities and resources across time and space? Talking about technological capability is the signal corps’s comfort zone, but it is this risk discussion that ends up being the most important. Given the nature of competition in the electromagnetic environment that we have seen play out in Ukraine and other recent conflicts, the question is less of a matter of whether a unit can communicate and more a question of whether it should, and that is a decision that lies firmly with the commander.

Where do we go from here? How do we turn these ideas into actionable tasks to understand and solve this problem? The first thing we should do is to widen the conversation and integrate other key stakeholders on staffs. Most critically this includes the electronic warfare, intelligence, and operations directorates, who all have a small piece in the operational picture that we must put together to form a common understanding of the fight in this contested communications environment. There will also be a strong educational component of this effort to arm commanders and their staffs with the knowledge required to understand what is happening in the electromagnetic spectrum and how it affects all of the warfighting functions. Part of this education will bleed over into a change in how we train as warfighting headquarters. Contested communications should absolutely continue to be a part of these training exercises, but it should be done deliberately and with specificity: Limit bandwidth allocations to make staffs learn to prioritize their traffic. Increase the potential for maneuver element communication detection to assess how commanders change how they control their formations. Deny certain frequency ranges and make the communication teams practice their PACE plans and fight through the scenario instead of simply removing every option they have. There are times when units should experience the enemy’s most dangerous courses of action—including a complete blackout—but there is a limit to the utility of these extremes.

The final change to our approach to contested communications is a recognition that it is not solely, or perhaps even primarily, a technological challenge. Technology absolutely plays a critical role, but we must invest the time in reevaluating existing policies for how and when technological solutions should be employed and refine our tactics, techniques, and procedures. These changes will not be easy, and they will not come overnight. But this realignment must happen if we are to actually prepare the force for the fight ahead.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Gaines is currently assigned as the ACoS G6 at 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne), Fort Liberty, North Carolina.

Captain Alex Suh is the communications OIC for the Special Operations Joint Task Force, Fort Liberty, North Carolina.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Maj. Brian Sutherland, US Army