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Information Technology Drives Tip of Airborne Spear

June 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

It takes a network to connect far-reaching attack assets.

The deep thrust into Iraq by the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in operation Iraqi Freedom was enabled as much by kilobytes as by helicopters. An advanced command, control and communications architecture allowed the geographically dispersed mobile forces to remain in contact with their individual commanders as well as with the division headquarters.

These communications empowered the diverse forces of the air assault division—infantry, helicopters, artillery—to move quickly across great distances for sudden strikes against enemy assets. Their bandwidth enabled multimedia communications that permitted a form of videoconferencing among commanders. This connectivity was aided and abetted by technology upgrades that provided enhanced capabilities to both the communicator and the warfighter.

Tasked with this communications mission was the division’s 501st Signal Battalion, which describes itself as “The Voice of the Eagle.” The battalion’s work went far beyond mere voice connectivity as it set up extensive data and even video links.

Maj. Shana Campbell, USA, battalion operations staff officer, S-3, explains that the 501st assembled a two-layer tactical communications network. The first focused on establishing single-channel communications comprising frequency modulation (FM), single-channel tactical satellite communications and extremely high frequency and high frequency (HF) radio. All of the command posts—Division Main, Division Rear, the assault command post (ACP), brigade tactical operations centers (TOCs) and separate battalion TOCs—were hooked up into single-channel networks. Single-channel communications are the most critical form of communications for an air assault, she warrants.

The second layer was a more robust communications package built around mobile subscriber equipment (MSE). This included voice and datalinks that supported the division, the brigade and battalion TOCs and the command posts. Maj. Campbell explains that these MSE links provide voice communications through tactical telephones—digital nonsecure voice terminals (DNVTs) and mobile subscriber radio terminals (MSRTs)—as well as data communications to provide the division with a common operating picture through maneuver control system (MCS) light. Other division elements such as air defense artillery, logistics and military intelligence employed their own specific data networks for their own communication through this MSE network. The battalion provided the MSE pipe for the data systems to link with one another and provide a common operating picture for each element. These types of links are most essential for planning, the major offers.

In addition to voice and data, this network allowed videoconferencing. However, the major shares, commanders did not use it for traditional video links. Instead, they chose to use this capability for voice and data conferencing, especially during the buildup to war. Maj. Campbell explains that officers in the brigade and separate battalion TOCs would conference through their computers using the Defense Collaborative Tool Suite, which enabled them to share data files and alter displays as if they were videoconferencing a PowerPoint presentation. The same links provided voice communications that were better in quality than traditional telephony. “It’s like a videoconference without the facial pictures,” she elaborates.

The 501st did not extend these MSE capabilities below the brigade and separate battalion levels. Company-battalion and company-platoon levels provided their own internal communications. These units did have the capability to link with the 501st’s network, however, merely by locating close to a signal node.

These MSE links are composed of several signal nodes. At the heart of this network is the node center, which comprised six high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) providing switching, radio systems, network management and support. This node is responsible for backbone network connectivity, subscriber number management, network communications security management and line-of-sight radio links to adjacent node centers and other units. The node centers provide links at a speed of 1,024 kilobytes per second. The 501st has three of these node centers.

Another signal node is the contingency communications parent switch, or CCPS. This features four HMMWVs carrying a TTC-50 switch and two TRC-198 line-of-sight radio systems. The CCPS provides telephone line connectivity, remote radio access unit support and combat network radio interface. The 501st has two CCPS packages.

The contingency communications extension switch (CCES) package includes a TTC-50 switch, dismounted line-of-sight radios and a support HMMWV. It provides both commercial and defense switched network telephone lines as well as remote radio access unit coverage and combat network radio interface. The battalion has four of these packages.

The CCPS and the CCES are two versions of what the 501st calls its contingency communications package, which also is known as the force entry switch. Its role is to provide connectivity from a force entry location to the sustaining base or an intermediate staging base.

