War in Ukraine: Ensuring Data Flow on the Battlefield

The war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted a number of potential weaknesses from energy security and in supply chains of chip set supplies and commodities such as food, to the exploitation of IT, through cyber-attacks and cyber-espionage. The latter can be a strength too, as new technologies have been tested in the conflict by, for example, Ukraine, to oust Russian forces from their territories.

These include autonomous and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the use of artificial intelligence for data gathering to enable “precise strikes and effective surveillance and reconnaissance, which can - at least in part - be attributed to the knowledge which the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine is receiving from the western allies”; and the use of satellites such as Elon Musk’s Starlink by Ukraine to attack Russian positions.

Key to the success in the conflict is Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT). “The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has exposed the importance of resilient PNT for a nation’s safety and security. It has opened up doors to discussions on the fragility of GPS signals that can cost millions of human lives, when data is available to an enemy entity”, writes Nibedita Mohanta for Geospatial World in her article, ‘Why PNT is vital for national security?’.

With defence and intelligence data are threatened, or when access to GPS gets disrupted as part of the cyber-war between Ukraine and Russia, there is a need to back up data and have the ability to restore it quickly. Also, the ability to send and receive updates from the battlefield - whether physical or digital - can make a big difference between victory and defeat. This is the difference between saving lives or losing them. So, the battles involve more than just people and machinery. They involve information communications technology, intelligence and other skills beyond traditional warfare.

Hardened internet

The Ukrainians hardened their internet at the start of hostilities to mitigate the expected cyber-attack from the Russians. The Russians haven’t fully attacked it – possibly because they want to use it as well. Technology has been a driver for the mindshare of people, too, and of false information, which is part of the cyber-attacks.

While there were concerns that the Russians might be able to bring the internet down, they haven’t done so. This may be because they need it as much as the Ukrainians do. Yet, this isn’t just a war between two military forces. Cyber-attacks have increased and cyber-intelligence is a part of warfare, but they are not confined to just the combatants. Their supporters are also involved – anyone from hackers to keyboard warriors sharing and writing content on social media in support of their cause.

Accelerated innovation

Like all wars, the conflict between the two countries is a testing ground for new technologies and military hardware. In fact, war has always accelerated innovation - including electronics. This started to happen before the Second World War. Most munitions nowadays are intelligent in that they use machine learning and artificial intelligence. So, they have come a long way from radar-controlled flak.

It’s now all measures and countermeasures, as well as involving satellites for intelligence gathering because the goal in any conflict is information superiority. With AWACS and its advance radar systems and electronic monitoring, combined with satellites images, this has increased immeasurably since the start of the Cold War. We are now adding into the mix, intelligent munitions that combine GPS image sensing. With the vast amount of signals intelligence that is now collected, it is going to take artificial intelligence to drill down to the core intelligence from all the real and false noise to give a clear picture of the battle front.

Role of satellites and 5G

Satellites are playing a huge role in this conflict – including Elon Musk’s Starlink. However, Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla, has now asked the Pentagon to pick up the tab because SpaceX – one of Musk’s other companies – can no longer afford to fund it. Starlink is essential because it enabled Ukraine to remain online and have access to the outside world through satellite communications.

Alex Marquardt writes for CNN in his article, ‘Exclusive: Musk’s SpaceX says it can no longer pay for critical satellite services in Ukraine, asks Pentagon to pick up the tab’:

“Documents obtained by CNN show that last month Musk’s SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon saying it can no longer continue to fund the Starlink service as it has. The letter also requested that the Pentagon take over funding for Ukraine’s government and military use of Starlink, which SpaceX claims would cost more than $120 million for the rest of the year and could cost close to $400 million for the next 12 months.”

Given this, and the role that satellites have been playing in the conflict, is it sensible to deploy 5G technologies for positioning, navigation and timing, given the attempts by Russia to block or weaken GPS signals? Well, you can block 5G technology. However, if you block GPS with one site, the other site is blocked, too. You wouldn’t stand up 5G for that because there is no other infrastructure to hang aerials on. This would mean half your munitions wouldn’t work.

