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NEWS | Oct. 1, 2020

Have Quick At Sea—Lessons Learned The Hard Way

By LCDR Matthew Quintero Air Land Sea Bulletin 2020-2

Adversaries have long held the ability to thwart or exploit the United States (US) military’s tactical communications. Today, technologies to find and jam frequencies in the ultra-high frequency (UHF) spectrum are becoming cheaper to produce and distribute. This capability not only allows enemies to jam US transmissions, but it allows them to find, fix, and target US forces. Use of proven anti-jam technologies, such as Have Quick (HQ), is becoming mandatory for tactical air communications in joint operations. The need for anti-jam technology best articulated in the 2004 Air Land Sea Application (ALSA) Center “Have Quick” multi-Service tactics, techniques, and procedures publication (MTTP):

“Joint and combined operations mandate the requirement for the exchange of voice information among and between forces. The fielded capabilities of the HAVE QUICK (HQ) radio have been effective in providing securable, low probability of intercept/electronic attack voice communications in the anti-jam mode for the implementing forces.”

HQ I was introduced in the 1980s. It provided a slow, frequency-hopping capability for UHF, line-of-sight, voice communications. About a decade later, HQ II provided additional anti-jam protection, improved frequency hopping algorithms, and faster hopping over an expanded range of frequencies. Currently, HQ II is the most widely used form of joint anti-jam, voice, line-of-sight communications.

HQ does not entail voice encryption and is not a secure radio. However, HQ does require cryptography to set its hopping algorithms. Only participants using the same crypto can hear a coherent transmission. Every day a new crypto segment is used to create the word of day (WOD). Afterwards, the user must set a time of day (TOD). Two users attempting to communicate must have the same TOD and WOD set into their radios. This is easier said than done. Preparing a force for HQ communications requires dedicated planning and practice. The 2004 publication understated this notion. It stated:

“For effective use of the HQ radios on the modern battlefield, planners must develop a communications plan that ensures successful employment of the HQ radio in a joint environment.”

As the Carrier Air Wing ELEVEN Communications Officer during the Nimitz Strike Group’s 2016-2017 workups and deployment cycle, I became the de facto subject matter expert for HQ radios. During that experience, I found some important HQ knowledge was corporate and much had been lost since it debuted in the 1980s. This article recounts lessons learned by the carrier strike group team in using HQ radios. Those lessons tell of hundreds of wasted man-hours in an attempt to use a “training crypto” known as KAL-269. Finally, I will provide suggestions for improving future ALSA HQ publications.

How an Aircraft Carrier Sets Up Radios

It is important to know how a HQ radio is set up on US ships to understand why it is such a chore for the Navy to get HQ right. When shipboard operators sit down to talk on a radio, they pick up a handset and dial in a two-digit number to select the communications network they want. They are not changing a radio frequency; instead, they are patching into a radio which always has a certain frequency set. Serving the UHF spectrum, these radios are 1970s-era WSC-3s. At any time, only around twenty of these radios are operational. Of the twenty, only a few have the modifications required to make them HQ capable, of which only one or two operate consistently.

The bank of WSC-3 radios are kept in a room in the mast to minimize the distance from the radios to their antennas. Personnel trained as information systems technicians (ITs) are tasked with setting up and maintaining the WSC-3s. Rarely are the ITs trained on the radios’ purpose or how to talk on them. The WSC-3s are connected by hundreds of yards of wires down to the center of the ship where they are “patched”. The “patch room” contains a wall of round dials that correspond to every radio which is assigned a network number. Miles of cables connect hundreds of user handset terminals throughout the ship to the patch room. On those handsets are usually personnel trained as Operations Specialists (OSs). OS Sailors are trained to talk on the radios and control ships and aircraft but are not trained on how to work the radios. At a couple of stations on the carrier, the OS Sailors control a small panel that allows them limited remote control of the HQ-enabled WSC-3, only. With this panel they can switch between 20 preset networks (including HQ networks), take the radio in and out of HQ mode, and initiate or receive a HQ TOD signal. A TOD signal may be referred to by the Brevity term MICKEY.

Setting up HQ on the WSC-3 is a tedious process where codes and frequencies must be hand rolled in one by one on the terminal face and various switches turned on and off in a specific order. If a radio fails to enter HQ mode, the process must be repeated. Once the radio is set, the TOD must be synchronized among all participants in the HQ network. This is a tedious endeavor.

Timing is Everything

Most Navy aircraft built in the post-Global Positioning System (GPS) era can use a GPS TOD for HQ. Unfortunately, most WSC-3 radios on ships still require an over-the-air (OTA) TOD to synch with the network. Getting an OTA TOD into a WSC-3 is difficult. In theory, the OS with the remote-control panel can hail an aircraft using GPS, request a TOD, and be done. In actuality, somewhere along the convoluted cable path from user to radio, the time signal incurred enough distortion to unsynch the radio’s TOD. OTA synchs could only be effective using the switches on the radio itself. This process required ITs to go out of their comfort zones and talk directly to aircraft when new TODs were required.

