Small Wars Journal

Communications in Sub- and Superterranean Structures

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Communications in Sub- and Superterranean Structures

Dylan Farley

Urban tactical environments present diverse challenges and one of the more prominent issues is communications. Communications that could be easy in other operational environments become remarkably more challenging in urban terrain. Specifically, communications in subterranean structures have challenges unseen in other environments. Additionally, the uniqueness of superterranean structures also implicates communications challenges for urban operators.

Subterranean communications are the most difficult urban communications because of the issues with radio and other signal blocking. Subterranean environments are nearly all man made, and as a prerequisite have to contain some sort of physical support structure in order to prevent any sort of collapse. Such structural supports create networks of open spaces within larger solid slabs of earth. These webs block signal communications, making it difficult for operators to communicate within that environment, similar to losing cellular signal in a tunnel for example. This issue is not solely military, where small units may be clearing insurgents from underground tunnels for example. Subterranean communication issues also impact the civilian sector, such as miners extracting from deep deposits, firefighters and policeman performing rescue operations in sewer system, and even construction crews building subway systems.

The issue arising with the subterranean networks is that radio signals cannot penetrate the large patches of solid earth in subterranean structures. Over the past several years, several civilian corporations have been testing and now implementing ways to improve these signals. Kutta Radios, for example, has developed a radio system that propels off metal objects found in mine shafts, subway systems, etcetera in order to further the signal deep underground (Kutta Radios Inc., “Technology”). One way the US Army could enhance subterranean communication would be to integrate these types of technologies into their radio systems, whether for general use or for specific units tasked with operating in subterranean environments.

Superterranean structures, which according to Merriam-Webster means anything above the earth’s surface, in cities normally refers to such features as high rises and skyscrapers (Merriam Webster, “Superterranean”). Although not as significant of an issue as subterranean structure, the sheer size and scope of such buildings can hinder signal communications. The biggest issue is that many types of radio signals simply cannot reach the top of a skyscraper when initiated from the ground level. For example, a fire truck and communication node outside a building responding to a disaster may have difficulty communicating with a team of firefighters that is at the top of a building. The way to engage this issue is to have radio repeaters, essentially a signal strengthener and relaying device, stationed in extremely high buildings. This issue came to prominence in the aftermath of the September 11 Attacks as New York was rebuilding and installing new disaster response plans. An assessment of the disaster found that firefighters in the North Tower did not receive the command to evacuate, and as a result 120 firefighters lost their lives in that tower alone (Lipton).

Just as New York City continues to install repeaters in skyscrapers, the US Army needs to develop a way to utilize signal strengtheners in superterranean structures in order to facilitate communications. Assuming that there will not already be repeaters installed in a superterranean structure prior to operations within a building, the Army will have to get them there prior to infantry maneuvering inside a building. One way to do this would be for infantry to carry repeaters with them and station them as they progress up a building. Another way could be using drones to drop repeaters into buildings prior to infantry entering. A third option could be mobile communications posts that can be set up in buildings where operations are underway, such as the New York City model of Command Post Radio produced by Altech Electronics, where fire chiefs set up these systems in building lobbies and can then communicate with all their men in the building (Altech Electronics, “Command Post Radio”).

One significant issue that needs to be looked at when operating in subterranean and superterranean environments is how to effectively organize operations. Tactical communications are a necessity, but there also must be effective communication up and down the chain of command. Company commanders have to be able to not only communicate with their battalions, but also with their platoons that may be clearing out a subway line or destroying a cache in a high-rise apartment building. The best way to facilitate this communications is to have communications command centers. These could be vehicle based, or even just a large portable radio like the Altech Electronics example above. Command centers would be the best way to have quick data centralizing and information relay stations in order to best exploit the situation on the ground and communicate with higher headquarters.

While assessing options for adapting to urban communications difficulties it is important to take into account how best to facilitate communication through a chain of command, rather than just enabling baseline abilities. The Army needs to be diverse and creative in how it develops new strategies for emerging issues.

Works Cited

"Command Post Radio." Altech Electronics.

Lipton, Eric. "A New Weapon for Firefighters." The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 May 2004.

"Superterranean." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster.

"Technology." Kutta Radios, Inc.

About the Author(s)

Dylan Farley is a senior at the College of William and Mary finishing up his BA in a self-designed interdisciplinary program, Geostrategic Security Studies. His focus is in two areas; post-Soviet frozen conflicts and anthropological development of terrorist organizations and insurgencies. Originally from Cranston, Rhode Island, Dylan is an ROTC cadet who will be commissed in the US Army Reserves in May as a Signal Corps Officer with the 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion in Newport, Rhode Island.