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Iraqis Advance Toward Self-Security

January 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine
E-mail About the Author

 

Staff Sgt. Thomas Cheek, USA (l), a section sergeant from A Troop, 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Advise and Assist Brigade (AAB), 3rd Infantry Division, talks to a corporal from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi Federal Police Division, during a patrol. The corporal is part of a group of policemen who lived and worked with A Troop in order to receive more in-depth training while improving the Iraqi/American partnership.

With the help of U.S. soldiers, the native population is protecting and defending its own people.

U.S. combat operations in Iraq may have come to an official end, but work in the country is far from over. U.S. troops are playing more and more supportive roles and, in some cases, acting as advisers. With the help of U.S. experts, the locals are taking over their own defense and law enforcement, putting the country on track to handle all problems internally in the near future.

The 1st Advise and Assist Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (1/3 AAB) of the U.S. Army, worked in-country from December 2009 to December 2010 to help the Iraqi army and Iraqi Federal Police improve their skills and move further down the road to full operations. Soldiers in the U.S. unit provided their Middle Eastern counterparts with oversight and suggestions because they have more experience carrying out the tasks. The Iraqis undertook all the necessary combat missions themselves while the Americans offered them different perspectives.

Though much of the advice is directed at tactical operations, occasionally the Iraqis asked for more information regarding communications technology. To help handle those questions, Maj. James Trimble, USA, brigade signal officer, and his staff stepped in. “Anything that transmits in any way, shape or form is my responsibility,” he explains.

Most of the time he worked on those assets only for the U.S. troops to ensure their equipment functioned properly, but he also aided the Iraqis as required with advice and training. According to the major, most of the equipment used by Iraqi personnel is similar to U.S. equipment, only older. In addition to offering information about the communications assets, Maj. Trimble and his team helped with the planning processes for employing the technology. “A lot of times knowing how to use the radios is not as hard as planning how to use them to assist in missions,” he says.

One task that fell outside his purview was establishing interoperability between U.S. and Iraqi equipment. When both sides transmit over the same frequency bands, they can talk, but ensuring cross-boundary communication was not a requirement.

Gaps in interoperability do not seem to be causing problems, in part because constant tie-in to the Americans might not be as important as it once was. “The success story here is really how well the Iraqis are doing,” Maj. Trimble says. “I think that’s the biggest thing we could put out to the public.” Though he admits he is somewhat unfamiliar with perceptions in the United States because of his time out of the country, he does have a different perspective than others in the brigade. Maj. Trimble took over his signal officer role last July, replacing another soldier who received a promotion and new assignment. What he walked into was a positive situation, in his opinion. “It’s amazing how big the infrastructure is and how big and confident the Iraqi army is,” he says. “They are very good at their jobs. We are, many times, just standing back and watching them protect their own country, police their own people. And I think that’s really where we need to be at this point.”

Though the Iraqis are moving toward autonomy, Maj. Trimble still faced several challenges during his time in-country. One of the biggest obstacles was the physical space in which his brigade operated. He explains that with satellite-based communications, troops were able to stay in contact over a larger area than with older point-to-point solutions, but keeping everyone connected still proved difficult. When the troop drawdown in Iraq took place, little changed for the 1/3 AAB except “we had to cover a little bit more physical area,” the major says. Brigade troops had to coordinate over a 100-mile by 100-mile section of urban terrain.

Another challenge Maj. Trimble faced was managing the expectations of his colleagues who sometimes failed to understand the communications limitations inherent in an austere environment. Part of the management included avoiding making promises. “‘Always’ and ‘never’ are two of the most dangerous words in the English language,” he says.

 

Staff Sgt. Tim Griffin, USA (l), a section leader and senior scout from A Troop, 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st AAB, 3rd Infantry Division, races a sergeant from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi Federal Police Division, to see who can disassemble and reassemble an M9 pistol the quickest during a day of training.

The physical space and expectation challenges converged in the bandwidth limitation issue. “The more spread out you are, the thinner the network is,” Maj. Trimble explains. And that thinner network means slower speeds, which in turn means that people have to wait longer for connections than they would in other situations. “[The] Internet may not react as fast as you want it to, but it’s reacting and that’s what I care about,” the major says.

He also cared about making sure troops had some method to reach out to people they must contact, whether the communication passed through the tactical Internet, telephone, radio, instant message or something else. During its time in Iraq, the brigade had four or five different layers of communications, and while Maj. Trimble preferred to have the first two layers work, as long as one of them operated he called it success. “A failure is when someone out there can’t talk to someone they need to,” he states. That, the major adds, can be a life-and-death matter.

Fortunately, technology gaps were practically nonexistent. “We are an amazingly well-outfitted force as far as communications are concerned,” Maj. Trimble says. “We have phones that work all the time. We have very good radios.” Troops stationed at established bases in Iraq especially enjoy reliable communications, and command posts that remain stationary benefit from solid technology functioning. However, Maj. Trimble warns, it will be important for communications officers to maintain the ability to keep information flowing in situations that demand a mobile command post. That, he says, is not so much of a technology gap as a possible skill set problem. “Communicating while moving is one of the most challenging things we do,” he says.

When a command post has been in place for several years, such as those around Baghdad, people tend to become comfortable with how technologies work in that location. And though the major is confident that command posts could be moved, he explains that a specific skill set is associated with the task, especially for transporting an entire brigade, and that personnel have to remain in practice.

One of the best technologies for troops in Iraq is voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) provided through a tactical network. “That’s a service that has allowed us to greatly increase voice communications through our ability to do data communications,” Maj. Trimble explains. He shares that it took him awhile to become accustomed to the idea that VoIP is now considered tactical communications. “Even 10 years ago, only radio was considered that,” he says. “Our ability to communicate has increased exponentially.”

As Maj. Trimble made preparations to turn over his role to the brigade that came in to replace his own, he had a suggestion for how the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) community could support troops. He urges those in the C4ISR realm to understand the similarities between jobs in the private sector and those in the military. Despite slightly different attire and the addition of carrying weapons, “The armed forces communications community is doing the same thing as the industry community,” the major says.

For the most part, companies seem to be paying attention. “I have extreme challenges keeping my soldiers in the Army because they’re in such high demand,” the major says. “That’s a compliment and curse at the same time.” He emphasizes that his troops are well-trained and have on-the-job experience. “I want to thank civilian organizations for hiring ... my soldiers,” he adds.

Some hiring authorities in industry may be wary about employing veterans because they are unsure what duties and functions troops performed while in service. Maj. Trimble emphasizes that these people carry out the same jobs as those in the civilian world, but with added stresses, such as combat. He says if employers see military signal experience on a resume, they should be aware that the applicants not only have relevant understanding of the communications realm but also have invaluable job experiences only available in combat zones.

WEB RESOURCES
1/3 AAB on DODLive: www.dodlive.mil/index.php/tag/1-3-aab
3rd Infantry Division on Facebook: www.facebook.com/1hbct.3id