FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (March 20, 2014) -- As they prepare for their first large-scale air assault exercise since before 9/11, the Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) are not just getting "back to basics" with their core mission -- they are using the Army's new tactical network to take it to the next level.
In April, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team and other elements of the 101st Airborne Division will conduct Operation Golden Eagle, a four-day training event focused on executing the expeditionary air assault mission and updating the doctrine that supports it, known as the Gold Book. New to that fight are many personnel whose experience centers on counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Capability Set 13, a package of communications systems that provides digital situational awareness down to the lowest echelons of the force.
"We've given them a large amount of mission command capability at the company and below that they definitely didn't have before," said 1st Lt. Alexander Marotta, communications officer (S6) for 3/101. "Golden Eagle offers us the perfect opportunity to internalize the equipment and to see what everything can really do."
For example, the unit will add network capability at its Pickup Zone (PZ) control station in the form of a lightweight satellite terminal that enables Soldiers to digitally send real-time status updates back to the tactical operations center and other strategic locations.
"The commander can actually get ahold of that PZ control station, get up to date statistics on everybody who's gotten on the aircraft, who's still waiting to get on the aircraft, all of that," Marotta said. "This is immense, because before they'd be lucky if they had a couple radios -- now the guys are going to be there with full network and mission command capability."
Capability Set (CS) 13 is the Army's first integrated package of radios, satellite systems, software applications, smartphone-like devices and other network components providing connectivity across the BCT formation, from the static Main Command Post to the commander on the move to the dismounted Soldier. To date, CS 13 has deployed to Afghanistan with the 4th and 3rd Brigade Combat Teams, 10th Mountain Division, as well as the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne. While those units have relied on the technologies to stay connected while conducting their Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) missions alongside the Afghan forces, the Army is also now looking beyond Afghanistan to ensure the network is adaptable and tailorable for other mission sets and environments.
Among the initiatives underway to support that goal are delivering CS equipment on lighter vehicle platforms for airborne and air assault units, and heavy vehicle platforms for armor units; institutionalizing network training and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs); and continuing to enhance but also simplify the systems so they are easier for Soldiers to learn and more intuitive to operate.
"Let's not move the complexity out of the network, but let's move it out from in front of the user," said Col. Mark Elliott, director of the Army's G-3/5/7 LandWarNet-Mission Command Directorate. "The Army is saying that we're committed to network modernization, so we want to make sure it's working to the fullest extent -- and receiving feedback from the units going through the Capability Set process is a huge part of that."
Because 3/101 did not face the compressed deployment timeline that challenged its counterpart units receiving CS 13, the "Rakkasans" took the opportunity to develop several process improvements since starting their CS fielding in the fall of 2013. They implemented a "sustainment training" program that ensures Soldiers do not lose the skills developed in New Equipment Training/New Equipment Fielding (NET/NEF), created quarterly update briefs to account for both leaders and Signal personnel rotating in and out of the unit, and identified Soldiers throughout the brigade to serve as CS 13 subject matter experts and troubleshooters to reduce the dependence on civilian field support.
Sharing such lessons-learned, both formally and informally, across CS units has been a lifeline for users adapting to such a fundamental change in their communications portfolio.
"It's a lot of collaboration, because there's no way one person could figure it out by themselves," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Phil Brown, network manager for the 1st BCT, 101st Airborne "Bastogne," which is now three months into training with the follow-on CS 14. "It's been helpful to have that community out there to talk to."
While users of the new network equipment stressed the need to reduce complexity -- particularly in system startup and shutdown processes -- they also recognized its potential as a game-changing capability for current and future missions.
"It's a huge advantage for us on the battlefield to actually have good situational awareness at all levels," Brown said. "Before, we had data communication assets going down to, at the highest level, the battalion Tactical Operations Center. Now, a company commander can be driving around in his vehicle and still have voice capabilities, and be able to send and receive emails, and have a data capability that he didn't have before. So it's going to expand the battlefield and enhance our overall communications."
As both 3/101 and 1/101 progress through their training schedules, culminating with Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotations this summer, they will continue to validate the CS 13-14 network functionality and integrate it into their operations, including air assault.
"The communications architecture is going to be a warfighting function in and of itself. It will be right up there with combat power," said Col. Robert C. Campbell, commander of the 1st Brigade. "It is an absolute operational focus for us."