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Signaleers Hit the Digital Ground Running

November 2002
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Emphasis on training for today, planning for the future.

Rapidly changing technology, along with the high demand for well-trained communicators to support current operations, is testing the limits of the U.S. Army’s human resources and training facilities. To meet this challenge, the service is moving quickly to ensure that the people who keep communications up and running have the skills they need for the systems they will use.

Modernization and flexibility will be key contributors to getting the service’s communicators trained and into the field to help fight the war against terrorism. An initiative to provide lifelong learning opportunities began last year as the Army revamped the way it trains its signal personnel (SIGNAL, November 2001, page 45). It includes many elements—from ensuring that the U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Gordon, Augusta, Georgia, has the right classroom equipment to predicting accurately what the soldiers on tomorrow’s battlefields will need.

Brig. Gen. Janet E.A. Hicks, USA, recently became the commanding general of the Signal Center and Fort Gordon and immediately defined her focus areas. Providing soldiers with the absolute best training is her abiding responsibility, she says.

Gen. Hicks is clear about the obstacles that the Signal Center must overcome.

“One of the biggest challenges at the Signal Center is modernization in the classroom. We simply must be equipped in the schoolhouse with the same new or upgraded equipment, both government off-the-shelf and commercial off-the-shelf, being fielded to our regiment. Otherwise, our soldiers are learning things they’ll soon discard when they arrive at their first unit and replace it with on-the-job training on equipment they’ve not yet seen. It’s not right. It’s not fair to the soldier, it’s not fair to the units expecting properly trained Signal Regiment soldiers, and it’s not fair to the Signal Center as the regimental home,” the general states.

Funding is the simplest way to fix the problem, Gen. Hicks says, but the dollars are not available in the amounts the center needs. The Microwave Systems Operators/Maintainer course, which prepares soldiers to operate strategic and tactical technical control centers and tactical microwave systems, is one of the worst offenders in this regard. It currently is far behind what soldiers will see in the field, she points out.

“We’re simultaneously taking the fight to the acquisition cycle for the long-term fix. Every requirements document and fielding schedule must have schoolhouse suites of equipment up-front in the fielding schedule. That way, we’ll be able to adjust our instruction quickly and deliver current, relevant training,” Gen. Hicks says.

Having the most up-to-date equipment on hand for training is tied to another challenge the Signal Center faces: maintaining flexibility. Maj. Gen. John P. Cavanaugh, USA, Gen. Hicks’ predecessor at the Signal Center, was one of the major architects of the plan that overhauled soldiers’ training processes (SIGNAL, October 2001, page 47). Soldiers continue to receive the same core curriculum; however, they also focus on the specific systems they will see when they report to their next duty station.

Gen. Hicks supports this approach. “We want and need to be as flexible as possible in training our soldiers on the things they’ll need for the particular unit to which they’re assigned. If a soldier is going to a strategic satellite unit, let’s train to that. On the other hand, if a soldier is going to a tactical satellite unit, let’s make sure he or she gets that training instead,” she says. This assignment-oriented training results in tailored, more focused training and requires the soldier to spend less time in the training facility, which translates into quicker arrival to the unit, she adds. The Signal Center is the pilot center for this method.

The U.S. Army Personnel Command’s Enlisted Signal Branch has strongly supported this approach, and this is a major change from the way it has operated in the past, the general says. As a result, the Signal Center currently is the only school with troops in the field who have had assignment-oriented training. “As a matter of fact, they’re just about to complete their first assignments and head to different units, possibly with different training requirements. We’re joined at the hip with Signal Branch to ensure they come through the Signal Center to receive the facets of training for their new assignment that they may not have received during their first time through,” she offers.

Gen. Hicks allows that assignment-oriented training requires specialized attention, a dynamic training capability and a personal touch to ensure that the soldiers are receiving what they need. To date, the center has been able to achieve this without any major problems; however, the general says that refining assignment-oriented training will require more work.

“The Army is watching closely … so we want to capture all the lessons learned and reduce the learning curve as much as possible for our sister regiments,” she says.

