Navy, Marines seek tech to deal with spectrum squeeze

The Department of Navy and Marine Corps CIOs lobbied for new technologies to make the most of their wireless systems in an overcrowded and constrained spectrum environment.

The Department of Navy and Marine Corps CIOs are appealing for new technologies to make the most of their wireless systems in an overcrowded and constrained spectrum environment.

“I believe in many cases we assumed it to be like air — that it’s always going to be there,” Navy CIO Rob Foster said of the services’ strategy for managing spectrum. Now, he added, the spectrum issue is a “ripe” one for anyone selling “technology to help us operate in a very, very, very limited space.”

Foster, who experienced firsthand the mad rush of 198 countries vying for the “finite resource” at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference, said “there’s a very big demand for spectrum, and we in the military, or we in the federal government, don’t have a whole lot of push when it comes to changing that economic tidal wave.”

Spectrum is mission-critical to all military services to communicate and operate seamlessly in battle, whether it be on land, in the air or at sea. The Navy called spectrum “the lifeblood of the battlefield” in an early 2000s report that set out its strategy and vision around the demand for spectrum, which has only grown with the proliferation of mobile technologies in recent years.


Foster’s Marine Corps CIO counterpart, Brig. Gen. Dennis Crall, said the fight for spectrum feels like a losing one for the services.

“How do you compete in a shrinking spectrum segment?” Crall questioned. “You don’t very well.”

Both CIOs, speaking at AFCEA NOVA’s Naval IT Day, contended their services must seek out technologies that will expand the utility of the shrinking slivers of spectrum they have.  

“The challenge is what can we do with the technology of both the transmit and receive, encrypt/decrypt, compress/decompress, and operate in the same space so there’s not interference?” Foster added. “I think there’s technology out there that can help us maximize the limited resources we have.”

Because there’s so little new spectrum for sale to the government, Crall said, “we have to look at ways of optimizing what we do have available. We need to make sure these things are compatible, that they don’t interfere with other ship operations, and where we can have like antennas or shielding or new ways to propagate, we have to find out how.”


Spectrum must also be a concern in the development of larger-scale technologies, Foster said, because with long development cycles, available frequencies often change.  

“Our programs are built on five- and 10-year cycles, so if we deliver a solution in 10 years, that’s either going to operate in a spectrum that’s sold, planning to be sold or thought about being sold,” he said. It may very well be the case that a band of spectrum is “sold and not available when we deliver that weapons platform. So if we go down that path, we better be able to mitigate it and operate it through some technology between now and when it hits the fleet.”

The Navy has a spectrum relocation fund through which Foster has delegated funds to his service and the Marines for “specific weapons systems to help them migrate out of the spectrum that they operate in today.” However it faces a similar challenge of chasing after the little bit of bandwidth available from time to time in auctions — it was sold.

“And there will be more spectrum sold,” he said. “That area is ripe for opportunity for technology to help us operate in a very, very, very limited space.”

[Read more: DARPA unveils new contest to minimize spectrum use]


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a Grand Challenge in March focused around the issue of declining spectrum availability. Participants are challenged to use advanced machine-learning capabilities to “ensure that the exponentially growing number of military and civilian wireless devices will have full access to the increasingly crowded electromagnetic spectrum.”

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