Nearly half a century ago, Vice Admiral Jon L. Boyes, OPNAV Director for C4I and Naval Communications, (1973-1976) said, “Radio Frequency Management is done by experts who meld years of experience with a curious blend of regulation, electronics, politics and not a little bit of larceny. They justify requirements, horse-trade, coerce, bluff, and gamble with an intuition that cannot be taught other than by long experience.”
To this day, everyone working in the community knows his quote. In this article, let’s take a look at what the admiral meant.
Today, radio frequency management goes by many names, all encompassed within the broad spectrum community. It is a community that has continued to grow as more missions have become spectrum-dependent. In fact, modern warfare would be impossible without reliable access to spectrum.
What was once a small group of frequency managers is today a global community of experts responsible for assured electromagnetic spectrum operations worldwide. While its members all pose that ‘curious blend of regulation, electronics, and politics,' it is highly doubtful anyone is literally taking part in ‘a little bit of larceny.’
Ideally, the best approach isn’t to take spectrum from another operation, it’s to be able to share spectrum with other users successfully. This is where blending knowledge of electromagnetic environmental effects and spectrum regulation, with keen knowledge of current spectrum politics, is critical for success. This method may not be as exciting as larceny, but it is much better when we can all share without impacting other users.
To ‘justify requirements and horse-trade’ are as much a part of the community today as they were in Vice Adm. Boyes’ time. There is a finite amount of spectrum available at any place and time. In a congested or contested electromagnetic environment, access to spectrum must be justified and highly regulated. Simply turning on a transmitter is no longer permitted. Too often there isn’t enough spectrum for all missions, and difficult decisions must be made.
As with any tightly fused community, when called upon the spectrum community can apply leverage as needed to solve almost any spectrum problem. While “coercion” is a strong word, this community has been known to ‘bluff and gamble.’ For clarity, a bluff is not a lie. A bluff is more of an undesirable starting position from which the community understands it will eventually have an opportunity to negotiate. There is great honor in the spectrum community. Typically, agreements are initially verbal. Negotiations are made around a table or over the phone. Anyone in the spectrum community with a reputation for lying would never be successful.
The definition of gambling is also not the same in the spectrum community. Modern spectrum gambles would better be described as risk management, though no venture is 100% risk-free. To avoid unwarranted gambling with tax payer dollars, a system is developed and the program office identifies the spectrum needed to operate ensuring all spectrum-dependent programs conduct a spectrum supportability risk analysis.
The electromagnetic environment is so complex that often ‘intuition’ is the best method for analyzing options in real-time. Though conducting real-time spectrum operations is on the horizon, the current class of computers isn’t able to crunch the numbers to effectively model the electromagnetic environment and advise commanders how to modify their spectrum operations in real-time. Someday, the spectrum community will be able to rely more on technology and less on gut instinct.
Vice Adm. Boyes’ quote concludes with the acknowledgment that the spectrum community’s core characteristics ‘cannot be taught other than by long experience.’ Few graduate from high school dreaming of a career in electromagnetic spectrum. Nearly all in the spectrum community started their careers in another field. But something someplace brought them into the community, and once in, they decided to stay. Over time they learned from their peers, they learned from what has transpired before, and they learned from their own experience. And while there are many fine schools across the spectrum community, it is true that ultimately there is nothing better than extensive hands-on experience.
As critical to mission success as the work of the spectrum community is, many do not understand exactly what they do and why they do it. The spectrum workforce provides an extraordinary service to the Navy and the nation by continually striving to ensure that all spectrum-dependent systems can operate to their fullest capability, free from unintentional interference. While this vision may be almost impossible to fully realize, it is a noble, and necessary, pursuit.
Tom Kidd is the director for DON Strategic Spectrum Policy in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer.