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When Capabilities and Support Mean Life or Death

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

 

Platoon Sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Frank Reddish, USA, of 1st Platoon, Able Company, 1st Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment (1-27 IN), leads his platoon in clearing a known enemy mortar position prior to the change of command ceremony between the 3rd and 4th infantry divisions.

Warfighters in theater right now explain what they need and why.

Members of the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team need better communications. Though they feel positive about their mission progress and the abilities of the Iraqis, the soldiers face constant frustration with the status of their information-sharing equipment. Obtaining sufficient support once tools are delivered is an aggravation as well. For troops covering a large geographical area, the “dump it and get out of there” mentality of some providers can result in problems for those who remain behind.

Lt. Col. Donald Brown, USA, the battalion commander, explains field service representatives (FSRs) often fail to do his soldiers any favors. The battalion is far from its higher headquarters, so determining how to transport FSRs to its location is a challenge in itself, especially because the land that must be covered is dangerous to traverse. Once troops have the specialized equipment and the instructions to use it, if a piece breaks, soldiers have to figure out what happened and find a way to fly the damaged items out of the area. After that, they must locate the right parts—which probably are in Afghanistan, Col. Brown says—move them from there to the unit’s location, and start again.

Capt. Chris McCoy, USA, the battalion’s signal officer, shares his frustrations about systems that come with restrictions on who can use them and how much users can know about the technology. “I understand this is what it takes, but we’re trying to fight a war,” he states. Because of the way systems that the soldiers employ are fielded, certain civilians must travel to the posts to explain how the equipment operates. “As soon as they leave, we’re troubleshooting,” Capt. McCoy states.

Some FSRs are good at coordinating when and where they will be available, but others “just show up on your doorstep,” the captain says. The unit needs their help and expertise, but often when they leave, the soldiers have no idea when they might return. The captain believes the members of the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) community should “quit pushing so far ahead and fix what they have now.”

The battalion has been in Iraq since last summer and will rotate out this summer, serving a 12-month deployment. Since their time in country, the soldiers have identified several issues with their communications systems, even with the ones that work well. Col. Brown says that most of the time the soldiers rely on Blue Force Tracking secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNet) messaging for long-range communications. “There is an unknown amount of latency built into that system,” he explains. “That is, when you hit send you don’t know how long it will take that message to get through.” No automatic delivery receipts are available either, so users send out messages then must rely on other modes of communications to ensure they arrive.

Military technology often causes issues on the battlefield that commercial capabilities can overcome. “I could go to downtown Tikrit, spend 20 bucks on a cheap Iraqi phone and call my wife in Hawaii real time,” Col. Brown states. “But I can’t talk on a secure network with someone halfway across my province without the stars aligning.” And the in-country communications issues come not from inexpensive devices but from multimillion-dollar Strykers equipped with entire suites of systems. The problems with communications are a serious source of vexation for the unit, and one that its officers emphasize. “It shouldn’t be that hard,” Col. Brown says, adding that as the commander of a Stryker battalion in the best Army in the world, he lacks the same capabilities as 10-year-old children with iPhones.

 

Alpha Company secures a helicopter landing zone awaiting the arrival of Col. Malcolm Frost, USA, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division Brigade, on Contingency Operating Base Speicher.

Col. Brown says that he wants developers to create for the Army a cell-phone-size device that can communicate via line of sight and can send pictures and videos back and forth “just like every Iraqi civilian and teenager in America can do.” He also wants a battery he can recharge in his vehicle that could last for approximately two days at a time. If they can deliver that, “I’ll be as happy as a clam,” he says.

The unit also has requests for radio communications. The colonel would like to receive simple, light radios that run for a long time on basic batteries and offer encrypted and unencrypted FM line of sight as well as satellite and UHF communications. Capt. McCoy explains that currently troops have to obtain specific systems from the people who run the platforms to access the right encryption.

The various encryption restrictions often make it difficult for warfighters to call in ISR support. Sometimes those assets may be broadcasting on a closed system that the battalion cannot access. This makes carrying out combined or joint operations difficult. Partners might be looking at different feeds, or in some cases one group might not see anything at all. Trying to relay that information via systems with latency issues to forces 40 to 50 kilometers away can prevent them from making informed decisions.

The captain also speaks about another big gap that Stryker battalions face—an inability to provide digital communications to lower levels of command. He says the only way he can offer those organically is with the Ku-band satellite trailer, which typically remains with battalion-level soldiers. He employs a broadband connection often as a workaround, but that is sometimes impossible because of the amount of space the unit has to cover. The battalion is responsible for approximately two-thirds of a province in northern Iraq.

To put that into perspective, an entire infantry brigade—which generally has thousands more soldiers than a battalion—previously covered the area. It takes members of the battalion two-and-a-half to three hours by ground to reach the northern edge of their area of responsibility and several hours to reach the next U.S. combat post. Col. Brown believes people might not appreciate the distances involved, explaining that his soldiers routinely operate and communicate across distances spanning 100 kilometers or more. They also regularly have platoon-size elements half that distance from higher headquarters and other ground assets.

All this travel and coordination is carried out in a hostile, dangerous area. Before the interview for this article, the unit already had suffered multiple causalities, including two fatalities. Shortly after the interview, it lost another young sergeant. These warfighters want better communications to save their lives. Col. Brown explains that communications are critical because when a significant kinetic event occurs more than 100 kilometers away from other ground assets, the inability to communicate quickly and effectively means “things can go south in a hurry.”

Maj. Frank Baltazar, USA, the battalion’s executive officer, sums up what the soldiers would like to see in their hands, saying they are looking for a multirole radio that would replace the many different systems so troops no longer have to manage the multiple parts in each radio. Capt. McCoy says the unit has done well with the Harris Falcon III AN/PRC-152 radio, which has satellite and FM capabilities and is small.

The officers’ assessments of what they could use is not the limited viewpoint of only a few months in theater. Col. Brown is on his third deployment in Iraq; Maj. Baltazar and Capt. McCoy are both on their second. And despite all their challenges, they see great progress and success from their own troops and Iraqi forces. Commenting on changes after the troop drawdown, Col. Brown says, “It’s an incredibly interesting mission now, very challenging. In some respects nothing has changed, and in some respects, everything has changed.”

One alteration is the switch from full-spectrum operations to stability operations. The colonel notes that Iraq is, and has been for some time, a sovereign nation. U.S. forces enable what the Iraqis do, focusing on capacity and capability building in the Iraqi government and security forces. “That being said, there is still a significant lethal threat in Iraq,” Col. Brown says, adding that the rules of engagement remain in effect and soldiers must defend themselves. He also explains that the soldiers are still involved in operations designed to kill and capture enemy combatants and that these missions are worked through the Iraqis.

The drawdown also changed what remaining troops can accomplish. “There are quite a few things that Americans were doing in the past that we quite simply can’t do anymore,” Col. Brown explains. “We have to be select in where we can have the biggest impact and make the biggest difference.”

Threat levels remain the same as before, according to the colonel, but the risk in remote areas has increased because troops operating in those locations now are much farther away from support. In addition, assets in the country have been greatly reduced, so each time a group rolls out it has to consider what ISR and medical evacuation will be available. “You could find yourself on the other side of the Tigris with no way back,” Col. Brown says.

The soldiers employ several ISR platforms, and Capt. McCoy says they rely on beyond-line-of-sight communications because of the distributed nature of the battlespace. When the primary means of communicating, Blue Force Tracking SIPRNet messages, falls short, the warfighters use satellite communication as a backup and Iraqi, civilian, nonsecure telephones as the tertiary means of passing information.

Landline-wise between nodes, the unit has voice over Internet protocol and terrestrial SIPRNet and nonsecure Internet protocol router network, or NIPRNet, communications as well as commercial lines. Soldiers also employ a suite of mapping technologies and other specialty capabilities. Capt. McCoy says most of the technology used relates to communications or situational awareness across the battlefield. Through various capabilities, the unit trains and coordinates with the Iraqis including the Iraqi Army and Iraqi police, though not the federal police. Instead, they operate with a cadre focused on counterterrorism. Many of the Iraqis in the province are part of emergency response units.

The only line of communication between northern and southern Iraq runs right through the battalion’s area of operations, so securing that and fighting threats that would attack U.S. forces moving on it are part of the unit’s responsibility. Soldiers also have to contend with Sunni political issues that play out kinetically. Because the area contains only Sunnis, the troops do not face any Sunni-Shia problems.

In addition to the other challenges the unit faces with communications, it has to find ways to interoperate with special operations forces. Because those troops use closed networks, other groups lack the resources to pass information on the same level. Capt. McCoy says some situations come down to a soldier having a telephone on each ear and passing the information from the speaker on one line to the listener on the other.

Sharing command and control with the Iraqis also poses problems. Col. Brown explains that sometimes coordination means that he borrows an Iraqi radio and has his interpreter relay information over it or through a cell phone. To obtain a signal for the latter, other equipment has to be turned off. In other situations, an emergency response unit commander will have to crawl into the Stryker to view ISR feeds and then yell the relevant information into a nonsecure radio or cell phone to those forces elsewhere on the battlefield.

Trying to use Iraqi resources can be even more difficult, especially when U.S. troops operate in high-tech Strykers and their counterparts have high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles, commonly called humvees, or even civilian pickup trucks. “It’s a fairly significant undertaking to assist them in command and control and to try to show them what life could look like and know that they don’t have the technology and probably won’t for quite some time,” Col. Brown says.

However, he has no concerns about the native population’s abilities to carry out its missions. “The Iraqis will do just fine, quite frankly,” Col. Brown states. He says their operations will be different than U.S. operations, but they will be accomplished. “I have complete confidence in all the Iraqis that I interact with that they will find a way to make it happen. There will be struggles. There will be issues. But there are issues and struggles in the American army every day, and we do just fine.”

In fact, Col. Brown says the mission itself has gone very well. He stresses that there are many skilled, confident Iraqis who care about their country and their future. “They’re doing things the Iraqi way, and we’re trying to build on their strengths and train them to be better in what we identify as weaknesses,” he explains. “They’re good people, and they’re really trying to move their country in the right direction. The colonel also says the U.S. soldiers are “doing a damn good job.”

WEB RESOURCE
1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment: www.25idl.army.mil/1_27WelcomeLetter.html