KAHUKU TRAINING AREA, Hawaii — Battlefield communications in any setting can be tricky, but conducting operations in and around mountains, jungles, and the Pacific Ocean creates even more challenges to connecting commanders with their troops.
This backdrop is the norm, not the exception, for Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT), 25th Infantry Division (3/25 ID), making the Bronco Brigade an ideal unit to test the capabilities of the Army’s Integrated Tactical Network (ITN).
Following new equipment fielding and training this summer, the brigade employed the ITN during their recent Bronco Rumble exercise, which they designed to test communications and readiness relevant to their unique Indo-Pacific mission. The 3/25 ID is the third IBCT to receive and evaluate the ITN and provide feedback to the Army as part of its overall network modernization strategy.
“We have some real operational and strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific area of operations,” said Col. Josh Bookout, 3/25 ID commander. “As a brigade combat team, we are trying to think about what we can we do to help solve some of those problems and I think being able to better communicate [using the ITN] helps to solve some of those operational and strategic challenges that we have.”
The ITN is a flexible, mobile network solution available down to dismounted Soldiers that incorporates commercial solutions into existing tactical network capabilities.
The currently fielded Capability Set (CS) 21 ITN features commercial single and two-channel radios, end-user cellular devices, the Tactical Radio Integration Kit (TRIK) box, which integrates the ITN’s radio variants to create a single battlefield network; small aperture satellite terminals, a variable height antenna, and various support technologies such as servers, gateways and cross domain solutions. These capabilities are housed in tactical operations centers, integrated into vehicles or are part of a dismounted Soldier kit.
At the heart of the ITN are the radios, with the Manpack Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) Tactical Satellite radio standing out as a particular asset to the 3/25 ID’s mission.
“With ITN we are gaining additional over the horizon communications,” Bookout said. “The MUOS satellite radio has a great capability that we have now not just at brigade level, where before you might have seen a couple of TACSAT [tactical satellite] radios at brigade and battalion, now we are capable of TACSAT communications all the way down to company and troop level. That becomes a game changer.”
Week one of the operational assessment spanned from Oahu’s Dillingham Airfield, which served as the rear support area to establish and implement communications and logistics for the exercise, to the Kahuku Training Area (KTA) more than 20 miles away. During the training at KTA, two 3/25 ID battalions attacked another of the brigade’s battalions, which served as the opposing force during the exercise. Week two of the exercise pushed the Soldiers, and their communications capabilities, even further as they descended onto the island of Hawaii in helicopters to assault the opposing force at the island’s National Guard Keaukaha Training Area.
“Part of what drew us over to Hawaii Island was that we needed an opportunity to leave Oahu and push part of our forces somewhere on a different island at a great distance to force us to stress our communications and allow us to really practice what we think may be the fight we could encounter in the future,” Bookout said.
At the KTA, 2nd Lt. Kyle Taylor, 3/25 ID Platoon Leader in charge of personnel at the training site, explained how he and his team had trained on the ITN equipment.
“I have a shadow radio I use to talk among my platoon and have it equipped to my Falcon headset,” Taylor said. “I also have my PRC/163 leader radio so I can wear the headset under my helmet and I can talk to my platoon as well as higher headquarters, fires, and medevac, and I am able to do this seamlessly.”
The leader radios provide the signal to the ITN’s Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) hand-held end-user device, used to display real-time Position Information Location (PLI). The assaulting force on Hawaii Island had little knowledge of the terrain, so they had to rely on their ATAK devices to establish PLI of their own troops and situational awareness of the terrain, which consisted of jungle and open fields.
Taylor also noted how leader radios enhance Soldiers’ Primary, Alternative, Contingency, Emergency (PACE) plans.
“The nice thing about having a two-channel radio is that if the primary channel is not functioning for any reason you’re able to drop down off your PACE plan and [switch channels] to move to that alternate form of communications,” Taylor said.
Back at Dillingham Airfield, the technical and logistics teams were the first in and last out, ensuring the exercise ran as planned.
“Our overarching goal is to ensure the commander can talk to subordinate and higher commanders,” said Maj. Sarah de Anda, brigade S6. “We’re finding that MUOS is an amazing thing and I'm excited that we're getting to the point where we can test the limit.”
As S6, de Anda led the brigade in setting up all of the communications capabilities in and around the Tactical Operations Center, including the Tactical Command Communications (T2C2) satellite system.
“Our challenges are that we're training to fight on a separate little island in the middle of the Pacific,” de Anda said. “This means the unit must sometimes tie into the upper TI [tactical Internet] using the T2C2.”
Communications support at the battalion level was equally critical.
“We are using WINTAK as our main common operating picture (COP), and MUOS is allowing us to communicate to the KTA for our commander’s update brief,” said Cpt. Chiara Botello, battalion S6 for the 325th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB). “For internal battalion and company communications, we are using the PRC-163 Leader Radios.”
On the logistics side, the BSB also relied on ITN’s situational awareness capabilities to support critical convoys, supplies and medivac missions.
“The ATAK handheld situational awareness device has been critical to tracking sustainment operations, such as reaching convoys that are dropping off equipment,” said Lt. Col. John Roy, BSB commander for the 3/25 ID. “Also as a sustainer, I'm really concerned with my commanders’ reach. MUOS’ beyond line of site capabilities have been critical to extend the lines of communication and ensure logistics flow and Soldier safety.”
Feedback from this exercise, like the lessons learned from the previous units equipped, will be critical to the Army’s Development Security Operations (DevSecOps) process of collecting feedback early and often, then implementing iterative improvements to the capability. For the 3/25 ID, they can take their experiences from Bronco Rumble to prepare for their next exercise, scheduled for October of this year.
“Coming out into the field and throwing ourselves into it has helped us develop our TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures], lessons learned and best practices early up front so we can share across the brigade and across the division as the division gets fielded,” Roy 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.