Complexity, Flexibility Enable Air Assault Network

June 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Communications personnel configure multiple nodes and technologies for a dynamic airborne force.

The battlespace network trialed in the woods of Kentucky and grown from the sands of Kuwait provided the necessary connectivity for the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) to strike deep into Iraq. Not all of the assets assembled and deployed by the division’s 501st Signal Battalion were exploited to their fullest, and some proved more important than originally envisioned. Yet, the network linked the air assault division as its location and mission changed with the flow of battle.

Reality normally trumps theory, but in this case, reality followed theory fairly closely. The network configured by the 501st performed largely as designed. This despite the fact that, according to the signal battalion’s commander, the 101st completed the longest air assault in history—more than 250 miles into Iraq.

Lt. Col. Michelle Walla, USA, is the commander of the 501st Signal Battalion. She also serves as the 101st’s assistant chief of staff for information management, G-6. It was her task to ensure that battalion personnel built and maintained the complex information system designed to serve the 101st as it struck enemy forces in operation Iraqi Freedom.

The first step in establishing this network was to build it in the Kuwait desert before the 101st jumped into Iraq. Gathering the pieces of each system was a painstaking process, as much of the 501st’s equipment was scattered aboard several ships making their way to the theater from the United States. Accordingly, different elements were assembled in the order of their arrival.

This provided challenges that required decisions with far-reaching effects. The communications equipment did not arrive in unit order. One brigade might receive half of its needed gear, while another brigade would receive the complementary half of its own equipment. The result could be two brigades that possess reciprocal gear but lack complete communications connectivity.

This forced Col. Walla to consolidate equipment from various sources. Instead of building the network piecemeal as each segment of equipment arrived at its assigned unit, the colonel matched elements to ensure that completion took priority over assignment. Equipment was redirected from assigned units to others that were closer to establishing complete network nodes. For example, the 101st’s 3rd Brigade was the first to jump into Iraq. When this lead brigade moved, it had all of its needed communications connectivity.

At the onset of operations, Col. Walla emphasized to her forces that this network creation differed little from what the battalion had accomplished repeatedly in exercises stateside. In fact, her forces tended to train more realistically than other Army units, she contended. Where many other forces can simulate some of their activities, the signal battalion had to create a live, active network in its exercises. “You cannot simulate a dial tone,” she points out when comparing the work her battalion performs. Among her many instructions to the force was to build the network as it had been built many times before. This was not a new endeavor; rather, it was a new setting for the type of work that the 501st has performed often.

The first aspect of the network built in the Kuwait desert was a node center. Through this construct, line-of-sight (LOS) links could be established with other elements in the vicinity, including the Division Main Headquarters. As equipment arrived from ships docking in Kuwait City, other node centers were established, and more aspects of the network were added as it took shape prior to the drive into Iraq.

Among the goals of this desert dry run was to trouble-shoot the network’s hardware and architecture; and, as expected, this proved invaluable. Some pieces of hardware failed and required replacement. Others malfunctioned, and resident experts—both military and civilian—were able to fix the difficulties and return the problem units to full operation. In some cases, the network architecture needed tweaking to ensure the functionality required by each element of the division.

These minor adjustments continued right up to the division’s jump. Several days before that part of the operation, the 501st began carefully breaking down the network and physically parceling out its elements to the appropriate units. This was accomplished while the network remained up and running—the division could not afford the luxury of putting its entire network into a pause mode for reconfiguring.

After the jump, Col. Walla cited three communications assets as being most important to the battalion’s—and the division’s—success: single-channel tactical satellite (TACSAT) radios, multichannel satellite terminals (MUXSATs) with mobile subscriber equipment (MSE) switches, and Blue Force Tracking terminals.

Two different radios largely provided single-channel ultrahigh frequency TACSAT links. These were the AN/PSC-5 and the AN/PSC-7. In addition to the normal division allocations of these manportable systems, the signal battalion maintained a number of its own units for mission- and situation-specific distribution.

