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Tactical Communications Advances Seize The Day in Iraq

November 2008
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

 
A U.S. Army sergeant communicates by radio with a tactical operations center as an Iraqi policeman stands by. Improved communications and networking equipment is pushing more data down to lower levels of operation in Iraq.
Yet power, weight, mobility and protection emerge as new issues.

New tactical communications technologies are giving U.S. forces in Iraq tremendous capabilities that are essential to the new warfighting doctrine that has been implemented. But in turn, these capabilities are generating a wish list for communicators as they try to extend their reach to those who need them the most.

The shift away from legacy systems such as the venerable mobile subscriber equipment (MSE) and commercial-based gear to Internet protocol (IP) systems has enabled tactical forces to move faster around the battlespace. These forces now have access to secure data and information that allow both faster reaction and proactive operations in Iraq. Better information is reaching the force, and it is extending to lower levels.

But many of the new capabilities enabled by the advanced gear have spawned new needs and uncovered hidden requirements that must be addressed for the technologies to reach their full potential. These needs range from more reliable power sources to innovative configurations that would permit the advanced gear to be transported in armored vehicles instead of vulnerable carriers.

The biggest change brought to Iraq by the new technologies is that they are helping move more information to lower levels, reports Col. John B. Hildebrand, USA, commander, 11th Signal Brigade, based at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. “The ability to have SIPRNET [Secret Internet Protocol Router Network] and situational awareness down to the company level is something that has greatly improved over the past year and a half,” he states.

Passing large amounts of information down to the dusty boot level shortens the traditional sensor-to-shooter spiral. Eliminating this lag results in greatly increased situational awareness in a common operational picture—particularly in a counterinsurgency fight, the colonel points out. Actionable intelligence can be turned into operations rapidly.

The signal brigade’s presence in Iraq, known as Task Force Thunderbird, comprises a brigade headquarters and two expeditionary signal battalions (ESBs)—the 44th from Mannheim, Germany, and the 51st from Fort Lewis, Washington, which is replacing the 63rd, headquartered at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

Supporting coalition forces throughout the Iraqi theater of operations, the 11th Signal Brigade has task force settlements in 64 locations across the country. The tactical network alone spans more than 32,000 square miles.

Col. Hildebrand notes that the 11th is the first non-organic signal brigade supporting Iraqi operations. Its two ESBs have come into the fight with the Army’s top tactical communications equipment, known as the Joint Network Transport Capability (JNTC), which includes the newest Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) and Joint Network Node (JNN) gear (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2008).

While this equipment meets many of the new capabilities requested by the force, the colonel notes that the ever-increasing demand for secure voice and data down to the leading edge remains a big challenge. When Gen. David H. Petraeus, USA, was commanding the Multinational Force-Iraq, he redeployed the military away from bases and centers of operation into the general population. That required moving from a strategic network toward a greater reliance on a tactical network. And, that tactical network reliance had to be fulfilled as far down the chain as possible.

Where MSE was designed to reach down only to the brigade headquarters level, the 11th Signal Brigade now is pushing data past battalion levels to platoon-size elements. However, having that capability does not necessarily translate into universal coverage. The task force is not resourced to be able to provide that degree of connectivity to every platoon.

And, the change in operational doctrine is not fully addressed by the new equipment, much of which involves satellite communications. Forces incorporating JNTC must stop to set it up, and this hinders badly needed mobility. Col. Hildebrand cites the need to have the same capability on the move. “Maneuver commanders definitely need the ability to conduct battle command on the move,” he declares, noting that single-channel radios are the major source of secure voice on the move.

Command post nodes (CPNs) and JNNs are being pushed out into brigade combat teams within corps and division battlespaces. This helps fill in some gaps, the colonel explains. But, he adds, “Every CPN I have is in the fight. I don’t have CPNs sitting on the wings waiting to be missioned—there is a continual requirement for CPNs.”

The force modernization largely has eliminated MSE reliance in brigade combat teams in Iraq. “If we had to rely on the old MSE equipment, we would not have been nearly as successful in pushing the tactical forces out into the population,” Col. Hildebrand relates in describing Gen. Petraeus’ change in operations.

Among the many assets of the JNTC equipment is its ease of setup, the colonel explains. Soldiers are fond of the quick setup and ease of transport inherent in the satellite terminal trailers. Because it is IP-based, the Army can capitalize on the latest IP technologies.

Even though the communications cannot be established on the move, the maneuver commander can set up communications and tie into the larger network quickly. This capability did not exist in the recent past, Col. Hildebrand points out, as the satellite links that provided non-line-of-sight connectivity took considerable time to set up. The force still relies on satellites, but the new equipment and its architecture allow that maneuver commander rapid access to the network.

“Our tactical communications in Iraq have improved dramatically,” the colonel states. “There is no argument that the network over here is very robust, and we have an up-redundant communications that is very reliable. [But] we’ve got some work to do yet.”

