FORT POLK, Louisiana (September 28, 2016) -- After parachuting in under the cover of darkness, punching through the clouds and descending on the dense Louisiana vegetation below during a Joint Forcible Entry (JFE) exercise, Soldiers of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division (3/82) were connected and communicating within minutes of hitting the ground.

Using software defined radios and handheld "smartphone" devices connected to the Army's tactical network, paratroopers were able to gain situational awareness and communicate to quickly find their way to their rally point.

"We turned them on and within five to 10 minutes the radios were networked to each other," said Cpt. Anthony Ramirez, a signal officer with the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3/82. "We were not tied to the brigade; we used our own preset that was loaded onto the radios before we even hit the ground. It allowed us to easily communicate back and forth. We were able to find our way to the ACP (assault command post) that way."

For paratroopers, having communications and situational awareness within minutes of reaching the ground is imperative, since initial entry capabilities consist only of what they can strap on their backs or airdrop from a plane. The unit was equipped with the latest on-the-move communications as it successfully executed the JFE as part of its training at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, La. in August and September.

This advanced training includes real-life mission scenarios with mock villages, role players acting as civilians, village leaders and insurgents, as well as an opposing force (OPFOR) that can attack with armor, aviation, chemical, cyber, conventional or nonconventional threats. Throughout the training, Soldiers and commanders receive feedback, including after action reviews that rate their performance and tactics.

"For the brigade, it allows us to exercise the systems we have in place," said Sgt. 1st Class Marcus Jett, Signal Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) with 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3/82. "It's all about (the OPFOR) setting the tempo and us adjusting to the tempo they set. With that comes the stress of the systems we have, and with that comes better knowledge of how to use them. Basically, how we are going to use it for the future so when we do this for real, we're ready to go."

The unit's JRTC rotation also looks at how commanders can use their latest communications equipment, known as a Capability Set. Designed as a "tool kit" for commanders to take what capabilities they need to match their mission, Capability Sets combine data radios, mission command capabilities and handheld devices networked across waveforms and mobile satellite communications systems to transmit voice, data and video for enhanced situational awareness and Position, Location, Information (PLI).

Capability Set fielding is still an evolving process. The Army is continually refining how it fields and trains on the new equipment, working to simplify network and mission command systems for the general purpose users who say it is still too complex.

"We fielded a lot of this equipment and we didn't adjust manning," said Lt. Col. Dexter Nunnally, the senior S6 (communications officer) and observer/controller/trainer at JRTC. "Historically, when it's signal equipment (communications equipment), a commander will say 'send my signal Soldier to be trained.' But the signal Soldier is not the one sitting in the vehicle with the company commander. So if it stops working, who is there to fix it?"

While acknowledging complexities, the technology's operational effect is making a difference on the battlefield. During the JFE exercise, after initial entry, planes fly in supplies and heavier gear, incrementally building up the tactical network. As a light infantry unit, the 3/82 must utilize lighter weight, more transportable configurations of the latest communications gear. To assist, the Army is adapting this equipment to meet individual needs of different brigades.

Using air transportable HMMWVs (Humvees), equipped with the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 2 Point of Presence (PoP) and Soldier Network Extension (SNE), the 3/82 utilized its advanced communications and mission command on-the-move down to the company level. The WIN-T network works in lockstep with the Joint Capabilities Release/Blue Force Tracking 2 capability, providing situational awareness and friendly force tracking down to the platoon and squad levels, with the Rifleman and Manpack radios and Nett Warrior end user device, extending networked communications as far down as the individual Soldier.

Together, these capabilities ensure the entire brigade is connected and communicating.

"This allows us to push PLI and see friendly forces across the battlefield," Jett said. "That integration is very important. It allows commanders to have a better common operational picture of where their forces are and how they can maneuver them. The biggest thing for a commander is allowing them on-the-spot and on-demand information and not having to wait for it; it's integrated at all times during the battle."

Cpt. Robert Hontz, commander for C Company, 307th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 3/82, agrees that information flow on the battlefield is happening faster than ever before and helping to shape how to fight with the new gear.

"The operational tempo on the ground is as fast as it's ever been and the commanders - especially at the battalion and brigade level - are expecting those updates so that we can synchronize efforts with the maneuver elements," Hontz said. "When you can layer on those different communications assets, it not only cuts down on the time lag but provides a menu of options for commanders that if one system doesn't work it can rely on another one."

The unit, now back at Fort Bragg, N.C., will apply its JRTC experiences and feedback as it continues to refine and develop Standard Operating Procedures and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures or TTPS.

"This is forcing us to really think how we are employing these new assets within an actual scheme of maneuver," Hontz said. "In a decisive action operation you are constantly moving and the landscape is constantly changing, so it forces you to be more inadaptable."