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Air Force Communicators Move Faster Lighter

September 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Special forces operate early, effectively in operation Enduring Freedom.

Smaller proved to be better for U.S. Air Force special operations forces that were inserted into Afghanistan. The smaller aspect was in the reduced communications footprint that allowed small teams to quickly begin operations in remote hostile territory. The better element was the advanced communications and situational awareness capabilities that were established well before the entry of conventional forces.

Communications experts are embedded in Air Force special operations forces’ teams. Their role in Afghanistan focused on establishing a digital beachhead in that mountainous country both to enable special operations forces to carry out their missions and to support the conventional land and air strikes that eventually helped topple the Taliban government and drive al Qaida from its sanctuaries. In many cases, these Air Force teams represented the only U.S. communications capabilities for several months at remote locations in four countries.

Col. Michael E. DeHart, USAF, director of communications and information at Headquarters Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), Hurlburt Field, Florida, says that two elements were key to the success of Air Force special operations forces. The first is the rapid response that allowed AFSOC to insert its forces into the theater. In many locations, the Air Force special operations personnel and their communications systems were the first U.S. forces on the ground. As soon as these forces were on the ground, they were able to establish communications connectivity.

The second element was the evolution of this communications gear, particularly in size reduction. Over the years, many previously bulky systems have been shrunk to sizes and weights that can be managed by individuals. With the Air Force’s communications systems now having a smaller footprint, special forces can insert and establish needed capabilities in theater much faster.

Lt. Col. Robert Steele, USAF, deputy director of communications and information at Headquarters AFSOC, served in Afghanistan. He notes that the units that performed well were those that had entered early and achieved operational readiness quickly. AFSOC was able to deploy with fewer people and less gear.

“We look for the easiest thing we can put in someone’s hand who will be the first on the ground before anyone else gets there,” he says. “That is our SOF [special operations forces] challenge.”

Col. DeHart says that while Afghanistan has illustrated the value of smaller, lighter and leaner communications, a fourth characteristic that needs to be pursued is scalability. “We need to be able to go out with as small a package as possible and if necessary grow it,” he declares. “We will continue to look at ways of downsizing the footprint and continue to provide an equivalent amount of capability wherever possible.”

The old tri-service tactical communications system, for example, was deployed in vans, trailers and shelters. Col. DeHart states that the Air Force largely has left that legacy for communications that do not require vans or shelters. Most of the gear deployed in Afghanistan was shipped in suitcases or transit cases, which can be palletized easily and carried by two people in the field. Other systems effectively have replaced 16- and 32-foot dish antennas with 2.4-meter (8-foot) dishes.

One system the service relied on heavily was the Theater Deployable Communications system, or TDC. Its original super high frequency (SHF) satellite antenna was designed for mounting atop a shelter, but AFSOC opted instead for a version that can be transported in transit cases. This reduced the amount of needed equipment by one pallet, Col. DeHart relates. He describes TDC as “absolutely critical” to the ability of the expeditionary Air Force to project and execute the concept of global reach.

Still, even the newly slimmed-down TDC did not meet the requirements for something smaller. AFSOC developed a concept known as ICE, for initial communications element. Col. DeHart describes it as an even further downsized SHF tactical communications system and terminal. ICE reduced the amount of equipment needed for the theater by almost half, even compared to the gear in transit cases. AFSOC developed an ICE combat mission statement within a month of deployment to Afghanistan. With a rapid approval for $8 million in funding, the command received eight ICE systems in four months.

Col. Steele relates that the early-deployed AFSOC personnel also entered the theater with excellent crash-out communications. This equipment is used when the primary systems are absent or are not yet fully in theater. Personnel in Afghanistan made effective use of secure Iridium satellite telephones, and Col. Steele notes that these units permitted the first secure calls from AFSOC forces on the ground. The security sleeve is a relatively new addition to the Iridium line, and while AFSOC did not have many of the security satellite telephones, they worked much better than their predecessors, Col. DeHart adds.

Another useful crash-out system was Inmarsat M-4, which AFSOC packaged with equipment that enabled secure voice and data communications. Standard ultrahigh frequency (UHF) tactical satellite systems, along with multiband interteam radios and multiband multimode radios, add up to a fairly robust crash-out capability, he states. This capability is complemented by conventional satellite systems that arrive later to provide effective networking in theater.

Many of the initial AFSOC forces in Afghanistan were deployed for combat search and rescue. The highly successful air campaign could not start until these AFSOC assets were in place ready to aid any downed pilots, Col. DeHart relates. This required operational command, control and communications before the first air attacks were launched.

The Air Force’s primary system for executing warfighting, the computer battle management core system, also saw action. This system, which replaces the contingency theater air planning system (CTAPS), includes a module used for developing the air tasking orders. It helped synchronize the air order of battle to ensure that the special operations forces air power was integrated into the conventional air attack forces.

