Back to basics: trialling robust USB technology in jungle warfare

27 June 2018 (Last Updated June 27th, 2018 09:49)

Keeping sensitive data secure yet still available to soldiers carrying out tactical actions is a challenge in harsh operational environments. Could extreme USBs, based on 'back to basics' hardware, improve command and control? A recent trial, coordinated by the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, suggests so, as Ross Davies reports.

Back to basics: trialling robust USB technology in jungle warfare
“The problem with trying to get data through a canopy is that you end up with pathway degradation and signal problems with the equipment. There were issues there that had to be resolved.” Image: Cpl Brian J. Slaght, U.S. Marine Corps.

The need to keep mission data secure, while providing troops with the necessary intelligence to go about their operations, is absolutely paramount in severe warfare environments.

Forces might have sought to avail themselves of increasingly cutting-edge software and systems in recent times, but sometimes it’s the simplest hardware that can give troops the information they need as a basis to support effective command and control (C2) in the jungle.

This ‘back to basics’ mindset underpinned a recently completed tropical trials project of robust USB to be used in jungle warfare. Involving a number of UK parties – in association with the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory– the trials tested a commercially-available encrypted USB from Apricorn, as part of a mobile C2 equipment package.

Involving a ‘compromised’ remote C2 centre, the exercise involved troops burying the devices in extreme conditions – in the bank of a mangrove swamp – before returning to them 36 hours later.

After being rinsed and dried, the data on the USBs, when plugged back in, was shown to be intact, demonstrating that troops need not delete and purge data when on the move. Instead, they can simply save data onto USBs and leave without wasting precious time.

The trials were led by Steve Heaword, founder and owner of extreme survival equipment company Crib Gogh. Below, former servicemen Heaword, lays out the operational benefits of the device and explains the rationale behind the back to basics approach.

Ross Davies: How did the tropical trials project come about?

Steve Heaword: There was a need for a remote operational C2 centre. The common problem is uncertainty over managing such operations as they are completely off the fossil grid. We wanted to look at how to move data around under a canopy and keep it safe and ensure a data flow between the remote C2 and operational C2.

The problem with trying to get data through a canopy is that you end up with pathway degradation and signal problems with the equipment. There were issues there that had to be resolved.

A number of companies were involved, who were looking to move the data around because, obviously, if you can’t get through the canopy, you have to use dead drops. So we started looked at USB memory sticks. We had a number of memory sticks with encryption on, but some were just so idiotic that the guys kept messing the encryption up.

Some companies were making promises they couldn’t keep environmentally, and then Apricorn came to see us and they offered these keypad memory sticks that were so simplistic and so brilliant. They just did everything we were looking for.

That’s because typing in a password is like typing in a text. Most squaddies have been brought up texting, so their thumbs move at three times the speed of sound when putting in a password. It was just blindingly obvious.

RD: Why did you choose to go down this ‘back to basics’ route, rather than use the cloud?

SH: Firstly, you can’t access the cloud in the jungle.

And the main thing about the internet is that it’s hacked on an industrial scale every day. So deploying something that’s broke in incredibly precarious. If the internet fails, or if it’s compromised, it’s a significant operational risk. That’s why we chose to go back to basics.

RD: What kind of extreme conditions was the device stress-tested under?

SH: We did scenarios where the remote command and control centre was compromised. What many people don’t realise is that in a prime jungle on a good day you’ll do between maybe three and five klicks [kilometres], and you’ll be wrecked at the end of that because you’ll [have] to hack your way through.

So if you were in a sensible place where you were well-concealed, you’d have certain choke points where you’d know somebody could get through to where you are. So you’d have early warning systems – somebody in place to engage an enemy, like sentries.

So, at any one point, if somebody was going to get to you, only two clicks away, that’s not enough time. In the jungle, that’s half a day to download what data you need, to transfer whatever it is you need and to go through whatever protocols on the laptops.

So we actually buried the laptops and USB sticks in the banks of mangrove swamps. We had a number of what we call lay-up points, and we detailed these points prior to being compromised, so we could pick one or two where we could down the kit and set off to the extraction point and come back later for the data. That’s because you don’t want the data on you if you don’t make the extraction point because then they’ve got nothing to access.

Everything was done on worst-case scenarios – and they survived.

RD: Any drawbacks?

SH: The only criticism I had of the product was that there was no way of keeping the cap cover with the device. So you run the risk of losing it, and on one occasion we did lose it. That said, we still buried it. I thought it wasn’t going to work and it did.

RD: What are the main operational benefits of using such devices?

SH: Data is key. It’s everything in engagement. If your data is flawed things generally tend to go pear-shaped, and that can sometimes be very severe. So it’s very significant when you have something that will work in the environment you want it to work in. I can’t see a situation where that particular device would fail. I’ve not tested it in the Arctic, but I can’t see anything freezing on it that it won’t work.

And, operationally, having a piece of kit that can go from zones C1 to A1 – NATO’s operational environmental zones – is massively key, because there is less logistics, less backup support required and you can drag it from one arena to another arena. You can count the number of pieces of kit NATO has that works in every single zone.

RD: How can the device contribute to the overall safety of troops? I assume it doesn’t leave them vulnerable to location as there is no footprint?

SH: Absolutely. On dead drops, it also means troops are harder to follow. You’re hiding in plain sight, which is what terrorists do at the moment.

This again goes back to intelligence. It contributes in the fact that it works, that there’s a miniscule risk of failure, going on the very robust tests it underwent.

RD: This appears to have been a really successful trial – can we expect British troops to be utilising such technology in the theatre of warfare anytime soon?

SH: I can’t answer on that as it’s way above my paygrade, but I do know there’s interest and that certain departments are writing requirements now. How that moves forward I can’t say.

What I can say is that I’ve put together a report for interested parties that will be read in conjunction with any future thought processes. That report will go to Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance between the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.