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Linking the Farthest Shore

April 2002
By Henry S. Kenyon

How connectivity and reach-back aid U.S. combat operations.

Recent U.S. Marine Corps deployments deep into Afghanistan for operation Enduring Freedom have demonstrated the service’s growing digitalization. As troops disembarked to locations far from their amphibious ships, connectivity was maintained through a variety of mobile communications systems. On the tactical level, Marines used battlefield intranets to coordinate operations and send digital imagery to their commanders in near real time.

The landing of two Marine expeditionary units (MEUs) at Camp Rhino and the Kandahar airport in November 2001 demonstrated the Corps’ high mobility and the capability of its command, control, communications and computer (C4) systems. By deploying farther inland than ever previously attempted from amphibious support vessels, the service continues to refine its doctrine of maneuver from the sea. Mobile communications across a spectrum of systems, from satellite-based units to ultra high frequency (UHF) voice and data networks, are essential to this type of maneuver warfare.

The missions helped validate the Corps’ approach to mobile command and control while presenting new challenges. According to Maj. Paul A. Miller, USMC, expeditionary command and control (C2) systems officer, C4, U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, Washington, D.C., and Maj. Robert C. Wright, USMC, amphibious C2 systems officer, C4, U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, important lessons were learned about local atmospheric conditions and operational sustainability.

Although the high-bandwidth satellite communications systems performed as expected, there were difficulties operating UHF tactical satellite communications, which impeded C2 functions. The region of Afghanistan where Marine forces operated experiences a type of ionospheric interference known as scintillation. Soldiers on the ground noticed a pattern where UHF signals would be lost for several hours during the late evening. Maj. Wright notes that research revealed this as a localized atmospheric phenomenon.

Scintillation did not affect major systems such as the joint task force (JTF) Enabler or the Corps’ capability to connect to the defense information system network (DISN) via satellite links. But it did have a direct influence on tactical operations. “When you’re on the ground conducting missions, in most cases your two primary communications links are going to be UHF tactical satellite and high frequency (HF). Now marines were getting a gap where they had no communications on HF. That is a problem. So one lesson learned is that we are going to have to take these kinds of anomalies into consideration when planning missions,” Maj. Wright says. He observes that these events also reinforce the value of long-haul HF communications and beyond-line-of-sight C2, which were not affected by the atmospheric disturbances.

The other major lesson learned was sustainment. Marine Corps doctrine calls for MEUs to operate ashore for 15 days. The forces deployed at Camp Rhino and Kandahar remained in the field for up to twice that period. The extended stay led to a lack of spare parts for repairing equipment. Maj. Miller notes that this will be addressed in future deployments by having a resupply process in place enabling expeditionary forces’ C4 components to sustain themselves for more than 15 days.

Adequate supplies were necessary to maintain the MEU’s core C4 system, the JTF Enabler. This equipment consists of a high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV)-mounted super high frequency (SHF) antenna and hardware to transmit and receive nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET), secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) and secure voice and joint worldwide intelligence communications system signals. A full JTF Enabler complement usually consists of four vehicles and 15 marines. Once at its destination, the system can be set up within 12 hours to provide MEU commanders with the same C4 capabilities they would expect at sea, Maj. Miller says.

Although the JTF Enabler is air-mobile via C-130-type transport aircraft, it currently cannot be easily transported by the helicopters that compose an MEU’s airlift capability, Maj. Miller explains. The largest transport aircraft attached to a Marine amphibious unit is the CH-53 Sea Stallion, which cannot transport a HMMWV a great distance. The major notes that this will change with the acquisition of the MV-22 Osprey later this decade.

Once the marines are ashore, there is an evolution of communications systems as the deployed forces grow in numbers and capabilities. The first units on the ground use single channel radios such as HF and UHF satellite communications. A small suitcase-size satellite communications system also is employed for initial access to DISN. These first systems provide units with secure voice communications via satellite links and connectivity to SIPRNET. As additional forces come ashore, the systems become more robust until the JTF Enabler is set up to provide full reach-back. Maj. Miller notes that the transition was especially complicated for the Camp Rhino and Kandahar deployments because of the distances involved—more than 600 miles from the amphibious task force ships.

