A strange object sits on the grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Roughly 12 ft tall and 20 ft long, this large structure made of four copper plates looks almost like a billowing flag. Out of those plates, close to 2,000 individual letters have been cut—seemingly at random. But there's nothing random about it. Those nonsensical strings of letters contain one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world.
Figure 1. Secure communication isn’t only the foundation of tactical radios. It’s also entered pop culture, as shown by Jim Sanborn’s Kryptos sculpture in front of the CIA building in Langley, Virginia.
This enigmatic structure is actually a work of art called Kryptos. Created by the artist Jim Sanborn and installed in 1990, the sculpture’s four panels contain messages. The messages on three of the panels have been deciphered since the Kryptos installation, but the fourth panel’s messages remain uncracked. For hundreds of professional and amateur cryptographers across the globe, decrypting this final piece of text and solving Kryptos' mystery once and for all have become an obsession. It was designed to be difficult, and that's exactly why they keep trying.
Kryptos might be an inanimate object, yet it speaks volumes. As a kind of puzzle for the public, it's a testament to the human ingenuity that goes into creating and cracking complex encryption schemes. And despite the deliberate challenges it presents, Kryptos highlights our fundamental desire to communicate. At its core is a message that's ultimately designed to be received by another party.
As Kryptos has shown us, for every concealed message, there’s always someone working hard to crack it. This is especially true on the battlefield, where communication is vital. A breakdown in communication between soldiers and their peers or superiors puts lives and national security at risk.
Since the 1980s, tactical radios for the US military and its allied forces have used a communication technology system called SINCGARS, short for Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System. SINCGARS replaced the single-frequency radios of the Vietnam era and uses advanced frequency-hopping techniques to achieve a rate of 111 hops per second.
Today, even more reliable, more secure technologies are replacing SINCGARS. Emerging technologies and waveforms such as TrellisWare's TSM-X are promoting large-scale changes in the tactical radio ecosystem. This is creating a need for new architectures like software defined radio (SDR) that can accommodate multiple waveform variables including frequency, bandwidth, modulation, and encryption using one platform. That’s key to both ground and airborne applications.
Figure 2. The US Department of Defense (DoD), per the latest White House budget request, is allocating more than $7 billion over the next five years (2020–24) to support secure communication modernization efforts across multiple branches of the armed services.
Much of this evolution and growth are driven by the US Army and Marines, two branches of the military that are actively modernizing their tactical radio platforms to streamline, harden, and enhance their field communications. One of these modernization initiatives is the Special Operations Forces (SOF) Tactical Communications program, or STC, which integrates anti-spoofing and GPS modules. Other examples are the zero-infrastructure Army Rifleman Radio and Army HMS Manpack system. Among other technologies, these innovative devices removed the traditional dependency on a fixed infrastructure, such as cell towers, or line-of-sight communications.
These advances clearly have implications for established equipment suppliers like L3Harris Technologies (formerly Harris Corporation and L3 Technologies), Northrop Grumman Corporation, Raytheon Company, General Dynamics Corporation, and the Thales Group. In the United States, the tactical radio market is expected to grow to an estimated $1.3 billion in 2023. That will be up from $700 million in 2018. Globally, the trends are expected to be similar. In 2017, the international defense tactical radio market was $8.92 billion. Current projections suggest it will grow to almost $15 billion by 2023.