By Sgt. 1st Class Kevin P. BellDecember 14, 2016
DAVIS-MONTHAN AFB, Arizona -- Signal Soldiers from the 51st Expeditionary Signal Battalion from Joint Base Lewis-McChord tested their capabilities during a deployment to Arizona to participate in Operation Desert Hawk which concluded Dec. 14.
Soldiers from the units C Co. loaded four of the unit's Troposcatter communications systems as well as additional support equipment and vehicles on to three Air Force C-17's at McChord Field in the early hours of Dec. 7.
The aircraft, provided by the 62nd Airlift Wing, then flew to the austere Libby Army Air Field on Fort Huachuca. Once on the ground the teams quickly offloaded and split into two teams. One convoyed north to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, about 60 miles north of Huachuca, and set up two systems, while the second team headed south to the Bisbee-Douglas Airport about 60 miles south of Huachuca right on the U.S./Mexican border and set up the remaining two systems.
"The purpose of the exercise is to validate our ability to rapidly deploy and set up our Tropo systems," said 1st Lt. Leyla Baggson a Platoon Leader with C Co. working at the Davis-Monthan site.
The team went through the full deployment process from receiving a no-notice alert to loading aircraft, exactly as they would if a real mission.
"What was also great is that the Air Force was also conducting its own exercise, so they were practicing mid-air refueling and practicing combat tactics, which made the training for us even more realistic," added Baggson.
The added benefit of having both exercises simultaneously meant the Air Force paid for the transportation, saving the 51st millions of dollars in transportation costs.
The entire exercise was conducted under austere conditions with Soldiers sleeping in tents and eating MRE's just as they would for real. The Bisbee-Douglas site was particularly austere as the nearest town of Bisbee was several miles away, and calling the Bisbee Douglas Airport an airport would be stretching it as there is no terminal and no flights took off while this reporter was there.
"We require long distances in order to test our systems, we usually need anywhere from 60-120 miles for the systems to work," said Capt. Frank Guziar, the C Co. Commander speaking at the Bisbee site.
"Due to topography near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, we can't always test the systems, at least not nearly as well as in Arizona where there are less trees and other obstructions," Guziar added looking out across the desert towards distant rocky mountains.
Troposcatter systems feature two dishes sometimes called "Mickey Mouse ears" by operators. One dish transmits high power microwave-like radio waves and the other receives from a distant station.
"What the Tropo Team does is they shoot a beyond line-of-site signal off of the Troposphere and it scatters back down to a receiver dish set up at just the right elevation and angle on the other side," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Perry a Network Operations NCO.
"It takes a good amount of skill and can be quite finicky," added Perry as Soldiers as Soldier behind him adjusted the antennas back and forth to line up the systems here and at the location at Bisbee-Douglas Airport about 90 miles away by line-of-site.
The system can provide high bandwidth communications capabilities to locations where satellite and other terrestrial means of communications may not be available.
In addition to the Troposcatter systems the 51st also tested out its Secure, Mobile, Anti-Jam, Reliable, Tactical -- Terminal (SMART-T). These terminals can pull a secure internet connection from a satellite. The signal can then be used locally or in the case of this exercise, fed over the Troposcatter system to provide internet services to the other end.
"I haven't worked on this system before, so for me this is great training and I'm learning a lot," said Pvt. Jordan Brown, one of the units new Soldiers as he manned a SMART-T system.
This is something seen a lot during the exercise, new Soldiers eagerly learning the systems they will be working on over the next few years.
"Right now we're in a turnover of personnel because the unit got back from a deployment about a year ago, so our senior personnel are moving out soon and we have a new batch of Soldiers and we're passing on that knowledge," said Capt. Guziar.
Guziar says making the training as realistic as possible, especially being in a deployed environment as beautiful rugged as the Arizona desert will help the training stick in the minds of his new Soldiers.
"Desert Hawk has been great because an exercise like this allows us to be fully trained so we are ready to deploy anywhere in the world to support any unit," added 1st Lt. Baggson.
The 51st ESB provides signal support to the 593rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) also on JBLM and both units support I Corps.