The MUXSATs provided long-haul range extension for the division’s MSE network (see page 20). They enabled extending the vital MSE network to virtually any corner of the battlefield, even when a unit was some distance from the rest of the division. During the war, the colonel described the MSE network as “holding its own … doing great.”

The Blue Force Tracking terminals helped reduce fratricide casualties by providing satellite-based situational awareness of allied forces on the move in Iraq. While not every vehicle was equipped with these terminals, the vehicles that were equipped gave commanders a view of the general location of friendly forces. Not only does this reduce the possibility of an attack on an allied formation, it also supplies vital location data on forces on the move—an important aspect of command and control for an air assault division.

Because the tip of the spear for the 101st Airborne Division—its 3rd Brigade—was the first to deploy into Iraq, its communications suite was the first to be broken down and transitioned fully to it. This consisted of a force entry switch (FES), a small extension node (SEN) and a MUXSAT.

The other early entrant into Iraq was the division’s assault command post (ACP). In addition to taking in an FES, a SEN and a MUXSAT, this element jumped with an enhanced lightweight air-mobile modular shelter system (ELAMS) and a C2 (for command and control) aircraft (see pages 19 and 21). The aircraft served as a key communications element both for controlling the brigade and for maintaining links with the Division Main Headquarters back at Camp New Jersey in Kuwait. Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, USA, commanding general of the 101st, made use of this helicopter as an airborne command post during the 3rd Brigade’s thrust into Iraq.

While many of the division’s communications assets were capable of helicopter deployment, most of them actually moved into Iraq via ground assault convoy, or GAC. The 501st’s system control center (SYSCON), which effectively served as the battalion’s tactical operations center (TOC), took the land route into Iraq. Dozens of vehicles formed a GAC that took the communicators more than 250 miles to a forward operations base near Razzaza Lake west of Karbala. Planning for this GAC included arranging plastic bottle caps—each representing a vehicle and bearing the names of their riders—in a large sandbox to formalize the order of the vehicles. Other logistics details included stationing a vehicle at each directional marker on the GAC route to prevent Iraqi irregular forces from changing the markers to redirect the convoy into an ambush.

The overland journey, which took the better part of two days, included resupply stops at two points along the way, code-named Exxon and Shell. In addition to the 501st’s SYSCON, the 101st’s Division Main Headquarters also broke down and moved to co-locate with the SYSCON. Battalion officials relate that the GAC went relatively smoothly. The last part of the battalion to move into Iraq was the administrative and logistical operations center, or ALOC.

Over the first 14 days of the deployment in Iraq, the 501st’s SYSCON jumped twice, and the division’s TOCs moved repeatedly, Col. Walla reports. Calling this the toughest part of the deployment, she relates that eight TOCs were repositioned 23 times during that period.

Nonetheless, the nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET), the secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) and the Defense Switched Network all worked well, the colonel says. The battalion kept pace with its MSE network, being “creative and proactive” on where it established its signal nodes, she adds.

“My communicators are getting better and better at doing their craft. I call it that because it really is a craft—not just simply 0s and 1s meeting in the air,” she warrants.

One of her own roles was to “stay at the elbow of the commanding general” in establishing these nodes. The colonel found that she needed to anticipate the general’s moves so that she could have the battalion’s signal nodes in place as the division came forward. This proved vital to maintaining the connectivity that the 101st required as it employed its air assault capabilities.

“It is critical that the G-6/signal battalion commander knows exactly the intent of the division commander,” she declares.

As the fight heated up, Gen. Petraeus eschewed use of the C2 helicopter in favor of ground transport. The helicopter’s main advantage lies in its ability to connect dispersed assets. After the division made the long jump into Iraq, the fight was fairly close in. This removed the need to command and control from an airborne platform. In addition, the general opted to use his own HMMWV extensively so that he could be with his brigade commanders during combat.

Some brigade commanders did use the C2 helicopter on selected missions. And, the 101st Aviation Brigade commander made extensive use of the advanced airborne command and control system (A2C2S) helicopter, which featured more advanced datalink capabilities.