A solidly established shore-based communications network also allows SIPRNET access and Web-enabled file-sharing capabilities between ship- and shore-based units. Another lesson learned was the extent and value of battlefield Internet communications. Chat functions on SIPRNET are becoming a primary means of coordination among tactical units, replacing voice as the main form of communication between watch officers on ships and at shore-based commands, Maj. Miller observes.

There also has been a shift from NIPRNET- to SIPRNET-based communications. As the Marine Corps transitions to SIPRNET, it is changing the way it conducts daily business. Many administrative functions previously performed on NIPRNET such as personnel and billet information have been moved to SIPRNET for added security. “The bottom line is that the war is fought on SIPRNET,” Maj. Miller says.

One of the challenges with advance units in places like Camp Rhino and Kandahar is providing SIPRNET connectivity as soon as possible to coordinate with forces still being deployed, the major relates. Communications technology plays a vital role in maintaining the logistics chain via SHF pipes, single channel voice networks and data circuits. “We have to reach back to amphibious shipping initially to get our sustainment ashore. We do what’s referred to as on-call supply, or supply on demand. As additional parts, food and water are required, they’re requested and shipped ashore. Without the reach-back, we can’t sustain ourselves,” the major explains.

Distance played an important role in the Afghanistan deployments. Maj. Wright notes that the 600-plus-mile penetration went much farther than previously contemplated by the Marine Corps. Operational maneuver from the sea generally concentrates on littoral areas no farther than 200 miles inland, and preferably no more than 30 miles from the shore. “It’s definitely a challenge to the traditional doctrine about what MEUs and the Marine Corps can do,” he says.

Maj. Miller adds that future capabilities such as the MV-22 Osprey will make such deep missions easier to conduct. The limited range of the Corps’ fleet of aging CH-53 Sea Stallions and CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters increases deployment time because a number of forward refueling and arming bases have to be established to cover the distance. Although the CH-53s can be refueled in flight, the Corps’ primary cargo helicopter, the CH-46, cannot.

The airport at Kandahar allowed a larger base to be established with a more robust communications network than that of Camp Rhino, which is basically a dirt airstrip. However, Maj. Miller notes that the marines brought all their equipment as part of their combat doctrine and because the region has no infrastructure to support modern communications.

Both expeditionary units have since redeployed back to their amphibious groups. Maj. Wright notes that the first Marine unit into Afghanistan, the 15th MEU, was off the coast of Australia on September 11. The force deployed directly to the Arabian Sea and then to Camp Rhino without ever changing any equipment configurations. The major maintains that this flexibility is not only built into the C4 package but also throughout the entire unit so that it is always ready for immediate action.

The 15th MEU moved from its forward base at Camp Rhino to join the 26th MEU in Kandahar when Taliban forces fled the city. Both units were later relieved by elements of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. During the transition period, when the first Army units arrived, they shared the Marine communications network until signal troops brought their equipment online, providing a smooth transition from one force to another.

Maj. Miller is sanguine about the MEU’s performance in Afghanistan, noting that the Corps has lived up to the motto “any climate, any place,” by deploying JTF Enabler packages across the Middle East and Balkans. Aside from the distance and atmospherics, the only difficulties were caused by blowing sand and temperature extremes, something routinely encountered in training, he says.

The latest addition to the service’s joint communication and logistics system, the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) was not extensively used during the operation. Instead, the amphibious forces use IT-21 systems when aboard ship. Maj. Miller describes this as an SHF and satellite communications system connecting SIPRNET and NIPRNET to onboard local area networks. Although NMCI can be accessed at sea, it is not used once Marines are ashore in a tactical situation. He notes that future concepts call for NMCI to connect to tactical architectures via step sites or teleports, but none of these systems have yet been deployed.

The Corps also made extensive use of commercial technologies such as Inmarsat Mini-M portable satellite communications systems. The devices enable initial small advanced units to access DISN and coordinate with the main body of an MEU as it deploys, Maj. Wright says. A number of Iridium satellite telephones also were used successfully to provide secure handset capabilities.

Maj. Miller observes that, compared to the Gulf War, this is among the Corps’ first fully digitized deployments, noting that smaller units are more connected through the extensive use of chat functions on SIPRNET. Another important new feature has been the use of imagery collection. Marine reconnaissance teams can now take digital photographs and send the images back to headquarters via AN/PSC-5, HF, single channel radio or telnet. This ability has increased commanders’ situational awareness on the battlefield and brings digitization down to the tactical level, he says.