Small extension nodes, or SENs, support the aviation brigades, separate battalions and brigade support areas. The SEN (V)1 provides 26 wireline terminations, two commercial telephone lines and a line-of-sight radio link to an adjacent node center or force entry switch. The SEN (V)2 provides 41 wireline terminations, two commercial telephone lines, the line-of-sight radio link and a combat network radio interface. The 501st has eight SEN (V)1s and four SEN (V)2s.

Providing area support are three remote radio access units. These comprise a TRC-191 radio access unit and a TRC-190 line-of-sight radio along with a HMMWV support vehicle. They provide mobile subscriber radio terminal support for parts of the division area not covered by a node center or a force entry switch. Links between these units and the SENs run at 512 kilobytes per second.

MSE is linked from node to node with line-of-sight radio shots. This does involve a finite distance, however, and this is where satellite communications enter the network picture. Five multichannel satellite terminals, or MUXSATs, provide these vital long-distance links. Maj. Campbell describes them as crucial for extending the network, especially with the type of operation the 101st just waged in Iraq (see Technology Brief below).

For example, MUXSATs provided the vital links between TOCs separated by hundreds of kilometers. “There is no limit on the distance that MUXSATs could reach back and tie into the same network,” she says. “When we send our MSE switches forward beyond the line-of-sight planning distance, we always put a MUXSAT van with them to provide that long-haul communications back into the division.” This satellite capability accompanied MSE with a brigade TOC to ensure that the TOC receives both single-channel communications and MSE voice and datalinks as well as the common operating picture.

These MUXSAT units break down into two types. The battalion has three TSC-93C satellite terminals, which consist of two HMMWVs with towed generators. These units can establish multiband links with other terminals. The battalion has two of the other type, the TSC-85C. This unit can serve as a hub terminal linked to as many as four other terminals in a hub-and-spoke architecture. These units are carried on two of the family of medium tactical vehicles (FMTV) trucks, which also tow generators.

The division maintained close control over its five MUXSAT vans. One stayed with the Division Main Headquarters, while another remained with the Division Rear Headquarters. That left three MUXSAT units that went forward, and those three supported either the three 101st infantry brigades or two infantry brigades and the ACP. The battalion acquired a fourth MUXSAT unit from corps for this operation.

The battalion’s MUXSATs provided links between the Division Main Headquarters and the Division Rear Headquarters at 2,048 megabytes per second. From these division command posts out to the brigades, the links ran at 1,024 kilobytes per second, as were the links to corps.

There were some limitations arising from, of all things, technology improvements. The 501st’s satellite systems had just received upgrades that significantly enhanced the units’ performance, and this included the ability to move data at 8 megabytes per second. However, other satellite systems at the corps level had not received these upgrades. So, the 501st’s MUXSAT units could exchange data with them at only 4 megabytes per second.

“With that, we had to do some creative juggling of bandwidth,” Maj. Campbell reports. “Sometimes, our bandwidth would be 1,024 [kilobytes] between the TOCs, or our bandwidth between the division TOCs and the brigades may only be 512, depending on who was in the network at the time.”

When necessary, these HMMWV-mounted assets were airlifted by CH-47 helicopters to be brought forward. Some vehicles that were not needed quickly in the forward part of the division’s thrust were driven to their desired locations. Generally, those that were needed in less than two days were airlifted. Maj. Campbell relates that the forward units remained in constant communication with the 501st so that the battalion could ensure that it could support the brigade.

The deep airborne assault that the 101st performed into Iraq featured a jump command post that provided communications support. Known as the C2, for command and control, helicopter, the aircraft provides ultrahigh frequency (UHF) communications, HF radio, single-channel tactical satellite links and FM communications—the same as the ground forces have (see Technology Brief, this page). These helicopters played a key role as conduits between the leading edge of the division’s operations and the ACP or the Division Main Headquarters, depending on which was in charge during different times in the conflict.

