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Research Brief

In the twenty-first century, U.S. military operations rely heavily on high-capacity communications networks to transmit and receive information to and from the field of operation. A critical application is the transmission of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) information to weapons platforms such as fighter and bomber aircraft for precision targeting and other uses.

In a hostile environment, U.S. communications networks may be threatened by enemy jammers and signals intelligence (SIGINT) receivers. The challenge is greater for combat systems operating at medium and low altitudes—including fighters and bombers—because enemy systems require less sensitivity to jam or intercept communications. These platforms also face a higher risk of detection when transmitting large amounts of data. Thus, the U.S. Air Force is interested in developing communications networks that are less susceptible to electronic threats.

The Air Force Should Consider a Combination of Options and Solutions

RAND Project AIR FORCE studied threats to U.S. communications networks and identified options for improving such systems against jammers and SIGINT receivers. Research concluded that different options exist depending on the altitude, range, and data rate of U.S. systems and the potential threats they face. Major findings include the following:

  • The current Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) and the planned Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) have some jam-resistance capability, but they do not provide the high data rate needed for integrated ISR-strike operations.
  • Common Data Link (CDL) programs can provide the sufficient data rate, but they require improvements to survive severe threat environments. Adding nulling capability—the use of auxiliary antennae to cancel jamming signals—would improve jam resistance. Agile, multibeam, low-sidelobe directional antennae would achieve even greater protection against both jammers and airborne SIGINT receivers.
  • Laser beams and absorption band—methods of transmission that are less susceptible to jamming and interception—are appropriate for high-altitude platforms such as ISR systems, communication nodes, and satellites.
  • Proliferated platforms with multiple beams may provide more robust, reliable networks than current platforms, but further analysis is needed to examine their effectiveness.

Based on these findings, communications technology does not appear to be a major limiting factor in developing future ISR forces. Programmatic action will be required to develop the necessary systems, however, and the costs could be significant. Moreover, the development of new systems together with required platform modifications and new designs raise technology and cost issues that should be carefully examined.

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This research brief describes work done for RAND Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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