FORT LIBERTY, N.C. – The U.S. Army’s ability to win the Nation’s wars is impacted not just by combat offensive capabilities, but its ability to defend and protect itself as well.
U.S. Army Capt. Michael Counihan, a space operations officer assigned to the 18th Field Artillery Brigade, identified a potential vulnerability with the GPS antennas the U.S. Army commonly used to operate unmanned aerial vehicles and satellite communication (SATCOM) terminals. If an adversary or enemy element is inside or outside the area of operation, the GPS antenna may be blocked by signal blockers used by the enemy to fight against advancement of troops across a terrain.
During the Space Operations Officer Qualification Course, Counihan learned the U.S. Army’s current remedy for this potential vulnerability was using coffee cans to protect the antennas from signal blocking capabilities. While generally effective, the coffee can is not made out of materials sufficient to protect against more robust jammers of higher power. Counihan then set on a personal quest to find a more permanently designed solution that can combat these greater threats.
“The most important thing to me about being an officer in the United States Army is supporting the troops deployed,” said Counihan. “By mitigating this vulnerability, Soldiers are better protected while completing their missions.”
Losing GPS signals will result in significantly degraded tempo, precision and synchronization.
Most communication, navigation, and positioning requires a clear GPS connection in order to be combat ready. Military vehicles or weapons systems that require real-time data for both timing and location require GPS in order to function. If an adversary can interfere with this signal, it greatly impacts how a brigade element can complete a mission as Soldiers would need to transition to maps and compasses to traverse across terrain, lose alternate methods of communication and most importantly, Soldiers would lose accuracy of GPS guided systems.
When Counihan arrived at the 18th FA in August, he began working closely with Chief Warrant Officer Jacob Church who ran a 3D printer within 188th Brigade Support Battalion’s motorpool. He first started by reaching out to program managers and program executive officers that rely heavily on GPS technology to get insight on how to prevent jamming. He then consulted with electrical engineers to break down radio frequencies and antenna designs to get insight into how antennas work and how they could be blocked.
Based on all this extensive research, Counihan provided Church with specifications and designs that the prototype device would need to have. Church took care of the rest, using his extensive experience with 3D printing to produce the first prototype.
“It was as simple as taking those modifications in the program and plugging them into the printer,” said Church. “Counihan did all the work really; I was just along for the ride.”
In November 2022, this working prototype was made and was tested in the field with the Army Space Training Division. The tests were compared in a live environment with unprotected antennas, the antennas outfitted with the makeshift coffee cans as a control test and then the prototype device. Through their findings the prototype device proved more effective than the coffee can.
Due to the positive results in testing and the highly innovative efforts to produce the prototype, Counihan submitted the GPS Antenna Protection project to Dragon’s Lair 8. Out of the 70+ ideas received, XVIII Airborne Corps selected him as one of the 8 finalists to participate in Dragon’s Lair.
“Dragon’s Lair 8 was an exciting opportunity to be around so many different military and academic leaders all with the sole focus of making the Army more effective in the future,” said Counihan. “It was an honor to be part of such an innovative group of people.”
Since participating in the competition, Counihan wanted to enhance the protection effects to the capacity needed for today’s operations. In April 2023, Counihan tested the protection device again with more robust materials.
“The GAPS experiment outperformed other commercially available solutions and provided significant protection against electromagnetic interference,” said Counihan.
The next steps for the product will include further consultation to enhance the design and construction of the system. Through Counihan’s dedication to improving the Army’s capabilities and resources, he is leading the way in the 18th Field Artillery Brigade’s charge in producing the Army of 2030.