Effective tactical radio communication is the one capability nearly every warfighter mission relies upon. Over the past few years, the Army has faced multiple challenges with establishing a robust and modern radio strategy for its Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) partners. Soldier and civilian experts must obtain requirements for radio procurements with unclear existing inventories. They must determine how a less-than-optimal infrastructure can support radio communications, or what radios have the right capabilities to establish communications across diverse and challenging terrain. Training inexperienced radio operators also presents a challenge, as does the real possibility of enemy interference.
As the U.S. military begins its drawdown in Afghanistan, it is even more crucial that it inserts modern radio communications and sustainment capabilities for the Afghan military, police and hospitals to help bolster security for the region. Capt. LaShaunte Trotter, assistant product manager for all air-to-ground radios, high-frequency radios and Link 16 terminals under the Program Executive Office for Command, Control Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T), deployed to Afghanistan early this year to help the ANDSF establish its radio modernization strategy across its Ministry of Defense (MOD), Ministry of Interior Affairs (MOI) and area hospitals, and by doing so, learned how to mitigate some of the unique challenges associated with modernizing equipment in a foreign war zone.
BAILEY: As the officer in charge of ANDSF radio modernization, what did your assignment entail?
TROTTER: I deployed as the military deputy director for Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A), Operational Sustainment – Information Communications Technology and Radio Program Manager. I provided direct support to the Operational Sustainment – Information Communications Technology director regarding the radio program. As the radio program manager, I was the officer in charge of a diverse team of contractors, senior government and military personnel from across the coalition charged with making strategic decisions to train, advise and assist senior Afghan leaders on the ANDSF enterprise radio requirements. Our main task was to assess the radio program as a whole, mainly focusing on the MOD, which is in charge of the Afghan army, or the MOI, which is in charge of the Afghan National Police, but our scope also included area hospitals, which required interoperable communications with the other two organizations. Throughout the assignment, we were charged with identifying current capabilities, future capability needs and determining a cost-effective and sustainable modernization approach.
BAILEY: What did you encounter upon arriving in country for this assignment?
TROTTER: I was assigned to the Operational Sustainment – Information Communications Technology section of CSTC-A. This organization was responsible for radios, network infrastructure, spectrum management and cybersecurity. Upon arrival, I quickly learned I was joining a team of highly talented individuals, some who had been working in Afghanistan for 11-plus years supporting MOD or MOI. For an officer rotating in, this strong knowledge base was critical to the success of our mission.
BAILEY: How did you go about deriving requirements in a war-torn country?
TROTTER: If you think it’s challenging to derive requirements, procure radios and manage their life cycle in the United States, you can only imagine the challenges we faced in Afghanistan.
At the time, we had approximately 169,000 radios nearing their end of life; meaning, these radios were either obsolete, in need of significant repair or in need of modernization. To tackle requirements gathering, we met with senior Afghan leaders and their respective IT departments in the Ministry of Interior Affairs and Ministry of Defense to identify the needed capability and discuss viable options.
A part of the discussion involved assessing the radios currently in their possession to ensure interoperability with future radios. Through this process, I determined ANDSF maintained an extensive list of radios maintained by many companies; it had no centralized radio procurement strategy. Another challenge with assessing the current inventory of radios was the effort to catalog equipment and component parts. Cataloging varied between the ministries of Interior Affairs and Defense, and as a result I spent a few weeks doing the necessary research to understand the radio systems in Afghanistan. This research yielded my ability to identify a baseline to procure new radios and sustain legacy systems. I then consulted with our team to execute a plan to meet the identified capability need expressed by ANDSF leadership.
As we looked at the organization as a whole during the requirements assessment, we focused on the makeup of their personnel, the daily functions they executed and the radio assets necessary to perform their duties. That meant we were looking for radios to support very different mission sets that—for their military organizations—ranged from police patrols, to soldier checkpoints to special forces missions. Some organizations only required small handheld radios, while others required a more robust capacity and functionality.
BAILEY: What other challenges did you face working in Afghanistan?
TROTTER: A critical component to the mission was to train, advise and assist. While deployed, I learned there were differences in the execution of soldier task and supportability. The Afghan army power grid was less than optimal, so it was not uncommon for radio communication equipment to be unplugged in order to use electricity for personal reasons while on duty. This was not the norm, but something I had not encountered previously.
Another critical deterrent to our training efforts was illiteracy. We found the educated soldiers were often pulled from radio operating roles to serve in higher levels of responsibility, which often left key radio communication positions to soldiers who may have had difficulty understanding training. There was a language barrier in itself, but this, coupled with the illiteracy issue only exacerbated the problem. We were fortunate that literacy and education were part of the ongoing mission within CSTC-A.
BAILEY: How did you work with the Ministry of Interior Affairs to derive requirements and conduct training for the hospitals?
TROTTER: We tackled the hospital radio requirements just like we did for the military and police—through our discussions with the respective senior ANDSF leadership to systematically gather requirements to ensure proper procurement. However, we had to quickly procure replacements for assets lost in the destruction of a hospital, which was attacked and destroyed prior to my arrival.
Our challenges mounted as we continued to encounter multiple disparate systems that were unable to interoperate. This situation was unsustainable; radio systems for the ministries of Interior Affairs and Defense had to be interoperable to ensure reliable communication between the many remote and mountainous locations.
BAILEY: What were the positive outcomes of your deployment?
TROTTER: After deriving requirements across all of the organizations, we executed a radio base station buy from a large radio vendor, which will support Ministry of Interior Affairs and Ministry of Defense requirements. We also procured man-portable, handheld and vehicle-mounted radios to meet high frequency, very high frequency and multiband requirements to support the growth of the Regional Targeting Teams – Kabul 1399, i.e., 2020, which primarily consist of special operations troops in locations where the United States plans to maintain a presence.
BAILEY: This was your first war zone deployment. What are your takeaways from this experience?
TROTTER: Applying my radio acquisition experience in a foreign war zone provided me with an entirely new perspective. By discovering ways to collaborate with the ANDSF, we were able to develop a holistic approach to the ANDSF’s radio communications needs, network infrastructure and general supportability. Like any deployed Soldier, you must set aside everything you took for granted working in the United States. Succeeding in different cultures with insufficient infrastructure, enemy interference, and language and literacy barriers is challenging, but this is what makes achieving the mission even more fulfilling.
For more information, go to the PEO C3T website at http://peoc3t.army.mil/c3t/.
KATHRYN BAILEY is a public communications specialist for Bowhead Business and Technologies Solutions LLC, assigned to the Program Executive Office for Command, Control Communications – Tactical. She holds a B.A. in communications studies from the University of Maryland Global Campus, previously known as University of Maryland University College.
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