U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bina K. Cheema watched as a forklift operator carefully removed pallets of packed cargo from the rear opening of a C-17 Globemaster III. Among those pallets were dozens of Microwave Line-of-Sight (MLOS) radios, which Cheema had the mission of accompanying from her home base in Kuwait to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The radios were slated to be dispersed to various forward operating bases throughout Afghanistan in support of a rising military demand for voice, data and video services.
These increased communications requirements are in direct support of the change in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, announced in August, 2017, according to Col. Christine Rummel, director of communications integration in Afghanistan for the 335th Signal Command (Theater) (Provisional).
In recent Congressional testimony, Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, in describing the new way forward said, "The South Asia Strategy reaffirms the U.S. government's enduring commitment to Afghanistan by reinforcing the two complementary military missions: the NATO-led train, advise and assist mission; and the U.S. counterterrorism mission. We are making sure that, with our support, the Afghan national defense and security forces are well postured to begin operations to seize the initiative, expand population control and secure credible elections."
This new strategy involves the increase of troop levels in the country, including about 800 military advisers charged with training, advising and assisting Afghan forces to assume military and security operations from U.S. and coalition forces.
Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan described the composition and mission of these advisors who are set to arrive this spring, "Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) are advisors -- in this case provided by the United States Army. We get advisors from at least seven different sources and our NATO colleagues. We have advisors from across the U.S. military, the Marine Corps, Navy, and the Air Force. For example, the Air Force train Afghan pilots in the United States then deploy to Afghanistan to advise them in the conduct of their duties here. The SFAB is a specially formed unit trained in advising skills and they will be employed around the country. They will be advising from the corps level, the brigade level, and in some cases the Kandak (Afghan National Army battalion) level."
Cheema, from Las Vegas, is a project manager with the 335th, stationed at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, under the command of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John H. Phillips. The 335th is a component of U.S. Army Central, and is responsible for planning, engineering, integrating, maintaining and defending the Army's portion of the cyber network across Southwest Asia.
After extensive coordination to prepare and ship the radios under a compressed schedule, Cheema traveled to Afghanistan with them to ensure timely delivery. To personally escort the MLOS radios underscores the importance of the special capabilities Cheema and other U.S. Army signaleers with the 335th bring to the overall Afghanistan effort.
"I know signal services are only part of the mission, but it's an enormous part. The commander's ability to communicate with the warfighter on the ground, and our guys being able to talk to each other on the battlefield--that is often the difference between life and death," Cheema said.
With the change in strategy also comes a change in operational focus for the 335th.
"We're now seeing a redistribution of resources to prioritize our area of operation," said Rummel, who also serves as the deputy commander for the 335th. "Some of the FOBs we are extending communications capabilities to have not been in use for several years, and to provide reliable and secure signal services to these places requires additional material and equipment, and the personnel to maintain and operate it," Rummel said.
In expanding services, Rummel explained the importance of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars in a resource-constrained environment.
"Wherever possible, we are reutilizing any existing infrastructure or equipment that is viable and not at its technological end of life. Also, equipment from Iraq has been rebalanced to Afghanistan to reduce the need to procure additional equipment," Rummel said.
The 335th's shift in focus also extends to its personnel training mission.
"People are our priority. Without trained, disciplined, capable men and women, we fail," said Sgt. 1st Class Pedro Arredondo, the operations senior noncommissioned officer for ARCENT Signal University (ASU).
ASU, led by the 335th, provides professional IT courses to U.S. troops deployed to the Middle East at no cost to the Soldier. "At the end of an ASU course, students receive commercial industry-recognized certifications. This not only improves the expertise within our ranks, but graduates of our courses become more valuable to employers in the private sector," explained Arredondo.
For that reason, Reserve component Soldiers find the certificate aspect especially attractive, Arredondo explained. Roughly 80 percent of Soldiers in the 335th are in the Army Reserve, including Cheema, who, as a civilian, is a network engineer.
Recognizing a growing need, ASU offered a fiber optics installers course on Bagram Airfield last month. "This is a first for Afghanistan," Arredondo said.
Arredondo expects to graduate 32 certified installers at the end of two courses. Graduates are assigned to various units and stationed throughout the country, which increases IT support capacity for base expansion efforts, explained Arredondo.
Adding to the pool of trained IT professionals already in Afghanistan is something Rummel enthusiastically welcomes.
"As the U.S. footprint increases, so do the demands on the network, which, in turn, requires our limited signal resources to be more agile. We have to be smart with how we employ and deploy our people and equipment. To the best of our abilities, we are utilizing every available asset to meet the mission," Rummel said.
Rummel explained that, on an ever-evolving battlefield, the need to maintain an edge on the enemy renders the signal profession indispensable.
"All U.S. personnel, in whatever capacity--whether military, civilian or contractor--require some communication capability to perform their jobs. The 335th is instrumental in extending these capabilities both on existing and expanding bases to posture U.S. forces to broaden the mission of training, advising, and assisting an increased number of Afghanistan forces to be able to secure and defend their own country," Rummel said.