Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Inside the New Arms Race to Control Bandwidth on the Battlefield


An electromagnetic mystery in northern Iraq changed the course of Jesse Potter’s life. A chemical-weapons specialist with the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division, Potter was deployed to Kirkuk in late 2007, right as the oil-rich city was experiencing a grievous spike in violence. He was already weary upon his arrival, having recently completed an arduous tour in Afghanistan, which left him suffering from multiple injuries that would eventually require surgery. In the rare moments of peace he could find in Kirkuk, Potter began to contemplate whether it was time to trade in his uniform for a more tranquil existence back home—perhaps as a schoolteacher. Of more immediate concern, though, was a technical glitch that was jeopardizing his platoon: The jammers on the unit’s armored vehicles were on the fritz. Jammers clog specific radio frequencies by flooding them with signals, rendering cell phones, radios, and remote control devices useless. They were now a crucial weapon in the American arsenal; in Kirkuk, as in the rest of Iraq, insurgents frequently used cell phones and other wireless devices to detonate IEDs. But Potter’s jammers weren’t working. “In the marketplaces, when we would drive through, there’d still be people able to talk on their cell phones,” he says. “If the jamming systems had been effective, they shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

A self-described tech guy at heart, Potter relished the chance to study the jammers. It turned out that, among other problems, they weren’t emitting powerful enough radio waves along the threat frequencies—those that carried much of the city’s mobile traffic. Once the necessary tweaks were made, Potter was elated to witness the immediate, lifesaving results on the streets of Kirkuk, where several of his friends had been maimed or killed. “To see an IED detonate safely behind our convoy—that was a win for me,” he says. It was so thrilling, in fact, that when Potter returned from Iraq in 2008, he dedicated himself to becoming one of the Army’s first new specialists in spectrum warfare—the means by which a military seizes and controls the electromagnetic radiation that makes all wireless communication possible.

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