Ensuring secured voice, data and radio communications between NATO allied countries in a common theater of operation can be a difficult, sometimes impossible task. As encryption codes are secret, country-specific and are not shared, the problem posed is how to temporarily collaborate without risking eavesdropping from unwanted entities.
TODAY’S ALLY MIGHT NOT BE AN ALLY IN 10 YEARS
NATO has 29 member nations and each has circumstances changing from year to year. Geopolitical shifts can mean that a ‘friendly’ country cannot be considered as such with as a permanent status. For this reason, sharing encryption keys carries its weight of potential future risks and understandably, countries want to keep their independence as much as possible.
Allies will communicate in ‘clear’ mode for non-critical radio communications instead of talking in secured, encrypted mode just to avoid sharing keys. This can only work if they are using the same band, and quickly becomes a headache if different bands are used (VHF to UHF).
This modus operandi carries an important issue putting operations and soldiers at risk: the inability to talk to another nation in encrypted mode, on the battlefield, in critical situations. This causes a direct eavesdropping threat or even worse false information inputs by enemies to cause harm and impede operations.
One short-term solution discussed was to have NATO partners get around the problem by just sharing radios. The major setback here is that there aren’t enough radios. Picture this: Canadian, French and Lithuanian brigades are training together. Each brigade has 150 personnel using 50 radios. In order to cooperate, one of the 3 would need to hand over 50 extra radios, and 2 of the 3 would not be working with their proprietary systems. This does not make sense, and quite often there are just not enough radios to hand over like presents.
THE LONG-TERM SOLUTION MIGHT JUST BE TOO LONG TO BE A SOLUTION
NATO is presently working on developing a common encryption solution for the long term to solve the issues. If everybody agrees, it might take 10-20 years to develop and implement. And if it happens…one could easily argue that costs will be prohibitive, and roadblocks many to a unanimous new common technology. Contradicting political interests alone might very well derail the plan.
THE IMMEDIATE NEED CAN BE MET NOW – WITHOUT COMPROMISING ANYONE’S SECURITY
Some ‘bridging’ solutions, when used properly, allows different radio technologies, bands and brands to communicate together in clear and Encrypted mode. The BCC-Micro is one of them, recently tested successfully by NATO. When different radios (up to 5) are connected to the BCC system, they are bridged together locally while still keeping their own encryption keys untouched by third parties. Talk groups can be made to isolate some radios from others, and this system works with all frequencies and all types of radios.
Here’s an example: Brigade A wants to talk to Brigade B and there are 5 Brigades connected on the BCC. Brigade A donates a radio for connection to the BCC and set it to Channel 1 (the interop channel). Brigade B does the same. The BCC operator puts them both on the same talk group, and all communications going through both radio systems, on channel 1 are in ‘interop’ mode i.e. all communications will be heard by both Brigades A and B but not the remaining 3.
Although we are all for virtue, pragmatic thinking should prevail to bring readily-available solutions in the field and improve on them. As Political challenges and interests will always shift by nature, common solutions for such a vast and potentially fast-changing alliance like NATO are not, in our opinion, a viable short/mid-term option.