ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, MD (September 5, 2018) -- With the creation of the Army's first "advise and assist" unit known as the Security Forces Assistance Brigade (SFAB) in February of 2017, came an immediate need to equip these Soldiers with small team resilient communications equipment necessary for a rapid deployment into theater, and missions across a wide operational area.
To field this equipment, U.S Army Program Executive Office Command, Control, and Communications -- Tactical (PEO C3T) partnered with the U.S. Army Network Cross Functional Team (CFT), the Communications-Electronic Command (CECOM), the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) and PEO Soldier to equip the brigade with radios, satellite terminals and other standard and non-standard communications equipment.
While a typical fielding -- which includes preparing, executing, training, and fielding -- can take up to two years, the 1st SFAB was stood up, equipped and trained for deployment to Afghanistan in less than a year. Despite this accelerated timeline, it was essential that the SFAB effort was executed just like a standard fielding, starting with developing a list of required equipment and then executing a plan to resource, train and sustain the equipment set.
"We wanted to ensure the Soldiers would be confident in their equipment and training," said Eric Helm, Supervisory Special Projects Officer for PEO C3T. "The safety of the Soldiers is paramount to us, as is ensuring the equipment works as needed to support the SFAB's mission."
A critical component of the task was to identify the appropriate mix of systems that would enable the SFAB's operations. For example, the Army fielded the Secure But Unclassified (SBU) network environment, which enables communications and coalition interoperability through secure exchange of information using commercial and military transport. The SBU capability is leveraged by an integrated set of Nett Warrior Future Initiative (NWFI) 2-channel radios with advanced networking waveforms, radio gateways, small aperture satellite terminals, and associated ancillary devices. Additionally, in order to ensure the SFAB can plan, configure and manage the Army's Software Defined Radios (SDR) network, the Army fielded the Joint Enterprise Network Manager. With JENM, the 1st SFAB can configure SDRs and allows them to leverage Mobile Ad Hoc Network (MANET) waveforms.
SFABs were also equipped with expeditionary Satellite Communications (SATCOM) equipment, which provide transmission for units that require network connectivity. As a dedicated network hub for the SFAB, these terminals enable the units to connect directly into the tactical network in Afghanistan. They also serve as the gateway for the secure but unclassified (SBU) network, which allows units to connect into commercially available networks to share data, imagery and messaging among team members.
Another challenge, due to the compressed fielding timeline, was completing the equipment installation and vehicle integration. Equipping and training missions for the 1st SFAB were completed at Fort Benning, Georgia, to ensure that the Soldiers were prepared for their deployment, but soon pivoted operations to field the remaining equipment and provide field support while in theater. This allowed the unit to continue training the Soldiers, perform maintenance on communications hardware, install software upgrades on the radios, troubleshoot network anomalies, and other mission critical support.
PEO C3T, with support from the CERDEC and Project Manager Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (PM MRAP), conducted tests to identify and fix hardware issues with the Thales 148C Vehicular Systems (AN/VRC-132) for integration into theater. After positive results, Tobyhanna Army Depot (TYAD) shipped sixty-six Theater Property Equipment (TPE) vehicle systems to support integration into SFAB units, which started in June 2018.
In three phases, approximately 5,500 pieces of radio equipment were fielded and integrated with all radio components on Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles located across six Forward Operating Bases (FOBs).
To ensure the SFAB's equipment continues to meet the mission requirements, CPT Jonathan Dodge, Assistant Product Manager for Handheld, Manpack, and Small Form Fit (HMS), was deployed to Afghanistan in order to provide hands on support for the 1st SFAB. CPT Dodge serves as a liaison for the PEO C3T team and provides front line support as needed, including assisting with the fielding and associated training of radios and other network equipment.
"The embedded team has provided essential training and support for the 1st SFAB's lower tactical internet (TI) network. The expertise provided by our technical lead, along with the feedback we've gathered on product performance has allowed for positive changes to be made to the unit's communications architecture in theatre," Dodge said.
Using lessons learned from the first deployment, the Army is implementing changes to streamline and improve fielding and training efforts for future SFAB missions. For example, during the 1st SFAB fielding, the AN/PRC-148C radios were fielded incrementally as parts became available, rather than fielding them as a set.
"The theory was that Soldiers would be able to put the radio system to use as parts became available, but in reality, it led to Soldiers not knowing what a complete 'kit' should look like," said Mr. Kevin Gonzalez, Capability Set Integration Team Lead for PEO C3T. "It also led to Soldiers shelving the systems until all relevant components made it to them." Moving forward, fielding the entire system at once will enable the unit to train as they fight.
Support for additional SFAB units is ongoing, starting with the deployment process for the second unit, located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the third unit, based at Fort Hood, Texas.
One big advantage the 2nd SFAB will have over the 1st is that they will be deployed upfront with Small, Medium and Large Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs), which provide vital access to the tactical network for mission command, calls for fire, Medevac and information exchange. VSATs can also be deployed more quickly than larger satellite terminals, making them easier to move around the battlefield.
Additionally, the 3rd SFAB will be upgraded to the latest version of the TSM waveform, which provides robust, reliable and scalable network coverage, and is designed to run on a host of SDRs. This upgrade addresses problems that were previously reported by the 1st SFAB and improves compatibility with the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), which is software that provides situational awareness on the Nett Warrior end user device.
The 2nd SFAB will undergo three months of training, starting in October, followed by a Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotation in January and deployment in the spring of 2019.
"As the mission of the SFAB evolves, the Army will continue to implement lessons learned from deployed units in order to provide the best communications equipment and field support for our Soldiers," Helm said.
The U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical develops, acquires, fields and supports the Army's mission command network to ensure force readiness. This critical Army modernization priority delivers tactical communications so commanders and Soldiers can stay connected and informed at all times, even in the most austere and hostile environments. PEO C3T is delivering the network to regions around the globe, enabling high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications to a user base that includes the Army's joint, coalition and other mission partners.