Combat Communicators Bust Paradigms

January 2011
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Magazine
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Specialist Newton Carlicci, USA, travels dismounted while returning to his outpost from the village of Paspajak, Charkh District, Logar province, Afghanistan. The complexities of coalition communication in Afghanistan are leading military forces to change existing paradigms.

Afghanistan alters some fundamentals of battlefield communications.

The complexities of communications in Afghanistan require the military to adopt new ways of doing business, such as creating the Afghan Mission Network rather than using traditional networks, and turning communicators into warfighters rather than mere supporters. The Afghan Mission Network directly addresses the military’s operational need to mix coalition forces down to the company level, which provides commanders with greater flexibility in task organization and the ability to fight more effectively as a true coalition. That seemingly simple need has sparked a chain of events that may change forever the way coalition forces communicate on the battlefield and the role that communicators play in wartime.

The previous coalition norm was based on two fundamental facts: that only U.S. commanders could command U.S. forces and that the U.S. military only fought using the secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) as the communications backbone. The net effect of those two mandates was the creation of a U.S.-only battlespace and an adjacent coalition battlespace, according to Brig. Gen. Brian Donahue, USA, director/J-6, command, control, communications and computers (C4), U.S. Central Command.

In Afghanistan, the military needed greater flexibility in organizing tasks for the coalition, which meant it needed to mix various national coalition troops. But those basic mandates initially stood in the way. “The problem was that we had some formations that were willing and politically able to fight. There were some that were willing but not politically able, and some that were not willing nor able,” Gen. Donahue says. The first obstacle proved fairly easy to breach. The military quickly received permission from the U.S. leadership to mix U.S. and coalition forces.

The SIPRNET issue proved more difficult. Afghanistan is divided into several geographical regions. Each area is under the control of a regional commander; some from the U.S. military, some from other countries. The former commander of Regional Command–South was a two-star British general, who was given command of some U.S. units. Those units had access to SIPRNET. The commander, however, did not. And not even U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had the power to grant him access because SIPRNET access is controlled by a number of factors, including treaties negotiated by the U.S. State Department.

But the issues with SIPRNET went beyond granting access, Gen. Donahue explains. “The same standards that are applied to SIPRNET in my office in my garrison location are, in theory, expected to be complied with in a tactical environment. That’s an—uh—interesting proposition,” he states.

In addition, the military operates up to 30 networks in Afghanistan. The number fluctuates based on the actual task organization that exists on any given day. Most of the networks belong to the individual U.S. military services and intelligence agencies. Others belong to NATO and to various coalition partners, with the British, Canadian and Italian networks among the most prominent. But no single commander has access to, or control over, all networks.

The solution was to create the Afghan Mission Network, which is capable of handling secret information. The 30 networks feed information to, and pull information from, the Afghan Mission Network, which gives the regional commanders greater control over battlefield information and greater flexibility to use the forces under their command. The previous coalition network norm provided communications between the U.S. and coalition battlespaces, but the Afghan Mission Network provides a means to fight a true coalition fight in a true coalition battlespace. “We have now split that paradigm. The main level of effort with this new norm will in fact be the coalition network,” Gen. Donahue asserts. “The max demand, the greatest demand, highest level of effort—however you want to characterize it—will be on the mission network.”

But busting paradigms is a complex business. The military has eight critical mission function areas in Afghanistan that are being moved to the coalition network—joint battlespace management, joint fires, counter-improvised explosive device, freedom of maneuver, force protection, medical evacuation, a generic catch-all called combat applications, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

“To move the fight to the coalition network required the movement of the eight critical mission functions—where the fight is fought—to the coalition network. To move the critical mission functions, you must move the applications that enable those functions. To move the applications, you must move the information that populates the applications,” Gen. Donahue explains. “This is the Afghan Mission Network—a means to fight a coalition fight with a tailored task organization of U.S. and coalition forces to realize the true potential of a coalition force.”


A German soldier operates a Luna aerial reconnaissance and surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Mazar-e-Sarif, Afghanistan. In 2002, only a couple of Predator UAVs flew over the entire country of Afghanistan. Now, Predators are only one of many intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets flying over the country daily.

Some critical mission functions are more difficult to move than others. ISR, for example, is more complex because it affects other mission areas and because it brings with it a complicated architecture. In 2002, Gen. Donahue says, only a couple of Predator unmanned aircraft were flying over all of Afghanistan. Now, closer to 20 different types of ISR systems—with multiple platforms of each system—fly over the country every day. Most of the platforms have direct downlinks to soldiers on the ground. Some send data back to the continental United States, where it then is pushed back to forces in Afghanistan, and other systems send data to Europe. “That’s an extremely complicated architecture that has been tailored significantly over the last eight years as the ISR mission thread has evolved with the campaign. You can’t underestimate the degree of tailoring that has to occur,” the general explains.

For the Afghan Mission Network to succeed, the military also had to shuck another norm—to transition from a Cold-War-era, need-to-know basis for sharing data to a need-to-share/right-for-release process. That need to share data with coalition partners drove the military to identify and begin working through the more than 400 obstacles to sharing information.

Those obstacles fall into three categories: technical; policy and cultural; and tactics, techniques and procedures. “I was fully expecting a lot of technical and policy obstacles. It turns out the problem was with tactics, techniques and procedures. When you combine that with the fact that 90 percent of the intelligence is generated from U.S. resources, that meant the intelligence community also had to change the way it did business to effectively breach the majority of information-sharing obstacles,” Gen. Donahue explains.

The Afghan Mission Network is past initial operational capability and is expected to reach full operational capability before February. It has more than 50,000 users and is fed primarily by four networks owned by the United States, United Kingdom, Italy and Canada. Creating the network likely will influence how coalition forces communicate in the future. “This will simplify things for the next fight. The transition was extremely complicated in Afghanistan because we identified a problem that could only be fixed by moving to the Afghan Mission Network, and we had to transition while continuing to enable the fight. They weren’t going to give us a pause while we adjusted to a new framework,” Gen. Donahue says. “From a Central Command perspective, this is the new coalition norm.”

He insists, though, that the coalition network will in no way replace SIPRNET, because some information will always be releasable only to U.S. forces. “SIPRNET will not go away because there are still functions and activities that can only reside on U.S. SIPRNET. But the level of effort on SIPRNET will go down,” Gen. Donahue says.

The complexity of communicating in Afghanistan also has led the Signal Corps to take on new responsibilities and to have a greater impact on the battlefield. The Army Signal Corps traditionally has been seen as a combat support function (SIGNAL Magazine, June 2010, Its role, simply put, has been to establish communications and ensure the systems keep working. With the increased emphasis on cyber operations and the digitized battlefield, however, that role has been expanded and elevated in prominence to the point where signal officers no longer can see themselves as mere supporters to the warfighter, according to Gen. Donahue. “If you think a signal commander or signal officer is not a warfighter, you’ve never been to Afghanistan.”

Three regional commanders—a U.S. Army division commander, a U.S. Marine expeditionary force commander, and a German division commander—placed their G-6 officers or C4 directors in charge of network operations. One British two-star commander, who has no division G-6, chose his expeditionary signal battalion commander to lead network operations. Each network operations lead has the regional commander’s authority to operate on his behalf. “If you are the network operations element lead, that means you have the authority of that regional commander for all U.S. C4, U.S. ISR and coalition network resources,” Gen. Donahue says. In the region under the command of the German officer, a U.S. expeditionary signal battalion commander is responsible for U.S.-controlled command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), but not the coalition piece, he adds.

The role of network operations element lead is no great stretch for the G-6 officers, but it is a major change for the expeditionary signal battalion commanders. “It was an about-face and double-time for the expeditionary signal commanders, who had to adjust to take on that role,” Gen. Donahue explains.

Also of note, he says, is that the 25th Signal Battalion, which is a strategic-level battalion and does not normally become involved in day-to-day combat operations or have a direct effect at the tactical level, has changed its mission description. “They had to significantly change the way they did business because they have one company in direct support of each regional commander. And if that battalion’s focus is at the combined/joint operations area level, if that regional commander owns everything in his battlespace, you have a strategic company contributing to that battlespace.”

The Signal Corps is more involved in the fight in other ways as well. Network operators now are responsible for ensuring, for example, that a network failure does not lead to a slow response for medical evacuation or close air support. They have a more direct operational impact on the critical mission functions, and their effect is just as profound as the individual providing indirect fires, or performing other more traditional combat missions, Gen. Donahue explains. “It’s no longer just support to the warfighter. We are the warfighter in this cyber domain. We’re as much a warfighter as anyone else these days.”

U.S. Central Command:
International Security Assistance Force–Afghanistan:


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