Navigating the Arctic's Communications Challenges

July 2019
Topics: Energy Management, Environment, Satellite Communications, Signal Processing
As the Arctic icecap melts, sea routes are open longer each year, making it easier for potential adversaries to get close to the U.S. mainland. MITRE is working with a variety of stakeholders to achieve better communications in this harsh environment.
U.S. Coast Guard ship in icy waters

As the Arctic's ice melts, shipping routes are opening earlier and closing later.

This means more tourists. More miners extracting the Arctic's valuable resources. More people who may need rescuing when things go wrong in one of the harshest environments in the world.

And it means potentially hostile actors can navigate their large ships closer to the U.S. mainland from the Arctic than they ever could before.

For the past seven years, a MITRE team has been focusing on ways to reduce risk within the Arctic, particularly by improving communications and sensor systems. Most of this work is company-funded research and prototyping. But it also includes partnering with key stakeholders.

"National security is the primary motivation for our work in the Arctic," says Kevin Garlock, MITRE portfolio manager for North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM.) "But we recognized early that the solutions involve—and will benefit—multiple stakeholders."

In addition to USNORTHCOM and the Coast Guard, MITRE is working with academia, the National Science Foundation, multiple industry partners, and the Arctic's indigenous people.

MITRE partnered with USNORTHCOM to host the first ever Binational Arctic Communications Technical Exchange Meeting in Colorado Springs in January of 2019. The event included more than 150 government and FFRDC participants from across the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and Canada to discuss, collaborate, and plan future activities. Two MITRE staff members from our technical centers spoke at the event.

At the conclusion of the event, MajGen Angela Cadwell, Director of Cyberspace Operations for USNORTHCOM and NORAD, presented the MITRE team with an award for their commitment, planning and execution.

In a letter of appreciation to MITRE, she wrote, "It is our collective efforts and thoughts that will bring us closer to providing the communications our forces need. The seminar was not meant to be a single event, but a starting point for the work that must be done to mitigate this problem once and for all."

The Arctic Communications Challenge

The problem that MajGen Cadwell referred to is the broad regional gap for communications in the Arctic.

The ionosphere in Alaska causes problems with high frequency (HF) radio signals and affects radar sensors. That means even the U.S. military's and Coast Guard's sophisticated communications systems can be degraded in certain parts of the Arctic.

As General Terrence O'Shaughnessy, Commander USNORTHCOM, said in January 2019, "Our adversaries are rapidly acquiring the capability and capacity to hold our citizens, our way of life and our national interests at risk. Along with our partners and allies, we must adapt to the evolving strategic landscape and associated challenges to ensure we are ready to operate in and through the Arctic in all scenarios, across all domains, and against any adversary. Our homelands are not a sanctuary, and the Arctic is the front line in our defense."

MITRE’s Arctic communications experimentation lead, Shelley Johnson, has built a research strategy based on the understanding that geography and atmospheric conditions pose a challenge to communications in the Arctic region.

MITRE staff has conducted tests across multiple locations in the Arctic. Our teams traveled to the furthest land point within the U.S. in 2016 and 2017 to prototype and test the performance of a MITRE-designed prototype antenna for enhancing narrowband satellite communications systems using geosynchronous constellations. 

This testing continues through our partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard on a series of experiments aboard the icebreaker Healy (pictured above). In the fall of 2019, we are planning a six-week mission for further experiments based upon MITRE-funded innovations with narrowband satellite communications, as well as wideband HF performance throughout the Arctic region.

"MITRE can't eliminate the fundamental atmospheric issues that interfere with HF communications in the region," says Johnson. "But by better understanding what's happening in the ionosphere, we may be able to apply innovative techniques to increase HF's operational reliability."

Covering the Seams and Gaps

"We see our role as providing innovation leadership and connecting the disparate activities across stakeholders," Garlock says. "This still isn't an area with significant R&D investments. Instead, it tends to have isolated pockets of energy and research. We're connecting that—covering the gaps and seams."

For example, high tech companies such as SpaceX, Intelsat, and Amazon are planning to launch large constellations of low earth orbit satellites to provide global high bandwidth communications.

"These companies aren't currently focused on the Arctic. But we're working with them and our sponsors to determine if even modest modifications to the architecture might result in major communication improvements throughout the region," Garlock says.

Johnson adds, "At MITRE, we understand what needs to be done, and the technical questions that need to be asked. And from our objective perspective, we can bring together the many stakeholders."    

"With the opening of the Arctic and accelerating regional interest, the U.S. mainland is losing a natural barrier from potential adversaries,” Garlock says.

"MITRE can't impact the environmental changes in the Arctic, but we can help improve communications—and that's essential work for our nation's safety." 

by Bill Eidson

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