Security poses primary wireless challenge

The Defense Department faces many obstacles in its attempt to outfit soldiers with reliable, interoperable wireless communications on the battlefield, including battery-life concerns, the need for ruggedized machines and ever-present bandwidth issues.

But securing those communications is still far and away the main problem to be overcome regarding such technologies, according to a panel of government and industry experts at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association information technology conference May 2 in Quantico, Va.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. J.D. Wilson, team leader for tactical wireless in the program manager's office for communications systems, said the military has a "burning need" for tactical wireless communications and called on the private sector to drive the technologies necessary to make that happen.

John McHugh, senior member of the technical staff at the CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University, said the problem with the military using commercial off-the-shelf solutions in those cases is that they are being used in environments -- and exposed to threats -- that the developers never planned for.

"The information I've seen says we're in a lot of trouble," McHugh said.

Wilson said the Marine Corps uses traditional radios to send encrypted "data grams" through modems on voice networks to reach their destination but would like to move to a wireless, peer-to-peer environment that would also enable multicasting and avoid the "manual intervention."

The solution may come through DOD's Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), which is more of a computer with a radio front end. The software-programmable, multi-band, multi-use radio will permit communications across DOD services, something that has been difficult or impossible because of radio frequency problems, Wilson said.

DOD is requesting $172 million for JTRS in fiscal 2003, up from $165 million in fiscal 2002.

Still, there will be a time in the near future when traditional radios are working side-by-side with software-programmable models, "and we'll need to be able to route and secure them properly," Wilson said.

Stephen Orr, a systems engineer for Cisco Systems Inc.'s DOD northeast division, said the company has been working with the Army on providing a secure, wireless local-area network for the tactical battlefield, focusing on reducing the size of the case needed to carry the equipment. Currently, the transit case weighs more than 100 pounds and carrying it is a two-man job.

Orr also said that even if industry comes up with a new form of encryption or other security device, it usually takes more than two years to get DOD approval.

That lag time means that hackers and other adversaries probably have figured out a way to beat it, McHugh said.

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