Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Communicate THIS

Modern navies have massive amounts of communications gear, designed to do everything from talk to a ship over the horizon via live text chat, to call your wife at home, to have a video teleconference with the president. Of course, in the techno age that created such devices there are ways to jam, disrupt and monitor those as well - and communications security, or COMSEC, is as critical as ever.

One thing that has been overlooked (in my opinion) in recent years is line-of-sight communications. Not that we operate in formations much anymore, or steam in carrier battle groups. But occasionally, when we do, we seem to be at a loss for the simple techniques left floundering on the shoulder of the technological superhighway. Methods such as flashing light, signal flags and semaphore used to be employed to send signals over line of sight distances, with very little risk of interception (unless your adversary is watching you) let alone deciphering. Allied Tactical Protocol (ATP) signals aren't THAT complicated - dust off your code books used to prop up wardroom table legs and have a look.

The real sting prevented here is the massive amount of emissions sent between ships and satellites that can be detected and hacked from an outbuilding in the Mu Shu Province. The kind of traffic that gives away where ships are, and that something is brewing. That knowledge alone is enough to figure out what we're up to most of the time.

The one great piece of anecdotal evidence I can give is a recollection of my last deployment to the Fifth Fleet AOR. While onboard the carrier, we were steaming along in our box, running back and forth launching and recovering aircraft. Our trusty shotgun, a Ticonderoga class cruiser by our side. When suddenly down in the Combat Direction Center a phone call comes in from the CO:


Umm. "Sir, that's [our cruiser]."


"Copy sir, let me get back to you. CLICK. Lookouts, what ship do you have on the quarter?"

"sir, that's some old ass warship, ain't ours."

Oh boy.

Long story short: it was an Indian Navy destroyer. Actually, there were four ships, all within 20 miles. They went radio silent, no emitters, and snuck up on a deployed -and escorted -US Carrier launching aircraft in open ocean. And we didn't have any clue they were there until one of them jumped into plane guard before our escort did. Smart ass, but very clever. I have a very healthy respect for those gentlemen as mariners, now. Way to go, guys.


In order to do our part to revitalize interest in this fading art form, we've had our own signal code in the works for more or less a year. The code itself isn't that complex, but finding funding to produce several sets of flags, buy Aldis lamps (or reasonable substitutes) and other equipment has not been the swiftest evolution. Every time the idea comes up for action, it always gets back burner-ed.

Well the debate has come up again, and I hope that by the end of the week I'll see an order going out to my counterpart the Commissioner of Supply to produce or procure the required equipment. Also means the code book and instruction manual might actually see the light of day. Stay tuned for some fun there.

Even if we only have a shore station and a single boat to communicate with, we might get some good use out of it. When we get the second boat in the water next year, the fun will really crank up. And who knows, we might be able to convince our brethren in other groups to adopt the same system, so we can all communicate at events. Hmmm. Anyone game?


Once again - THIS WEEKEND - ALL HANDS - strip and varnish party at the Dockyard. Get hot!


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