This new equipment is getting its baptism of fire literally in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Between daily temperatures often well in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) and the pervasive desert dust that permeates anything that is not hermetically sealed, the sensitive electronics require extensive maintenance. Communicators constantly must strive to ensure that the gear remains cool and clean, Col. Hildebrand says. Overheating is a constant threat, particularly with amplifiers.

 
Two U.S. Army lieutenants discuss route-clearing plans for a convoy of generators in Iraq. Power and the need for transporting equipment on up-armored vehicles are major drivers for the development of smaller communications and power generation gear. 
Soldiers have worked hard at shielding their equipment from the environment, he reports. Communicators have applied supplemental air conditioning, environmental control systems and solar shades to reduce the heat effect. They have built small huts around equipment air intakes, and they have fabricated ductwork to aim air conditioning units to blow cool air directly onto power amplifiers.

“They have been very creative in ways to make sure their systems stay up and operating,” the colonel states.

But power is the system’s Achilles’ heel, Col. Hildebrand offers. When JNTC equipment is relying on commercial power, it is subject to the same outages and spikes that characterize Iraq’s power grid. Vendor-provided installation power or the equipment’s own tactical power also suffer from the harsh environment. Even with proper maintenance, generators “take a beating,” which puts the utility of the communications equipment at risk.

The JNTC equipment fielded with the task force comes with its own small onboard generator. The colonel believes that equipping each system with an additional power plant might be a solution to the power problem. Experts are examining the issues inherent in applying that solution.

Col. Hildebrand offers that downsizing the equipment might solve a lot of problems, foremost of which is safety. Smaller equipment would permit signaleers to provide an up-armored capability to the prime mover. Currently, the equipment is so heavy that it must be transported aboard light-skinned vehicles. Up-armored vehicles cannot support the additional weight of the communications gear. Absent an armored transport that can support that weight, the solution would be to reduce the weight of the communications gear. This would allow a signal unit to self-deploy across a battlespace without needing to place its equipment on large bulky armored vehicles belonging to another element.

Another key need is a beyond-line-of-sight capability that is not satellite-based. Perhaps a refined tropospheric-scatter system could provide a greater bandwidth throughput capability over long distances without satellites, the colonel suggests.

The new JNTC gear has not ended the problem of bandwidth. The force uses more bandwidth than ever, so it continues to consume a great deal of bandwidth despite increased capacity. Col. Hildebrand explains that most intratheater communications is over the SIPRNET, while most nonsecure communications is intertheater and is sent outside of the Iraq theater. “We are bandwidth intensive, moving large databases around in large volumes of information everywhere from finance to biometric databases,” he relates. Formats include full-motion video from intelligence assets, which taxes bandwidth capacities.

The colonel adds that the task force is blending its communications in an effort to increase bandwidth and flexibility. It is working on fiber out of the theater, and it is looking at terrestrial in-theater assets to complement the satellite links. One problem is that each division has different needs based in part on location. Divisions that are in proximity can employ line-of-sight links, but those that are more dispersed need satellite links. A balanced approach comprises optical fiber, line-of-sight and satellite communications.

Under the traditional Army system, signaleers would provide communications support to any force in their particular area. But under the Army’s new modular concept, communicators export their assets to other elements. Over the past year, the details of that approach have become more clear, especially with regard to equipment maintenance posture and personnel. The task force sends its elements into another commander’s battlespace, and that commander is responsible for those elements.

Col. Hildebrand also relates that over the length of a 15-month tour, the task force is relearning the importance of small unit leadership. “Having soldiers in this environment working their day-to-day job takes leadership at all levels of the chain of command,” he declares.

As network centricity has extended its reach throughout the entire U.S. military, issues of command and responsibility have emerged as more information is available further down the chain of command. The colonel notes that the task force has the technical capability to consolidate and transfer network operations outside the operational chain of command to gain efficiencies, but it cannot transfer a commander’s responsibilities and accountabilities. “We as a signal corps need to make sure that we pin our policy and doctrine—we need to make sure that we reconnect network operations with battle command,” he offers. “We need to implement a disciplined approach to network management so that the authority and responsibility are aligned with the accountability.” The individual responsible for providing communication at the enterprise level must be held accountable to the maneuver commander, or the task force loses its relevance, he adds.

Jointness is another issue. While the Army’s Iraq network can function as a joint network, “service policies make a truly joint network impossible,” the colonel claims. “Somewhere along the line we must establish policies that allow the network to be truly joint. We have what is essentially an Army network with joint customers. The Marines run their own network; the Air Force runs its own network. There is no truly joint network here, just an Army network with joint subscribers.

“We have similar equipment, and we can connect directly to the other service networks,” he continues. “What keeps us from connecting to them are policies—just the difference in information assurance [and other] requirements. That is something that we as senior leaders need to address and overcome.”