NOTE: As I mentioned before, I don’t want to turn this blog into a place where I speculate about destroying Canada, or any other country for that matter.  I also don’t want deep into the weeds about technical matters, both because it can get boring and because some of it might push into classified territory.  But the second half of the novel Uprising is going to include a number of issues specifically related to military communications, so I think it’s important to lay out some key issues here for easy reference.  In order to keep things simple, I’m limiting myself to general descriptions, or else to specific equipment (like the Iridium Sat Phone) which are available on the civilian market.***

He glanced at his young radio operator, Simon. One last check that the boy had control of his satellite communications gear, the key to Will’s control of the extended operation about to unfold under his command…

This is a line from pg 209 of my copy of Uprising, and it’s about the closest we get to an explanation of what sort of communications the NPA are using.  Satellite Communications.  Not a specific brand of model of radio/phone, just ‘satellite communications‘ and that’s it.  So to keep things simple I’m going to use the Iridium Sat Phone as an example for our discussion here.

 

Iridium-1
This model of Iridium Sat Phone is often used as a basic ‘off-the-shelf’ device to supplement comms capabilities in the CAF.

The biggest problem with ‘Satellite Radios’ and ‘satellite phones’ is that, like the name suggests, they depend on…satellites. Essentially, the transmitter bounces its signal off of a satellite to an appropriate receiver somewhere else on the earth.  If it’s another satellite device, then the signal arrives directly.  If not, it may have to relay through an intermediary station. 

For example, you can talk to conventional cell phones through an Iridium Sat Phone just by dialing a few extra numbers as part of your call.  This warns the phone (and by extension, the satellite) that your call is to be routed to a conventional cell phone network.  Since there’s nothing specific being said here about what model of radio is being used, it’s probably a safe bet that in physical appearance it’s a basic man-pack model with a weird looking antennae, and while the initial programming might be complicated, once it’s working there wouldn’t be much difference than using a conventional radio.[1]  You set it to the correct channel, then pick up your headset and hit the PTT switch.  The radio and the satellite does the rest. 

That’s it. That’s how it works. And that’s a huge problem.

Because here’s the thing: Those satellites? They’re put up there by governments. I mean, I know private companies often own the actual satellites, but the space program that put them there is government controlled, and you’d better believe that the governments involved aren’t going to put something into orbit unless they get their own off switch. Which means that there’s a pretty good chance that, if this is American-made sat gear, there’s somebody sitting by that ‘off switch‘ in the Pentagon.

The US government can just turn off your tech?  Yeah. That’s a thing!

Again, just to be clear, this is open sourced information, but it’s not commonly known. A lot of civilian space-based technology (like sat phones and GPS) are derived from US military equipment. GPS itself, is a military system that is leased out for civilian use.  This means that the US military can do all sorts of stuff you’d never have thought possible to your technology.

For example, someone in the Pentagon can push a button, and make GPS into an encryption-only signal for entire hemispheres. Meaning that your Garmin GPS (which doesn’t even have the capacity to decrypt a GPS signal) will suddenly shit itself and start giving you gibberish.  If they really wanted to get nasty, they could actually spoof the GPS signal, meaning that anyone without the encryption key would get incorrect data.  In that scenario, your Garmin would appear to be working perfectly, but it would be actively lying to you.[2] 

This is the main reason why Russia and China have both built their own satellite navigation networks (GLONAS and BeiDou respectively). 

So until Space X becomes a regular thing, any satellite communication system is going to come with an off switch, along with other possibilities.  And even after Space X then you’d have to worry about Elon Musk screwing with you, which is likely to be worse. 

So what Bland seems to be proposing here is that an insurgent movement threatening the North American power grid, would be using satellite communications, and the Americans wouldn’t immediately shut them down as a basic act of self preservation.  I mean, never mind that we’re NATO and NORAD allies and that there are, at any given time, hundreds of Canadian officers serving in American and Joint commands.  Boucanier’s Operation Thunder is a direct attack on the power grid.  There will be a response. 

Ah! But what if it wasn’t an American-made satellite phone?