Col. DeHart notes that AFSOC also introduced its blue force tracking system into its situational awareness efforts. Currently migrating into the special operations arena, this system consolidates data from several different position location devices equipping ground personnel and varied aircraft. Data in operation Enduring Freedom was provided to the command and control element, where commanders could view a picture that included the type of source, its position, its relative motion and possibly an identifier. This information was integrated at the theater level. Col. Steele confirms that, while this system was highly effective in generating a common situational awareness picture at the tactical headquarters, there still is no way to move that picture back to the individuals in the field.

The secure Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) is being driven down to lower operational levels than ever before—almost down to the team level, Col. DeHart offers. He describes it as almost ubiquitous across the entire area of operations. Concurrently videoconferencing is “running a parallel race with SIPRNET.” Secure videoconferencing is used heavily, he maintains, with commanders, operators and functional support areas booking it almost 24 hours a day. Accordingly, AFSOC is looking to provide these services in the future. And, as Col. Steele emphasizes, this will require smaller, lighter and leaner videoconferencing suites and secure voice systems.

The biggest challenge AFSOC faced in Afghanistan was the operational environment, Col. DeHart offers. Heat and cold extremes played havoc with electronics technologies. One of the biggest hazards was the fine dust that seemed omnipresent throughout Afghanistan. Commonplace technologies such as floppy disks and hard drives often fell prey to the fine particles. Col. Steele relates that the average life expectancy of a floppy disk drive in Afghanistan, even at the Khandahar airport, was three uses. A metal barrel used for burning material to keep warm became a floppy disk crematorium as the disks quickly became fouled by the dust.

This exigency led to some new approaches for information storage and transfers. Personnel quickly realized that nonmechanical storage equipment such as Personal Computer Memory Card Interface Association (PC-MCIA) cards and universal serial bus (USB) devices were not susceptible to dust. After some trial and error, these solid-state technologies became the storage media of choice in Afghanistan.

One solution came from a coalition member’s special operations unit. Forces from this other nation introduced the AFSOC personnel to a USB memory device. Col. Steele describes this as a keychain-type device that plugs into the USB port in a computer. The screen display identifies this USB keychain as another storage drive. The commercial off-the-shelf system has no moving parts, which dramatically increased its chances for survival in the dusty environment.

Col. Steele relates that the closeness of the allied special operations forces community allowed for easier planning for the hastily formed coalition in Afghanistan. Building on existing relationships, these multinational personnel were able to work out interoperability issues and forge common tactics, techniques and procedures.

The colonel continues that many joint and combined exercises allow allied special operations forces to train together. This helps each group familiarize itself with its counterparts as well as their technologies. This proved to be a key enabler for AFSOC in Afghanistan, he adds.

Another challenge was to maintain communications security among the remote forward-deployed special operations teams. Col. DeHart notes that it took some time for the existing U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) communications security resupply point to adjust to the additional forces entering the theater. AFSOC literally had to use aircraft to resupply teams with communications security materiel.

Communications problems that plagued other forces in Afghanistan largely were absent with AFSOC personnel, the colonel notes. The problems of using high frequency radio in mountainous terrain never arose with AFSOC because its primary communications used satellite links, even for aircraft.

Col. Steele notes that AFSOC team members include good communicators, and they know how to maximize radio links and avoid poor communications situations such as trying to radio someone from a tight valley. “As they operated, they knew that radio waves don’t go through mountains, and they worked around that pretty well,” he explains. “They also had a pretty good idea where the satellites were in the sky.”

Col. DeHart emphasizes the importance of satellite communications to AFSOC operations in theater. “If you were to go to some of our locations, you would see satellite dishes growing like mushrooms. Communications, command and control, intelligence and surveillance capabilities—satellite communications is one of those asymmetric capabilities that we bring to the fight in a big way,” he says.

The classic problem of insufficient bandwidth did not strike AFSOC in Afghanistan, Col. DeHart offers. While managing bandwidth did pose a challenge to CENTCOM, “We pretty much got what we needed,” he says. AFSOC basically was the first command into about half a dozen locations in Afghanistan, so it was ahead of the other conventional forces in lining up for bandwidth. Even as the demand steadily increased, AFSOC still did not lack for needed bandwidth. Col. Steele credits this in part to “smart decisions made, architecture-wise,” that integrated special operations forces with their conventional counterparts in services. Sharing services at common locations maximized bandwidth efficiency.

“We used the full array of our communications arsenal for everything from imagery to situational awareness to command and control,” Col. Steele relates. “Because of that, we could use anything and everything we needed.”

Neither was interoperability among U.S. forces a problem, Col. DeHart maintains. AFSOC’s information systems could communicate with U.S. Army and U.S. Navy special operations forces without any difficulties.

Some interoperability problems did arise with special forces from the coalition partners. Col. Steele relates that AFSOC was able to work out potential incompatibilities by examining the needs of each mission during planning. The Joint Special Operations Task Force undertook this careful planning mission-by-mission, so planners knew the requirements and prepared in advance. Elements such as types of radio equipment, frequencies, call signs and keying material were established well before a mission began.