Communications and computers remain the backbone for directing and controlling U.S. forces. Attempting to gain joint operational access without resilient technical systems makes command and control significantly problematic. Such as the case when conducting Arctic operations and up to this point is an area that the U.S. Navy has lacked sufficient capabilities. The findings of the Fleet Arctic Operations Game (2011) remind us that tactical reach back for forces operating above the Arctic Circle do not exist. Historically, operators have used multiple communication methods and accepted reduced bandwidth to operate in the region. No material solution until now has been able to satisfy this requirement. Last week the U.S. Navy made great strides in the communications arena by successfully testing the handheld distributed tactical communications system (DTCS) in austere weather conditions across the polar region for the first time. Despite these conditions, engineers in Barrow, Kotzebue and Anchorage were able to carry out conversations via push-to-talk hand held devices with personnel at Navy headquarters in Colorado and Virginia.
Developed by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and the Naval Surface Warfare Dahlgren Division, DTCS leverages the Iridium low-earth orbiting satellite constellation to provide on-the-move, over-the-horizon, beyond line-of-sight voice and position location information without the need for local ground infrastructure. This capability will likely provide an unprecedented level of situational awareness for disadvantaged personnel traveling deep into the Arctic Circle to perform missions such as search-and-rescue, maritime patrols, and disaster relief. To ensure fleet proficiency, new techniques and procedures should be adopted, reflected in the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Maritime Response Force Concept of Operation (CONOP), and subsequently practiced in joint exercises such as Operation Nanook and Northern Eagle. However, developing this proficiency is heavily dependent on Commandant Commanders adopting and integrating this capability into a broader joint Arctic strategy – a strategy that has yet to be defined. DTCS is the most significant tactical communications improvement in the Arctic to date.
This demonstration showed how the U.S. Navy can effectively leverage commercial space systems to command and control forces in the Arctic region. The ability to conduct satellite surveillance in the Arctic using High Resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) also remains a significant capability gap for maritime forces. Combining SAR with automatic identification system (AIS) data may provide the navies and coast guards of the eight Arctic states improved maritime domain awareness – perhaps another area which the U.S. Navy can leverage industry and mark another significant milestone in developing greater Arctic capabilities and capacity.
These are the author's own personal views and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense or any other branch or agency of the U.S. Government.