The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Advanced radios captured by Iraqi insurgents could spell trouble

An image downloaded on June 11, 2014 from the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria waving their trademark flag after they allegedly seized an Iraqi army checkpoint in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin.  AFP PHOTO

Iraq’s security forces, propped up by American equipment and weapons, have been routed by a contingent of insurgents bent on extending their territory from strongholds in Syria deep into Iraq. As Mosul and other cities fell, the West saw a host of images of once-American Humvees and helicopters firmly in the hands of its enemies.

Outrage followed shock, as years of effort in Iraq by the U.S. military seemed to unravel in a coup-de-grace that played out over the Internet. Analysts speculated that the newly seized weapons and vehicles could turn fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria into an even stauncher foe.

Yet, among the towed Black Hawk helicopters, Howitzer cannons and Humvees plastered all over social media lies an unseen weapon that could make the ISIS fighters exponentially more lethal if employed properly: advanced radio equipment.

The issue gained attention on Twitter on Wednesday after former Army Spc. Alex Horton posted a picture on Twitter of an ISIS fighter posing with a cache of ammunition and explosives. Atop one of the many olive drab crates was what Marine Capt. Brett Friedman said was a possible charging station for the AN/PRC-153 radio.

The 153 provides encrypted communication over UHF channels. It is used by most U.S. infantry squads in Afghanistan, and allows enlisted squad leaders to communicate with their troops, resulting in more cohesion and coordination on the battlefield.

Also mounted in most of the captured Humvees could be a VHF radio that allows for longer-range encrypted communication. It’s known as a Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, or SINCGARS. It is not compatible with the PRC-153, although both are commonly used by U.S. troops. They delineate between the two by calling SINCGARS “Green Gear” and radios like the PRC-153 “Black Gear.”

The Iraqi military would and should have changed their encryption keys after the equipment was lost, but new encryption could be emplaced by individuals with specific training and equipment. If that becomes the case, the communications equipment would allow ISIS fighters to coordinate over greater distances without interference from adjacent enemy units. There’s no question that would be easier than figuring out how to operate some of the more advanced pieces of equipment captured, like helicopters.

Insurgent fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan have typically used off-the-shelf Icom two-way radios that allow individuals to speak, but are easily intercepted by anyone who flips to the same channel.

Communication has always been a key component to warfare. Without it, large units can’t attack or coordinate their movements. If ISIS has captured significant pieces of communication gear and have learned how to use it and subsequently encrypt their communication, their advance across Iraq will only be that much more difficult to stop.