Believe it or not, there’s actually a lot of precedence for something like this.  Back in the 1960s the UN came together to deploy Peacekeeping forces into the Republic of the Congo to prevent the secession of the Province of Katanga.  Even as this was happening, various members of the UN Security Council were supplying weapons and mercenaries to Katanga to support their rebellion (and thereby secure access to Congo’s mineral wealth).  This left-hand/right-hand fratricidal war was not considered especially unusual even at the time.

SofJ-1
From ‘The Siege of Jadotville‘ (2016 Parallel Films), European officers found themselves in the Republic of Congo, fighting for opposite visions for the country. Plus ça change…

So…One country fucking up the business of another country, even a friendly one, through some third party actors?  We done that!

Now the fact that the Movement would represent a direct threat to the Continental United States would change the equation a lot.  It’s one thing for your proxies to kill some of my proxies in some Third World country my voters couldn’t find on a map.  After all, that’s what proxies are there for.  As we’ve learned in recent years, even the killing of US soldiers is not likely to raise that many eyebrows at home.  But an attack that hits at home is likely to be a different matter.  With a serious risk of lights going off along the east coast, I would expect the President to be on the phone to Moscow or Beijing telling them to pull the plug immediately

And they would probably comply.  After all, proxies are there so you don’t have to fight directly. 

Another thing that Bland doesn’t seem to consider is that accepting such help from Russia or China would have the effect of making Molly Grace into a tool of colonial powers (like Tshombe in Katanga).  This is a bigger deal than one might initially think, and could seriously damage her standing among Canada’s Indigenous people.[3] It would also damage her usefulness as a symbol of native radicalism, which could be a problem for Bland.  Luckily for him, he controls the narrative here so he won’t have to worry about this.  But still…

But how could the Americans discover that the Russians or Chinese had loaned the NPA satellite comms gear?  Isn’t it secure?  Well the answer there is that security has several different meanings when it comes to Electronic Warfare (EW). 

The key thing to remember when you’re transmitting anything is that, even if you have encryption, the signal itself is detectable. In the novel, Will Boucanier is deliberately broadcasting on an open net, but even if he wasn’t, he’s still broadcasting.  His satellite radio is putting out an Electro-Magnetic (EM) signal that can be detected.  What’s more, there’s a good chance that his radio will be doing this even when he’s not actively speaking to anyone on the net. 

While I can’t speak to all satellite communications gear, Iridium Sat Phones regularly ping the satellite network in order to maintain regular contact.  This is one of the reasons why booting up your Sat Phone after a long period of dormancy takes a few minutes; it’s literally searching the sky for a satellite it can talk to.  When it’s left on, it regularly re-establishes contact, so that when you decide to dial out, there won’t be any delay in operation. 

This is a feature used to speed up communications, but it’s one that can be dangerous if not handled carefully.  It’s not a big deal in a place like Afghanistan where you’re up against a low-tech enemy, but it is actually a pretty major security issue if you’re ever up against an enemy with EW capabilities. Leaving your sat phone on means that it will regularly be sending out a ping that can be detected by the enemy.[4]  Meaning that Will Boucanier’s signaller is carrying a literal homing device on his back. 

So if there’s Russian or Chinese pings coming from a terrorist group in the James Bay region?  NORAD would have the HQ equivalent of a simultaneous heart attack and an involuntary orgasm. 

Now you might think that a more conventional military radio could solve the problem.  But conventional radios carry whole new problem: Range.

Most of your standard man-pack radios will have a basic range of around 8-12 km, depending on conditions.  Hook it up to a ground plane antennae (a big ass antennae that’s either raised up on a 40-ft mast or suspended from a tree) and you could potentially increase it to 30-40 km, maybe.  All of this would depend on terrain features, line of sight, transmission power and atmospherics. 

So how would Will be able to reach anyone from his position near the Dam?  Just the basic man pack would have a hard time reaching Radisson itself.[5]  Chisasibi is more than 100 km away.  The transmission line saboteurs are scattered across more than a thousand kilometres. 

The normal way to extend the range of a conventional radio is with repeater or rebroadcast stations.  This isn’t something that’s too difficult to achieve with off-the-shelf equipment.  Mostly this would mean a network of radios and antennae across the region, each with their own independent power source.   But when you’re using anything military-grade that’s using encryption, then your relays are going to have to be equally compex.  So planning on having secure and encrypted comms across a huge distance instantly means a massive increase in equipment and manpower requirements.  

The CAF version of a Radio Rebroadcast Station (RRB Station) is a vehicle with a dual radio mount, a couple of ground-plane antennae and a generator to power it all (so you don’t have to run the vehicle constantly and waste fuel.  It also takes 2-4 troops to maintain.  Basically, these guys drive the truck out to the middle of nowhere, set up the antennae and generator, then camp out there until there’s no longer a need for them.   It’s one of those boring jobs that’s nevertheless absolutely vital to the army. 

These are the requirements for VHF and UHF-band radios, which are your most common military and civilian frequency bandwidths. If you wanted to go with HF-band radios, then it is possible to bounce the signal off the ionosphere and achieve a massive range increase.  In some cases, you can transmit halfway across the earth and the cool part is, this is technology that’s been around for decades, so it’s easy to find civilians who will understand it.[6]  This, however, doesn’t overcome the problem of detection.  There’s also the issue that comms will be subject to greater interference from weather and time of day. 

Ironically, one of the better options in this situation would be to go low-tech, and use CB or HAM radios instead. Even though encryption would be impossible,[7] this could be offset by sheer ubiquity. Radios would be cheap and easy to acquire in large numbers without being noticed. Depending on where you live, they might already be in regular use, meaning that you might already have a lot of local recruits who won’t need any training. There might even be an existing network of repeater stations already in place.

Best of all, in many parts of the country radio would be the primary means of communication.  This would have the effect of creating a kind of radio smoke screen of background noise that can confuse EW personnel.  If you’re using a radio that’s commonplace throughout the region, you will have natural camouflage. 

And as for encoding transmissions, we’ve already talked about the history of Navajo Code-Talkers.  You’d think Douglas Bland would seize upon a ready-made way to further build the sense of menace around Indigenous people.  They have their own language!

Then again, assuming that Comms just work automatically is a pretty common feature for Officers who don’t regularly go into the field. 

***Featured Image: Although it’s more of an action-movie than a proper historical one, I really love the portrayal of ‘Radio Operator‘ (played by Conor MacNeil) in ‘The Siege of Jadotville‘ (Parallel Films, 2016).  Source imdb.com*** 

_______________________

[1] The Iridium Sat Phones in the CAF come with a set of laminated index cards with a whole list of numbers that need to be entered as a prefix for various types of phone calls, depending on who the receiver is and what part of the world you’re in.  Sometimes a simple phone call is a 20-digit process that makes you look like a confused grandparent using technology for the first time.  Otherwise, it works exactly like a cell phone. 

[2] Apparently the Republican Guard tried to do this during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, but failed to crack the GPS encryption that would have enabled them to introduce false signals. 

[3] There’s a huge logical fallacy in right-wing thinking where they assume any activist/radical who hates western colonialism will therefore automatically love the colonialism of western rivals and enemies.  No.  The enemy is colonialism, not necessarily the west.  There are no First Nations activists longing to become the next Uighars, or to have little green men (definitely not Russians!) appear on their unceded land like in Donbass. 

[4] This is something that I’ve had to hammer home on Comms courses for years. Encryption doesn’t make you invisible. There is always a signal that can be detected. The only defence is to limit your transmission time.

[5] This is one of the reasons why it’s important for your HQ to be in the central location, rather than at the very front.  You need to be able to reach all parts of your command, including the guys in the rear. 

[6] I would not be surprised to find out that there are thousands of radio nerds across Canada’s North.  For a small investment of equipment you can literally talk to the world.

[7] There’s basic, off-the-shelf encryption available for civilian radios, but unless you got the money and connections for some high-end stuff, they are not going to last long against a determined EW section.  Something like WhatsApp, which promises all its signals are encrypted, is not safe against anything more than casual eavesdropping. 

 

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