Both sides, therefore, need to have GPS on. You have American, European and Russian GPS. There are different networks up there on the satellites and they may be able to access each other. I don’t know whether they have the infrastructure to stick up 5G because it’s not a satellite technology. However, some industry experts are calling for an integration between 5G-enabled satellites and terrestrial communications.

The European Space Agency, for example, writes ‘From Space to Earth: Satellite Integration For 5G’: “Satellites can have a key role in the deployment of 5G services, owing to its inherent attributes of coverage (reaching where terrestrial networks are not deployed), resilience (independence from terrestrial networks), security and capacity. The deployment of terrestrial 5G is expected to be gradual and focused on high-density population and traffic areas (large cities, campuses, highways, high-speed rail networks), while satellites can cover large areas with uniform level of service.”

Melissa K. Griffith & Christopher M. Hocking write about ‘The Role of Satellites in 5G Networks’ for the Wilson Centre: “For the promise of the fifth generation of mobile networks (5G) to be fully realised (i.e. nearly ubiquitous, instantaneous, connectivity for large numbers of devices globally), terrestrial telecommunications systems, which heavily rely on buried fibre optic cables, will not be enough.”

“Instead, we will need to move from (a) largely separate satellite and terrestrial communications systems with satellites used primarily for solving “the last mile” problem (areas where laying fibre was a physical or economic challenge) or for discrete use cases (e.g. processing credit card payments at gas station) to (b) an integrated 5G ‘network of networks’, where satellites play an increasing role alongside terrestrial networks.”

In the Microwave Journal, Nancy Friedrich, of Keysight Technologies, also argues that ‘Military-Grade 5G Pushes Coexistence Boundaries with Radar and Satellite’. She says, "radar and satellite systems that use the same or nearby frequency band can reduce the capacity in 5G.”

One of the issues is that 5G can impair radar performance and damage satellite ground systems. She comments: “Only by assessing and mitigating the potential impact among 5G, radar, satellites and other systems, can all these coexisting systems deliver their intended performance.”

Protecting data and operations

Given the cyber-attacks and the potential for data to be blocked from being sent and received, how vital is it to back up data in real-time using more than 3 disaster recovery sites? If any intelligence resources are in Ukraine, they should be backing up outside of their environment, which could be in Germany, Poland, Norway or anywhere that is friendly. Any NATO country. The problem is not knowing what sort of networks they are using. It’s like doing things in the dark with a blind stick.

While satellites and 5G communications will be playing their role, defence departments, sites and branches may need to use land-based software-defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WANs). Tony Bardo writes for AFCEA that the US Defense Department can distribute required bandwidth to various sites in need and increase overall network resiliency with SD-WANs. “This would minimise downtime and save money when compared to the cost to maintain existing legacy systems,” he says.

However, wherever the military and governments need to back up data, they should add an WAN Acceleration overlay, as the technology can enhance the performance of SD-WANs. It uses data parallelisation, machine learning and artificial intelligence to mitigate latency, reduce packet loss and it can significantly increase bandwidth utilisation to around 95%.

Obviously, the backups and data transfers would be between friendly states. However, having it in your arsenal could offer significant military and political advantages in the battlefield, whether digital or actual. The data sharing and backups could include satellite images and intelligence with Ukraine.

Over the next few years, there will be more SD-WANs introduced to allow for re-routing around failed links. This may be terrestrial wireless, satellite or the internet. So, with regard to SD-WANs, it’s certainly worth engaging in a proof of concept to see how it can enhance their performance. Meanwhile, why is Ukraine’s internet still up? Because the invading Russians need it, too.

By Graham Jarvis, Freelance Business and Technology Journalist.
By Markus Nispel, CTO of EMEA at Extreme Networks.
By Sherifa Hady, EMEA Channel Sales Director for Aruba.
By Chris McKie, VP, Product Marketing Security and Networking, Datto, a Kaseya company.
By Geoff Dornan, Group Chief Technical Officer at CMC Networks.
By David Trossell, CEO and CTO of WAN Acceleration company Bridgeworks Ltd.