It may sound unexpected, but war is a key driver of the technological advancement,” says associate professor Andrius Ušinskas from the Department of Electronic Systems at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU). Recently, the researcher participated in a project on secret communication technologies, which are especially popular in the military.
„MeerKAT“ – 64-ių antenų radijo teleskopas
© AFP / Scanpix

There are many examples when establishing communication and detection of communication of an enemy were crucial to the outcome of the battle. In the interview, A. Ušinskas tells us about this yet a little known type of communication, shares its intricacies, possible application and future prospects, writes VGTU.

- Please tells us about the project and VGTU’s role in it.

- VGTU closely cooperated with business in this project. We analysed the latest technologies, research, and solutions, and also provided our suggestions. The project focused on secret communication technologies, which currently are very relevant. The military needs various technological solutions and communication is one of the important areas for development.

I speak about communication between different groups or units, when fast radio communication is needed, and ways to make this type of communication secret; because the fighting parties aim to remain undetected by the enemy.

We were deepening our knowledge in the field and tried to understand better what possibilities do these type of technologies provide, how to detect such communication, its methods and location. The first step to deeper understanding – analysis of theories. Later, one needs complex modern technologies, which are produced only in technologically advanced countries. Most often, the only way to do it is to buy separate components, and then to programme and combine them. We can buy different parts of hardware, but we have to finish the job ourselves.

I believe that the coding part is what makes us unique. In a way, it could be compared to the human body and soul, intellect. This step faces a lot of challenges, and our – the university’s – role was to analyse the methods, understand the concept, while businesses took care of the implementation part. We are very happy to contribute to such a project and to be part of high-tech development. One thing is to read about the topic, but something else entirely is to be part of the development process.

- What are the main goals for military radio communication?

- It is very important to keep the transmitted information and the location from which it is transmitted secret. In general, theories focus on three aspects of information secrecy. First, the data must be encrypted so the enemy doesn’t understand what is being transmitted.

The second aspect covers data integrity and incorruptibility. For example, if there is a request to carry out a bank transfer, it should be secured that the is not possible to manipulate the bank account number. Third thing is to secure the authorship of the data. One should be sure by whom the message is received.

During World War II, it was quite common to intercept the message, read its content and to pretend to be the sender. The aim is to keep communication undetected. Sometimes, only the fact of detected communication signal leads to the decision to destroy the location where the signal was detected; thus, the secrecy has the key importance and calls for thorough understanding and application of modern technologies.

A specific frequency is chosen to transmit information via radio communication. Frequency is one of the characteristics of radio waves. Only a limited number of people know which frequency is used to transmit messages and they listen to it. It is similar to us listening to radio stations when we know its frequency. The difference in the military is that the frequency is secret and fighting parties look for the enemy’s radio communication signals. Radio scanners are used to detect the frequency transmitted by a radio transmitter, and if several scanners and specific software are used then it is possible to detect the exact location of the transmission. One scanner determines the direction from which the signal is transmitted, and two scanners determine the location. The higher the number of scanners, the higher the precision of the location. The aim is to create a radio transmission, which is not detectable with scanners or could be detected too late when it is not relevant anymore.

- Which technologies help us to reach the desired results?

- There are many different technologies. One of them – frequency-hopping, when transmission is started through one frequency channel and then rapid switching to other channels occurs. Even if the enemy detects the first frequency, they do not know what frequency will be next. It’s a game.

Another technology – time-hopping, the transmission is divided into parts, which are sent separately in varying periods; thus, the enemy does not know when the next part of the message will be transmitted. When both technologies are combined, it is very hard to detect the communication; only people who know what and where to look for will find it. On the other hand, even if it is detected it is very hard to understand the message. Nowadays, modern technologies allow super-fast hopping.

- Where these technologies are applied in the real world?

- First of all – military industry, where it is vital to keep the communication secret. Also, it can be used by special agencies to keep certain information secret, to protect important people, especially when their location or direction of movement should not be known. The industry has its standard methods and protocols for transmission encryption or signing of messages.

Thus, these technologies are used where the fact of communication should be secret. The industry of application is quite narrow, therefore there are not many companies which specialise in this field. Mostly, these are American companies, and they sell the technologies to other countries.

- So the US is one of the leading countries in this field? How do you see Lithuania in this context?

-I think we are only users. The USA and Russia are the leading countries in radio communication technologies. The proof that are GPS and GLONASS positioning systems. Mainly the two countries provide services in this field; it is worth to mention several other countries, like China, which guarantees positioning only on its territory. It may sound unexpected, but war is a key driver of the technological advancement. Many important inventions were made during World War II.

- Do trends of war innovations exist?

- The most important trend is to develop spread-spectrum technologies. One of the methods is to hop from very high frequency to very low frequency. It is very hard to implement technologically and requires solutions to many challenges, even such as how an antenna should be installed.

For example, we all know that an antenna is an integral part of an iPhone body. The times of cordless phones with telescopic antennas have long gone. We, as users, do not have a clue what is inside our smartphones. It’s a trade of black boxes. We buy a box, but we don’t know what is inside of it. I think there are just a few professionals in the world who could design a smartphone from scratch. One side of the challenge is to create a technology, and another – to put it in a small box.

- What are the future forecasts for this field of technologies?

- There are several challenges and at the same time areas for development: the size of radio transmitters, their operation time and transmission distance. Operation time should increase in the future, as the capacity of the batteries increases. Speaking about the size, just half-century ago soldiers moved around with enormous radio equipment on their backs.

Now such equipment can be fastened to a belt. It is very likely, that equipment size will continue to decrease. Transmission distance is also very important: sometimes a very distant transmission is needed and sometimes it’s just nearby, but it should be secret. The harder it is to detect a transmission; the more secret it is. On the other hand, transmission detection technologies will also keep on developing, and it will be harder to maintain radio communication secret.

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