This dedication to constant improvement in processes and programs is present throughout the Army and is one of its strengths, Gen. Hicks contends. The service conducts exercises then assesses and self-grades the activity to glean lessons and create after-action reports that disclose both strengths and weaknesses. “We capitalize on the strengths; we correct the weaknesses. Lives depend on it,” she emphasizes.

In the current war on terrorism and efforts in Afghanistan, the Signal Regiment is playing several roles. It must insert soldiers into the field with up-to-date training as quickly as possible. It also is directly supporting operations through the U.S. Army Forces Command and the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) by providing personnel who have specific skills.

“We have a revolving door of soldiers from Fort Gordon rotating all over the globe to support the fighting forces. This isn’t just from the Signal Center but also from the mission commanders at Fort Gordon such as those of the 93rd Signal Brigade, the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade and the Eisenhower Army Medical Center as well as others,” Gen. Hicks explains.

And the role that communicators play in every battlespace continues to grow as each functional area increases its demand for a piece of the network. “Processes are largely automated, bandwidth is, of course, in as high a demand as ever, and our sister regiments are making themselves more and more dependent on C4 [command, control, communications and computers] to move information.

“They’re also depending very heavily on reach-back capabilities to home station or technical institutions—the medical sector would be a good example of this—to bring the power of the libraries of current information to the fingertips of the deployed soldier but with a smaller footprint in the battlespace. This places an enormous dependence on the network. We must get this right,” she offers.

As the Army continues its transformation, the network the general refers to involves more than just the systems that exist today. During two recent seminar war games, she came to realize how much commanders are depending on a flawless, expansive, ubiquitous command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance network.

“This will not be easy, may not even be possible. We depend on technology to deliver some capabilities that don’t exist today. We depend on spectrum that is very precious and for which the U.S. Defense Department finds itself in heated competition with the commercial, especially wireless, sector. We depend on massive throughput, almost limitless, in the Global Information Grid by way of several Defense Department initiatives, and those initiatives are in the study stages today,” she says.

The Army also finds itself very lean in number both in the Signal units themselves and in its presence in its down-range counterparts, and it has yet to determine what is “too lean.”

Combat developers and battle laboratory teams across TRADOC are working together to address some of these questions. “It’s a weighty responsibility, but we won’t be thinking in a vacuum,” Gen. Hicks asserts.

The Army is looking to the commercial sector to help build the systems and processes it will need. “Industry has a key role in getting the future right, and not just in C4 matters. Industry and new technology are being asked to deliver things in the future that just don’t exist today. We need capabilities never before seen in C4. We need lightweight armor that protects like heavyweight armor, and that isn’t available on the shelf today,” Gen. Hicks says.

Businesses have always been a strong partner of the Defense Department, the general maintains. Today, this support also is from many of the military retirees who work for companies that support the armed forces. “Their hearts are still in it, and they’re bringing with them the capabilities of the newest technology, the deepest thinkers and the solutions of the future. In every part of the Signal Center’s work force, our industry partners are present. We couldn’t survive without them,” she says.

Despite the number of unresolved issues, it is not the challenges that keep the general awake at night but rather excitement about what is being done to continue to improve the training and the post overall.

One of the biggest changes in installation support that Gen. Hicks has seen in her 27 years in the military is the Installation Management Activity, or IMA. Army posts are moving to a location-based standard of support, and the Army is working toward standardization in post business. This approach can result in cost savings through economies of scale in support of various contracts. These funds can then be used to improve posts for both the work force and post residents.

Fort Gordon’s IMA transition year began on October 1, and it will be “a year of tweaking and refining” before finalization on October 1, 2003. “Fort Gordon plans to make IMA a five-alarm success story because IMA’s goal is to make support to our soldiers, their families and our work force the best it can be,” Gen. Hicks declares.

As the Signal Center progresses toward its goal of supporting lifelong learning and a total transformation in the training institutions, many changes will take place in how the force trains. “To literally retool training will require an up-front investment, there’s no doubt about it. But there will be a return on investment that is nearly immeasurable in its value to the Army,” Gen. Hicks states.

 

Additional information on the U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon is available on the World Wide Web at www.gordon.army.mil.