This C2 aircraft is not just a communications relay. It actually is a flying command post that is capable of carrying the assistant division commander or even the commanding general. Maj. Campbell relates that the personnel for each C2 aircraft were carefully selected for their roles, either for commanding and controlling ground forces or for ensuring that its communications systems work. The 501st always has someone onboard, she adds.

Some of the battalion’s C2 helicopters were upgraded to use a 5-kilobyte dedicated circuit to support deep operations. However, some others were not upgraded, so they had to use their older 25-kilobyte dedicated circuits.

The battalion employed several C2 helicopters, although it would send out only one to support a deep strike. The helicopter would fly between the lead ground forces and the division base. While it was equipped with all the single-channel communications shared by ground forces, it lacked MSE. It was left to each division TOC to take its own MSE assets.

“Once we get on the ground, we task organize out,” the major explains. “We control the communications network from a central location, but for each of those switches task-organized to support a TOC or a division command post, [their commanders] let that switch know when they need to move forward with them. We facilitate that and control the network to ensure that they get the communications they need in the next place that they go,” she adds.

Several new technologies proved their worth. Monitoring bandwidth utilization was easier with new network monitoring tools, the major relates. These permitted trouble-shooting down to the individual TOCs. In addition, signalers could change individual TOC router configurations from the systems control center, or SYSCON. Monitors could observe network spikes and reroute traffic as needed.

Another new and useful tool was the General Dynamics KG-175, or TACLANE. This permits tunneling a secure Internet protocol link through a nonsecure link, or vice versa. Instead of establishing two pipes for separate secure and nonsecure Internet links, signalers could combine the two in a single pipe without fear of breaching security. This proved especially useful for users of the nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET) who needed access in the widespread secure environment. Logisticians especially found this capability valuable, the major notes. These TACLANEs were established in each subscriber band center.

The battalion also made good use of the Promina 400 multiplexing system that it received only a couple of months before deploying. The 501st had three of these units, which allowed it to manage the amount of secure, nonsecure and voice traffic going out over trunks. One was located at a stepsite link in the Division Rear Headquarters to focus mostly on voice and NIPRNET traffic. The other two were located at the Division Rear and Division Main headquarters. “They are really helpful pieces of equipment for managing the amount of bandwidth allocated for each element passing over the pipes,” the major says.


Technology Brief

Expandable Vans Ease Network Connectivity

Space and weight are a premium for an air assault division on the move. The 101st Airborne Division’s 501st Signal Battalion speeds up the deployment process for communications links with its enhanced lightweight air-mobile modular shelter, or ELAMS, system.

An ELAMS unit consists of a trailer-size module that expands to provide connectivity “for the close fight on the move,” according to Maj. Paul H. Fredenburgh, USA, executive officer of the 501st. After an ELAMS is airlifted into position by a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, the trailer’s sides fold down from the roof to form a contiguous floor for a large internal shelter. All of its technologies already are wired-in, including external ports for fiber for data and one 26-pair cable for telephone links.

A typical configuration for a brigade tactical operations center (TOC) consists of two ELAMS trailers—one for communications, the other for operations. A third ELAMS can serve planning needs.

For some configurations, accompanying the ELAMS are three high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) with shelters that provide secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET), nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET) and telephone links for ELAMS. One HMMWV serves as a switch, one is a radio and one provides operations support.

The switch HMMWV can handle eight links—telephones, tactical satellite and radio. The system’s servers are shipped rack-mounted with their wiring already in place, so they are ready for use immediately upon deployment. A TSC-93 provides multichannel tactical satellite links for ELAMS. Intelligence feeds are provided by Trojan Spirit, a multichannel satellite communications system.

Their inherent functionality allows ELAMS units to establish operations where no network exists. All of their capabilities, combined with single-channel tactical satellite communications and single-channel high frequency radios, give ELAMS the function of a stand-alone air-mobile tactical operations center that can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the world.


