Importance of SIGINT for special operations against near-peer threats

Special operations forces (SOF) are a critical tool in today’s modern military operations, called upon to carry out complex—and often dangerous—missions in hostile and unfamiliar environments.

To succeed, both Tier 1 and 2 SOF operatives must be able to act with the highest situational awareness. They must have the ability to avoid detection by hostile forces while gathering intelligence and carrying out their objectives. Finally, they need to have the flexibility to carry out missions and deploy tools where conventional forces cannot. As special operations missions focus more on special reconnaissance vice direct action, SIGINT becomes of more importance.

One critical aspect of this is real-time radio frequency (RF) situational awareness. This allows SOF to monitor the electromagnetic environment (EME) and collect signal intelligence (SIGINT), both for themselves at the tactical level and for a strategic command’s use in long-term planning.

However, achieving freedom of maneuver in the EME is a complex task. It requires SOF to have the tools and training to identify, record and exploit EME data that fits the specific operational needs and mission-centric SIGINT collection requirements. This is why more SOF commands are turning toward RF experts to ensure they have the right tools available when and where they’re needed.

Why is having the right SIGINT collection and EME awareness tools a requirement for today’s SOF? And why should your command invest in them now?

How SOF core activities are enhanced by SIGINT systems

Often operating in hostile, rugged, and remote environments, special operations forces require accurate and timely intelligence to carry out missions effectively. This is exactly why they need every tool at their disposal to achieve their mission objectives no matter the complexity.

In today’s operating environments against near-peer adversaries, this includes the ability to maintain SIGINT and EME awareness, enabling forces to gather, analyze and exploit information from the electromagnetic spectrum to gain a tactical advantage on the battlefield.

This is true across core functions, including:

Special reconnaissance

By monitoring the electromagnetic spectrum, operatives can detect and locate enemy communication networks, sensors, and other electronic devices, providing critical intelligence on enemy activities, their PACE plans, and movements. Forces can use this information to plan and execute special reconnaissance missions with greater accuracy and effectiveness, feeding the targeting cycle.

Area and force protection

SIGINT systems can also enhance how SOF protect friendly forces on the battlefield by giving them the ability to detect and identify threats, such as improvised explosive devices or jamming, and respond accordingly. This is vital to protecting covert safehouses behind enemy lines.

Direct action

SIGINT provides the targeting information for direct action missions, which include tactical seizures and raids. This support was used heavily in the Middle East by US and NATO SOF during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against counter-terrorism targets.

Unconventional warfare

During UW operations, SOF will need to wade through both civilian and military signals, both friend and foe. Therefore, SIGINT which has a decoding and demodulation capability assures that SOF can track enemy forces operating across the entire spectrum.

Military information support operations (MISO)

Part of the SOF enterprise, psychological operation units depend on SIGINT for pre-mission planning and to understand and exploit the RF spectrum through tailored MISO messages.

Partner force enablement and foreign internal defense

Special operations forces play a crucial role in enabling foreign partners, including through the use of Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), which involves training and providing RF collection equipment to partner forces. In addition to giving these partners the ability to act as force multipliers, SOF can use their access to improve overall SIGINT collection for intelligence use by both forces.

The high bar SOF have for their SIGINT systems

SOF operate in some of the most challenging and dynamic environments in the world, and they need equipment that can keep up. This is especially true when it comes to SIGINT systems, which are critical for providing real-time intelligence and enabling informed decision-making.

That’s why SOF require equipment that is nimble, rugged, versatile, and powerful, capable of operating in harsh environments and adapting to rapidly changing situations. To meet these requirements, special operations forces have set a high bar for their SIGINT systems, ensuring that they have the necessary capabilities to keep pace with the demands of their dynamic operations.

Some of their key requirements include:

Intuitive and easy to operate in harsh environments

From the Arctic to the jungle, intuitive and easy operation is crucial to ensure that both SOF personnel and partners with minimal training can use, set up, and deploy the SIGINT system. This makes visual feedback key for allowing SOF to quickly interpret and analyze data to make informed decisions. And high signal fidelity ensures that the collected data is accurate and reliable.

Wide bandwidth signal collection and analysis

Having a broad range and power of signal collection and analysis is essential for SIGINT systems to effectively intercept and analyze electronic signals. For example, a 9 kHz-40 GHz RF receiver enables the SOF team to monitor a wide range of frequencies, including those used by most modern communication systems from handheld trunked radios to RADARs. Similarly, a 100 MHz bandwidth capacity allows for a more comprehensive and detailed analysis of frequency hopping signals.

Extreme sensitivity

When hunting near-peer forces, SOF require highly sensitive receivers that can detect and track LPI/LPD signals. This means these receivers should have a high dynamic range and automation to assist in detections near the noise floor.

Portable, nonintrusive, and rugged

SOF SIGINT systems should be lightweight and compact, allowing them to be easily packed with other equipment and transported. They should also be easy to camouflage, allowing them to blend into their surroundings and operate covertly in urban and austere environments. For some covert and clandestine missions, having equipment that blends in on towers and buildings is critical.

Additionally, SOF SIGINT systems should be able to operate autonomously, making them ideal for use in hard-to-reach locations, either collecting alone or in a mesh with several receivers to provide comprehensive coverage and maximum situational awareness.

Built-in versatility and integration

While the base power of the SIGINT system will always deliver, SOF also need a device that is built with versatility and integration in mind. For example, a system should have:

  • Flexible antennae options to maximize signal reception capabilities and blend in within different environments.
  • Integrated and removable drives so the system can store and analyze large amounts of data if required.
  • Extendable battery pack to ensure the system can operate for extended periods, making it ideal for long-range deployments.
  • The ability to trigger on targeted communications, so that a SIGINT team can capture specific signal information and offload it using low bandwidth methods.

Conclusion – the right SIGINT systems for your SOF operations

When it comes to selecting the right SIGINT systems for SOF, the equipment's capabilities, versatility, and weight must be carefully balanced. The system should be designed to meet the specific needs of clandestine operations. This might include tailored collection; communication interception; and signal decoding, demodulating, and decrypting. But it should also be intuitive, easy to operate, and highly portable—while providing exceptional performance and durability in harsh environments.

The right system must be versatile and deployable on various platforms, such as mobile vehicles, within portable cases, and even via tethered drones, allowing it to perform a variety of SOF-enabled missions. By finding the right balance, SOF operators can maximize actionable intelligence-gathering and provide a clear intelligence and operational picture for future missions.

Zac George

Zac George is the International Business Development Manager for CRFS. He is a former naval Electronic Warfare officer and also has experience in digital decoding. He speaks regularly on EW and spectrum topics globally, and lives in Switzerland.

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