I brought a senior IT into an E-2 Hawkeye and showed him an ARC-210 radio and how quickly I could hail an aircraft, switch frequencies, coordinate a MICKEY, switch to HQ, and get a good check. The concept clicked, and this paid dividends for the rest of the deployment. The technically savvy IT was had been hamstrung by a “stay in your lane” mentality. He just needed someone to empower him to do what was required to accomplish his mission.

On the topic of timing, there is a misconception that should be addressed. HQ does not time synch like the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS). Synching one radio with another does not mean synching with all radios. On several workup cycles and deployments, I have seen the same argument arise as the ships and aircraft come together and work through HQ growing pains. The ships will achieve good HQ checks and not be able to talk to aircraft.

Conversely, the aircraft will have good checks with each other but not with the ships. Then, the blame game begins, however, they are both right and wrong. Usually, the ships are able to synch with each other using a “distorted” GPS TOD, or (more likely) by forcing their radios to produce a TOD based on no external inputs. That type of TOD is known as an emergency TOD. The ships then work hard to pass this emergency TOD on to the other ships in their group, and they will all synch. Aircraft, on the other hand, will use the GPS self-TOD capabilities of their newer radios almost exclusively. As stated in appendix I of the 2017 ALSA Tac Radios MTTP, “airborne platforms…have limited on-station time”. So they may not be keen to work out HQ timing issues with surface units for an extended period. This lack of coordination often results in two networks on two different time synchs.

Underscoring these sentiments, a ship commander asked me, “if we are synching with each other (ships), why aren’t we all synching up?” Therein is the issue. After explaining how it “didn’t work like JTIDS,” the follow-on question was, “Why don’t we just have the aircraft synch to our time?” This would have worked for the carrier strike group but would have been a poor solution for participation in the joint environment on deployment. Owning the problem should be the first step in HQ troubleshooting.

The KAL-269 Calamity

For HQ training inside the continental United States (CONUS), the joint air forces are proficient with HQ II frequency management training (FMT) mode. I have worked with US Air Force airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) and fighters using FMT many times. Setting up FMT does not require crypto; it is merely an exercise in synching time signals. In preparation for deployment, the Nimitz Strike Group's air defense board decided to train using KAL-269 CONUS crypto. We cracked open our ALSA MTTP publications, saw mention of KAL-269, and decided this would provide better training. The assumption was KAL-269 would be KAL-9200 (HQ II operational crypto), basically, but OK for CONUS use. This was a poor assumption.

The strike group went down a rabbit hole, for about two months, in attempting to use KAL-269. The ALSA MTTP for Tac Radios does not explain using KAL-269 in depth, other than for CONUS. This is because it is very seldom, or never, utilized and its use has been forgotten. Once the strike group came up with the good idea of using KAL-269, it immediately ran into hurdles. I worked directly with the strike group communications staff who had no experience with HQ or KAL-269. Additionally, the regional vault serving the ship’s Electronic Key Management System (EKMS) local element had no experience with HQ or KAL-269 material, as it had never been requested. It took a much longer than normal time for the actual tape canisters, containing the HQ and KAL-269 material, to be located and shipped out to the carrier.

After receiving the KAL-269, we had a problem with how to distribute the WOD to the other ships and aircraft. The ALSA Tac Radios MTTP says:

“(4) The following policies apply to distributing, reproducing, and using KAL-269 WOD segments:

(a) The KAL-269 is distributed through COMSEC [communications security] channels. After reaching the unit level, treat the KAL-269 in accordance with Service regulations.

(b) Reproduce KAL-269 at the unit level (as necessary).”

On the other hand, The National Security Agency (NSA) produces and distributes the KAL-269. In the process of obtaining this obscure material, we had direct communications with the NSA office responsible for it. Their representative made it clear that under no circumstances were we to print copies of COMSEC for distribution, including KAL-269 material. We now had two different sources telling us two different things. The strike group erred on the side of caution, which made transmission difficult as codes had to be transmitted to aircraft and ships by an alternate means every day.

In this effort, I trained hundreds of aviators and ship technicians to handle KAL-269. Weeks later, the carrier received the can of tape. Finally, it was game day, and we put in the KAL-269. The results were underwhelming. It took us only a few minutes to realize KAL-269 was nothing but HQ I training network WODs. HQ I training was significantly inferior to HQ II FMT network training. As described in the 1991 Joint Publication (JP) 6-06.1 Joint Have Quick Planners Guide publication, it is “training WOD”, and it provides the users with five training networks (T-nets). This was an exercise in requesting, distributing, and loading COMSEC for the sake of requesting, distributing, and loading COMSEC. This process seemed to go against the spirit of the EKMS in that we had no reason to have these codes on hand. With that argument, the strike group quickly abandoned their KAL-269 plans. We continued to use FMT networks for training.