Technology Brief 

Satellite Experts Upgrade Systems

Two types of mobile satellite systems provide vital beyond-line-of-sight connectivity for the 101st Airborne Division. Yet, technologists with the division’s 501st Signal Battalion were not willing to settle for merely establishing effective orbital connectivity. These signal troops incorporated upgrades into their satellite systems that doubled the capabilities of their systems and made them twice as efficient.

Two types of multichannel satellite terminals, or MUXSATs, compose the battalion’s satellite communications assets. Three TSC-93C ground mobile force satellite terminals, which consist of two high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) with towed generators, establish multiband links with other terminals. Two others, larger TSC-85Cs, serve as hubs linked to as many as four other terminals simultaneously.

These systems received upgrades in both their antennas and their signal processing. Their 8-foot antennas received an L3 upgrade that doubled the gain of these antennas. This allowed the satellite terminals to transmit with far less power than previously required, which improves satellite connectivity. Another key improvement is the enhanced tactical satellite signal processing upgrade, known as ETSSP. This doubled the bandwidth capacity for uplinks and downlinks.

The highly portable 8-foot dishes now have the capabilities to serve the Division Main and Division Rear headquarters, which used to require the more widely used bulky 16-foot dishes. So, not only are satellite communications better, but the terminals’ capacity also is increased. Where the original TSC-93 was capable of a single satellite link, the newly upgraded version can set up two links.

Adding upgrades to existing systems is not unusual, but one aspect that sets these upgrades apart from many others is that they were implemented completely by the men and women of the 501st Signal Battalion. A civilian government communicator noted that they seamlessly performed the upgrade work without any assistance from contractor personnel. And, the newly upgraded systems performed well during the Iraq conflict.

Technology Brief 

C2 Helicopters Control Upward Mobility

An air assault brigade on the move needs airborne communications. For the 101st Airborne Division, this role can be performed by the division’s C2, for command and control, helicopters. The division has several of these aircraft, some of which have been upgraded with new technologies and capabilities.

Each C2 helicopter can serve as a jump command post that features ultrahigh frequency (UHF) radio, high frequency (HF) radio, single-channel tactical satellite links and frequency modulation (FM) communications. A typical radio configuration offers four radio stacks. Three stacks can provide FM or UHF line-of-sight (LOS) links, and one of these can establish single-channel tactical satellite links. A fourth stack is dedicated to HF radio communications. As many as 15 frequencies can be pre-set on each radio stack.

All crew members are connected by an intercom system that also allows them to talk on the different radio links being used. These crew members are chosen for the particular mission requirements. For example, should division operations require close air support, a U.S. Air Force liaison will be onboard to coordinate air strikes. A separate map station provides an easily viewed display.

The C2 helicopter is designed to fly between lead ground forces and the Division Main Headquarters. The division’s assault command post (ACP) controls its flight, and the assistant division commander for operations controls an ACP jump. A second Black Hawk helicopter may accompany the C2 helicopter to support the establishment of a ground-based jump tactical operations center (TOC) when the C2 helicopter lands. This configuration includes a small tactical satellite antenna.

In addition to serving as a flying command post that is capable of carrying the assistant division commander or even the commanding general, the C2 helicopter also can serve as an airborne communications relay station. This requires the dedication of two of the radio stacks, however.

As effective as these flying command posts may be, an upgraded version provides even more capability. The advanced airborne command and control system (A2C2S) offers a totally new configuration. It is equipped with computers that permit direct data exchange. Users can link with information technology systems such as the advanced field artillery tactical data system, or AFATDS, and other Army Battle Command System programs. These computers effectively turn the jump command post into a flying local area network, according to one officer. If the jump TOC is set up near a mobile subscriber equipment (MSE) unit, it can establish full data connectivity.

The communications suite for the A2C2S includes LOS radios such as the single channel ground airborne radio system (SINCGARS), advanced system improvement program (ASIP) and UHF HAVE QUICK II. Non-LOS links include demand assigned multiple access (DAMA), wideband radios such as the near-term digital radio (NTDR) and the enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS).