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The Adaptive And Agile Communicator

The 21st-century Signal Corps needs a cultural change to support morphing battlefield environments.
By Col. Jeff Worthington, USA

Technological advances and the insatiable desire for information and constant connectivity have placed demands on the U.S. military’s signal officers to fulfill missions that transcend their training. Signal officers learn to take care of their units’ needs, not the emerging mission communication requirements of a whole military base, let alone deployed coalition and joint forces operating in increasingly complex environments.

Undoubtedly, technology upgrades over the past 15 years have increased the precision, effectiveness and even lethality of the nation’s warfighters. They also have made signal officers’ jobs exponentially more difficult. Not that the Signal Corps laments the improvements—much. 

Innovation underscores that the need for creative, agile and adaptable battalion- and brigade-level signal officers has never been greater. A need also exists for a cultural change within the Signal Corps that mirrors the technological one. Today’s junior leaders are schooled using yesterday’s curriculum to meet yesterday’s operational tempo. Further complicating matters is the fact that young captains and majors find themselves responsible for the unfamiliar coalescing tasks of the communications integrator, or COMM-I.

Budding officers are called to integrate both tactical and operational communication architectures to facilitate mission command. While not typically a primary role, merging the communication requirements and capabilities of multiple units and disparate organizations is often a responsibility for deployed signal officers. It is an especially difficult task because these officers lack the authority to direct change.

Unfortunately, COMM-I responsibilities are not taught during professional military education or at combat training centers. They bring truth to the idiom baptism by fire because these officers learn during their deployments.

Battalion-level officers fresh out of the Signal Captains Career Course, for example, integrate communications plans in complex locations such as Iraq and Jordan to support not just U.S. missions, but joint and coalition operations as well. They focus on the here and now, but the next conflict is never far from their minds. While planning for potential follow-on missions, they must blend tactical and operational communications to ensure that mission command systems can support the priorities of multiple commanders and synchronize the joint and coalition information-sharing requirements and collaboration environments across numerous networks.

War-zone roles for signal officers deployed to conflicts that preceded U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were much less convoluted. The troops then provided services at either the battalion or brigade level. Now, they are called upon for higher-echelon, resource-intensive missions.

These tasks are complex and constantly changing, but new signal officers do not tackle them alone. Staff members at each command echelon play key roles to support COMM-I soldiers working in Southwest Asia, as do troops from a number of sources, such as the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command–Iraq, Operation Inherent Resolve, U.S. Army Central (USARCENT), 335th Signal Command (Theater) (Provisional) and 160th Signal Brigade. Combined staffs of active duty, Reserve, Guard and coalition communications professionals ensure that strategic services such as the Department of Defense Enterprise Email and the critical Battlefield Information Collection and Exploitation Systems can traverse strategic and tactical networks.

Although focusing on familiar tasks might be comfortable, today’s leaders must be able to handle a variety of different challenges with ease. The U.S. Army Operating Concept correctly identifies that what “all Army operations will have in common is a need for innovative and adaptive leaders and cohesive teams that thrive in conditions of complexity and uncertainty.” 

It seems at times that signal officers bear the brunt of this responsibility. They must be prepared to win in a complex world by understanding that missions require more than looking after their immediate commander. Supporting the requirements of the one who writes a report card is one thing; now, these officers must form a group of teams at varying levels for different leaders, some of whom they do not know. It falls to them to apply transformational leadership skills and recognize the bigger picture. Too often, the battalion-level—or even brigade-level—signal officers are overcome by just their day-to-day duties. Troop drawdowns in the Middle East, for example, mean it is more difficult to conduct their jobs downrange. 

They have to do more with less. They have to adapt to ever-changing environments and embrace the Army Operating Concept. Feeling comfortable with situations where there is ambiguity is the new normal. Signal leaders must realize that their training cannot provide the solution to each assignment, but the tools and skills to develop innovative results for issues they have never seen. Each deployment likely will differ from the last, and signal leaders must realize they must be subject matter experts in all things communications.

Mission success starts well before troops even deploy and often is defined by open communication between incoming and outgoing units, the USARCENT chief information office or G-6, and theater signal providers—all of which sets the best conditions for smooth transitions. Both U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM) provide outreach programs designed to ensure the greatest amount of preparation time before soldiers deploy.

Although mission changes present daunting expectations, unit signal officers must embrace their expanded roles and job duties. Commanders look to their signal officers for well-developed communication plans, but they understand that signal officers, like themselves, are part of a larger team with requirements to take on different roles. With both the Army Operating Concept and Mission Command allowing commanders to empower subordinates, signal officers should take advantage of the opportunity to expand their scope of knowledge and embrace the increased responsibilities, recognizing that their predeployment planning is just a starting point, and greater challenges await.

Future deployments, coupled with ongoing tussles to procure advanced technology, will continue to challenge signaleers. The task for the Army, the Signal Corps and signal officers is to look to the future and develop officers who can adapt quickly to rapidly changing demands. It is a team effort, and we are all here to ensure the commander wins in a convoluted world.

Col. Jeff Worthington, USA, is the operations officer for the 335th Signal Command (Theater) (Provisional) in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. He was commander of the 2nd Joint Communications Squadron from 2010 to 2013 and will take command of 2nd Signal Brigade in Wiesbaden, Germany, this summer. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the U.S. government.