• A soldier fires an FGM-148 Javelin during live-fire training in Jordan, Aug. 27, 2019, as part of Eager Lion, a major U.S. Central Command exercise that aims to integrate forces in a multilateral environment. The Joint Communications Support Element supports all of the combatant commands, special operations forces and other departments and agencies and is modernizing to meet the demands of multi-domain operations. Credit: Army Spc. Shadrach Hicks
     A soldier fires an FGM-148 Javelin during live-fire training in Jordan, Aug. 27, 2019, as part of Eager Lion, a major U.S. Central Command exercise that aims to integrate forces in a multilateral environment. The Joint Communications Support Element supports all of the combatant commands, special operations forces and other departments and agencies and is modernizing to meet the demands of multi-domain operations. Credit: Army Spc. Shadrach Hicks

Joint Communications Team Plans for Multi-Domain Ops

March 8, 2021
By George I. Seffers
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The networking unit is always on alert and ready to deploy.


The Joint Communications Support Element (Airborne), which stays on standby to deploy anytime and anywhere within 72 hours, is modernizing for multi-domain operations.

Established in 1961, the support element, which is commonly referred to as the JCSE has served as the Defense Department’s standing joint force headquarters expeditionary communications provider, according to JCSE documentation. The organization routinely deploys service members worldwide, providing communications support to exercises, operations and events of national interest, such as humanitarian efforts, disaster relief and presidential inaugurations. The JCSE also concentrates on meeting the unique combatant command warfighting requirements and serving as the communications integrator for the joint force.

The JCSE website describes it as a “tactical unit that has the rare ability to operate at the tactical, operational and strategic levels.” At the strategic level, for example, the JCSE maintains three Defense Information Systems Network Tactical-Edge sites, explains Col. James Thomas Lowery, USMC, JCSE commander.

“The three sites are located throughout the globe, which gives us approximately 98 percent global coverage. They’re always on and always available and able to provide C4 [command, control, communication and computer] services rapidly to support our rapid alert posture,” he says. “We have personnel that are able to be able to be pushed out the door very quickly, and those sites and the global coverage allow them to go to an austere location, turn on their satellite terminal and their equipment and have services up very quickly.”

At the operational level, the JCSE’s core mission is to provide communications support for a joint force headquarters, so the unit maintains a close relationship with geographic combatant commanders to meet their unique requirements. “Not only are we responsible for providing communications to the headquarters but also to integrate that communications into the different components of the joint force,” Col. Lowery offers.

Tactically, the unit provides small, deployable communications kits that offer classified and unclassified voice, video and data to tactical units. “As an example of that, within the last month, we participated in a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation where we provided communications to the 3-82nd Combat Aviation Brigade,” the colonel reports.

The JCSE also offers an array of nodes from forcible entry nodes that provide two classified and unclassified network drops, to large headquarters nodes that provide unclassified, classified and coalition services for up to 60 customers. Some of the smaller nodes can be checked as excess baggage on commercial flights, allowing for flexible and rapid deployment. The unit also is equipped with other specialized nodes, such as a shipboard node, top secret deployable communications nodes and an enroute airborne communications capability.” 

Now, the JCSE is modernizing to enhance its ability to provide communications support in a contested, multi-domain operations environment. For example, the unit is purchasing new equipment, updating training and participating in exercises to hone those skills. “We’ve been focusing a lot over the past eight months on a contested communications environment. We know that’s one of the primary challenges—the multi-domain fight and being able to fight through the noise and operate in those contested spaces—so we’ve adjusted our training to focus on that,” Col. Lowery reports.

The unit has explicit modernization authorities based on a joint staff memorandum and financial investment from multi-service allocations outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act. That allows the rapid acquisition of commercial-off-the-shelf and government-off-the-shelf equipment and the fielding of new technologies at a smaller scale and in a significantly compressed timeline, according to documentation.

In September, the unit purchased from an unnamed vendor a commercial satellite communications and electromagnetic spectrum protection solution, which enables the element’s ability to operate in a contested environment. “We made a decision to purchase a [commercial-off-the-shelf] capability, which would filter downlink noise from a satellite communications link. The equipment was installed on 16 of our satellite terminals in January of 2021 after we procured them,” Col. Lowery states.

The equipment will be tested this month in an anechoic chamber to see how well it works in a spectrum-contested space, and then it likely will be included in Exercise Northern Edge in May, where it will again be assessed in a contested environment. With its rapid acquisition authority and funding from the services, the JCSE is able to provide equipment the services may not yet have. Once the equipment is purchased, the unit can “put it in line on our equipment in a matter of months, take it out the door and test it and validate its use case,” the colonel says.

“We’re participating in exercises that test or stress our service members and our systems and force them to operate in those environments as well. For example, we brought out members from the Joint Electronic Warfare Center for our last training exercise and then did some GPS denial and Broadband Global Area Network jamming as well as some spectrum analysis.”

The JCSE also recently worked with the Army Capabilities Development Command to conduct a cyber vulnerability assessment “to better understand how we are operating in the cyber environment and how our kits are operating in that type of environment,” Col. Lowery says.

The commander indicates he would like to clear up the misconception that the JCSE supports only U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command. In fact, they work with all combatant commands and other departments and agencies and expect to participate in this year’s African Lion exercise.  

The JCSE recently started a LinkedIn page to improve outreach to customers and potential customers during the COVID-19 pandemic when travel and in-person meetings are restricted.

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