Carrier Pigeons: How the U.S. Navy Plans to Beat Russian Jamming

August 24, 2019 Topic: Security Region: World Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyRussiaJammingCommunicationsHistory

Carrier Pigeons: How the U.S. Navy Plans to Beat Russian Jamming

That's some old school style.

The U.S. Navy has a way to beat Russian and Chinese radio jamming.

Carrier pigeons.

Well, not exactly a pigeon. The Navy is experimenting with using helicopters to physically drop messages to other ships.

In a recent test in the Persian Gulf, an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter dropped a message, contained in a bean bag, on the deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer.

The idea isn’t exactly new: as far back as World War I, aviators dropped messages to ground troops to alert them to the enemy’s location. But the concept has taken new urgency in light of extensive Russian efforts to develop communications jamming technology, as well as the need for warships to maintain radio silence to avoid giving away their position.

Indeed, a Navy press release linked the latest message-in-a-bag project to the famous Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942, when sixteen land-based B-25 bombers were launched from the carrier USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo and other Japanese cities. Just prior to launch, a U.S. SBD dive-bomber spotted a Japanese patrol boat near the carrier USS Enterprise just before the Hornet launched its bombers. “The pilot believed he had been seen by the Japanese and decided not to use his radio but flew his SBD over the Enterprise flight deck and dropped a bean-bag notifying the ship of the Japanese patrol boat ahead,” the Navy announcement recounted. “A video posted by shows actual video of an SBD rear gunner dropping a bean-bag down to the Enterprise flight deck that day and shows a sailor picking up the bean-bag, then running to the island to deliver it up to the bridge.”

In August 2019, the Boxer’s Paraloft shop, which makes survival equipment such as life preservers, was tasked with making a new bean bag for a helicopter-to-deck drop.

“I started with the original measurements of the bean-bag used on the USS Enterprise in 1942 and built this one to withstand the impact of a drop but also weighed down for an accurate drop,” said Aircrew Survival Equipmentman 1st Class Carlos R. Freireizurieta. “The WWII bean-bags were filled with stuffing but the one I made is weighted down with a one-pound steel bar sown into the bottom of the naugahyde [artificial leather] and webbing package.”

The Navy sees this as an emergency communications measure when radio isn’t available or when radio silence is imperative. “Under radio silent conditions, Boxer leadership could send a message to pilots using a helicopter's onboard mechanism or briefly landing on the flight deck,” the Navy said.

“In some cases we use our rescue hoist to deliver and retrieve parts and messages or we would land and have someone get out and retrieve the message,” said Lt. Taryn Steiger, a Navy helicopter pilot.

It’s a sensible idea, as long as the Navy remembers that radio was invented because it’s a much quicker way to communicate than physically sending a messenger. Radio also functions when the weather is too bad for helicopters to fly. And, of course, there is the larger question of how long it will take the U.S. military—which depends on tightly integrated communications networks for command and coordination—to adapt to Russian and Chinese efforts to jam communications links.

Still, the heliborne beanbag is a refreshing change for the U.S. military: a low-tech solution that doesn’t cost a fortune.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Reuters.