Marines using cheap commercial tech to hide command posts in plain sight

Cpl. Eniya Yanina, a radio operator with Marine Rotational Force-Southeast Asia, configures a radio in preparation for an exercise on Fort Bonifacio, Philippines, Nov. 7, 2023.

Cpl. Eniya Yanina, a radio operator with Marine Rotational Force-Southeast Asia, configures a radio in preparation for an exercise on Fort Bonifacio, Philippines, Nov. 7, 2023. U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Dean Gurule

Command posts must be survivable to be effective, one commander says.

Marines deploying to Asia for recent exercises learned to hide their command posts using local cell phone networks and other commercial tech, part of a growing push within the military to adapt to modern battlefields. 

The Marines’ command posts, whose tell-tale radio emissions could give away their position to an enemy, were able to execute most tasks through “host-nation Wi-Fi,” Col. Thomas Siverts said in a press briefing Friday. 

Siverts commands Marine Rotational Force - Southeast Asia, which deployed for the second time ever from September to December, training in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. 

The unit, modeled after other long-established Marine rotational forces, focuses on security cooperation with U.S. allies and partners, but can also respond to regional crises. 

Using host nation WiFi allowed the Marines to blend “right into the environment,” Siverts said. Marines took cellphones on the deployment and accessed the mobile network with local SIM cards so their network wouldn’t stand out. “We’re not able to be detected,” he said. 

Communicating that way requires encryption and small form factor communications, he added, referring to communications platforms that are much physically smaller than the platforms they typically use. 

Another tool in the Marine Corps’ arsenal is commercial radars that are indistinguishable from commercial fishing vessels, Siverts said. 

At the same time, the Marines are balancing the trade-offs between a command post being invisible to enemy intelligence collection systems and being effective, added Col. Brendan Sullivan, commander of Marine Rotational Force – Darwin, which deployed concurrently with Siverts’ rotational force. 

“We have a [minimum] capability that you have to have in order to be relevant,” Sullivan said. “And in order to be relevant for any meaningful period of time, you also have to do the signature management piece.” 

The Marines’ focus on making command posts more survivable comes as they and the Army turn away from counter-terrorism and toward modern battlefields where America’s adversaries come equipped with precision missiles and satellite feeds. 

Among the Army’s top goals is improving command posts’ ability to avoid enemy fire. That  includes making command posts smaller and easier to relocate, as well as reducing their electro-magnetic profiles.   

“If we slog around the battlefield with massive operations centers, which are difficult to set up and often contractor-supported, we will get pounded,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George said in October at the annual Association of the United States Army meeting. 

“The Russians are learning this lesson several times a day [in Ukraine]. And we will not learn the hard way.”

Ukrainian forces have frequently targeted Russian command posts, logistic nodes, and troop staging grounds with long-range missiles supplied by the United States. 

Even headquarters located far from the front, such as those in occupied Crimea, are far from safe. Thursday, Ukraine military reported striking a Russian command post in Sevastopol.