On my recommendations, the air wing commander was able to convince the strike group that KAL-269 provided a negligible training benefit to the strike group. Furthermore, we risked mishandling crypto for insignificant training benefits. If the ALSA publication had spelled out that KAL-269 was training WOD that provided the five HQ I T-nets, we would have never spent two months chasing our tails. It seems these facts have slowly been taken out of the governing publications since 1991. The ALSA Tac Radios publication dated 2017 states:

“The KAL-269 (CONUS WOD) is used in CONUS, as defined by the Joint COMSEC Management Office.”

ALSA “Have Quick” 2004 states:

“KAL-269, (CONUS WOD), is used in CONUS, as defined by the Joint COMSEC Management Office. Ordering instructions are contained in COMSEC Material System-21.”

JP 6-06.1 states:

“KAL-269, ‘Continental United States (CONUS) Training WOD,’ is used for training in CONUS. Ordering should follow what is given in appendix B.”

My final lesson is, T-Nets and FMT-Nets are two different things. When trying to explain to commanders that KAL-269 was only providing “T-Nets”, they would often confuse that with “FMT-Nets” that do not require COMSEC. The ALSA publication does a good job of breaking out the HQ I and II capabilities when it comes to “training networks”, but it may need to spell out, specifically, that not all T-nets are the same. In my experience both ship-drivers and aviators like to refer to HQ II FMA-nets as “A-nets” and HQ II FM-nets as either “Training networks or T-Nets.”

Recommendations

1. Bring back “Appendix C - USN CVW 17 Have Quick II REFERENCE CARD USING AN/ARC-182 RADIO” from the 2004 ALSA “Have Quick” MTTP.

I have personal experience now with ARC-182, ARC-210, and WSC-3 radios. The ARC-182 HQ setup process is almost identical to the WSC-3 HQ setup. Having served in two Carrier Air Wings (CVWs), the document can easily be renamed to a universal “USN CVW Have Quick…” reference. While this document seems Service specific, I guarantee it would have benefits for our sister Services, especially the Air Force. The guide is a reference for aviators and surface operators to speak the same language. Lessons gleaned from this document could help multiple Services understand where their differences lie. On the carrier, I was able to print off Appendix C and provide to OS and IT Sailors. This guide allowed operator and technician cross-training. Expanding this guide to include modern ARC-210 type radios would improve it even further.

2. Continue the trend of “operator-ization” of the Have Quick section of ALSA Tac Radios.

ALSA updated the guides for HQ and removed much of the technical bloat which made them more operator friendly. When it comes to network types and timing considerations, a few more words expanding these concepts would have been appreciated. The trend, since the introduction of HQ II, has been to describe the capabilities of HQ II by first explaining the capabilities of HQ I. For example, appendix J of Tac Radios breaks down “Basic HQ I NETs” into A-nets, B-nets, and T-nets. Further down the page, it breaks “HQ II NETs” into FMA-nets and FMT-nets. It took me a long time to figure out that T-nets are not FMT-nets and A-nets are not FMA-nets. With all the current WSC-3s being HQ II capable, I seriously doubt there are any users of pure HQ I in the Joint Forces. Instead, I recommend re-categorizing the network types from HQ I and HQ II to “training” and “anti-jam” nets, and under those titles list out T-nets, FMT-nets, A-nets, and FMA-nets. I believe this simple rewording can allow operators to better understand these concepts.

As joint forces continue to procure interoperable and self-synching networks, the rudimentary nature of HQ TOD must be emphasized. Synching with one does not mean synching with all. All units must have the same TOD and it must be from a GPS time source. The emergency TOD is an extremely useful function, but it often allows the uninformed to think they are set up correctly. These concepts may need emphasis in future versions of ALSA MTTP publications.

3. Explain T-NETS and KAL-269.

The risk of requesting and handling obscure COMSEC was not worth the reward of five T-nets. ALSA and joint publications were our references in this endeavor, as there was no corporate knowledge available on KAL-269. Somewhere, the part about KAL-269 being a "training" crypto was removed from the ALSA publication. The ALSA publication should have explicitly said, "KAL-269 provides five HQ I T-nets". I think this knowledge was lost since HQ I first rolled out in the 1980s. For that reason, HQ II FMT training is the only "CONUS" use of HQ that has occurred for many years. FMT-nets provide a much more useful way of training ship operators and aircrew in setting up HQ and synching TOD. We learned all of this the hard way. Clarification in future ALSA publications may save others from a lot of wasted time.