Submarines are attractive naval COMINT collection assets due to their ability to operate covertly close to a nation’s coastline.

Coastal cities will mushroom in population in the coming years. Naval COMINT systems will be vital for collecting strategic and tactical intelligence from international waters.

According to the Washington DC-based non-government organisation the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) three billion people, around half the world’s population, live within 200 kilometres/km (124 miles) of a coastline. The PRB expects this number to double by 2025. Grayline Capital, a consultancy based in Austin, Texas, says that this urban migration is driven by several factors: Mechanisation and automation of agriculture decreases the quantity of workers required for farming, forcing those from rural areas into the city to look for work. This is particularly apparent in developing countries where agricultural automation is relatively recent. In addition the knowledge economy and its concentration in urban areas prompt movements of aspirant workers in this sector into cities to seek opportunities and networks in their chosen fields. Similarly, the economic growth of cities encourages urban immigration from those seeking work in the service industries supporting affluent residents and businesses.

Why does this concern naval Communications Intelligence (COMINT)? While the vast majority of those people seeking a new life and prosperity in the world’s coastal cities will be law-abiding citizens, some may have nefarious intentions. Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic of China’s founding father and chairman of the Communist Party of China, argued that “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” What better place to do this than in a large conurbation which may present not only lucrative targets but sources of recruitment and materiel, fellow cadres and access to economic opportunities to finance operations. Cities maybe ideal for intelligence agents to ply their trade, as well as places where counter-insurgency operations or peacekeeping missions may occur; witness Operation Gothic Serpent, the US led initiative to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid which occurred between August and October 1993. Likewise amphibious forces may mount such operations in proximity to coastal cities. At the same time, these conurbations generate their own highly congested electromagnetic environments. The website estimates that the population of Mumbai and its environs on India’s west coast could be over 22 million. The mind boggles at how many million cell phone users this includes. As a result of such pressures, Naval COMINT systems need to tease the signal of interest out from the miasma of urban electromagnetic noise: As such they must have the “ability to operate in a very dense electromagnetic environment (near the shore) and to track a high number of targets simultaneously,” a written statement supplied by Thales told Armada Analysis.

Intuitive user interfaces, like this one used with PLATH’s ICAS (Intelligence Control and Analysis System) are a sine qua non for naval COMINT systems, all the more so given the increasing saturation of the electromagnetic spectrum in cities.

Collecting strategic COMINT relating to persons of interest is an ideal task for navies: “Naval forces worldwide are facing changes in their mission requirements,” says a written statement from Rohde and Schwarz supplied to Armada Analysis: “Besides naval warfare, operations against terrorism, acts of piracy, smuggling, and organised crime at sea have become challenges” says Torsten Düsing, business case manager for naval solutions at PLATH. He notes that “you can move COMINT sensors to blind spots, and a naval platform is ideal for this role as it is not restricted by borders.” Put simply, a warship can position herself beyond a nation’s twelve nautical mile (22.5km) territorial waters limit, activate her COMINT sensors and start gathering intelligence. At its basic level “a naval COMINT system must provide sensitive sensors for all communications signals in the High Frequency (HF: three megahertz/MHz to 30MHz), Very High Frequency (VHF: 30MHz to 300MHz) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF: 300MHz to three gigahertz/GHz) bands to maximize capabilities and efficiency on different types of missions,” Rohde and Schwarz’ statement continued. Alongside these frequency bands, naval COMINT systems must cope with an array of waveforms and “should also be able to intercept civil and military wireless communications, including analogue and digital signals in fixed-frequency and frequency-agile modes, as well as commercial radio signals.”

The challenge for navies, Mr. Düsing states, is that the propagation ranges for V/UHF communications can be in the order of tens of kilometres. This means that navies must get as close to the shore as possible to gather COMINT on such transmissions. Gathering intelligence on cellphone transmissions, even when this close to the shore, can be challenging, Mr. Düsing continues, without having a specialised antenna. Such equipment is usually the preserve of dedicated naval SIGINT collection vessels like the Marine Nationale’s (French Navy) Dupuy de Lôme or the Marina Militare’s (Italian Navy) Elettra. As Klaus Weighardt, vice president and director of sales and marketing at Saab’s Medav division states: “Today warships and submarines have a limited level of COMINT Systems on board, as a fully comprehensive suite of system is typically carried by SIGINT ships operated by intelligence services.”

This does not stop naval combatants equipped with standard COMINT equipment playing a valuable role in gathering strategic COMINT, particularly regarding HF or V/UHF commercial or military radios being used in a sprawling metropolis. Mr. Düsing states that, to be effective, naval COMINT systems used in these and other environments must use receivers with a low noise figure. He says that PLATH offers naval COMINT systems with noise figures as low as six decibels: “We must be able to hear a very weak signal across a very large distance: The lower the noise figure, the wider the detection range.” Other key requirements are a need to have a good dynamic range and wide instantaneous bandwidth to cope with the saturation which accompanies the urban electromagnetic environment. Mr. Weighardt agrees, stressing the need “to provide enough real-time bandwidth to intercept modern communications signals.” He adds that it will be imperative for naval COMINT systems to accommodate the migration of some telecommunications into higher parts of the electromagnetic spectrum: “Due to the extension in frequency ranges used for communication signals, modern COMINT equipment will need to be able to process much higher frequency signals and cross correlate target signals that share the spectrum with other types of signals like radars.”

Furthermore ease of upgrade and a modular construction and architecture, Mr. Düsing continues, are both a sine qua non. Rohde and Schwarz posit that the need to share COMINT and fuse it with other intelligence is also paramount: “The system must allow data fusion with intercepted data from other sensors, including radar and the radar electronic support measure. It must be possible to transfer data automatically to the command system for assisting targeting.” New innovations should also be embraced to ease the analytical task of interpreting the torrents of COMINT that these systems will collect from the shore: “Artificial intelligence and other new digital technologies can definitely help navies by enabling COMINT operators make smarter decisions in real time,” Thales’ statement continues.

The spectrum will become increasingly congested around the world’s coastal cities, reflecting global demographic changes. Fortunately, navies have the tools at their disposal to keep tabs on how the fish swimming in the sea of the population is communicating.

by Dr. Thomas Withington