FORT BLISS, Texas — The U.S. Army’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), referred to as the “Strike” Brigade, successfully used its on-the-move tactical network transport equipment to exchange critical battlefield information during its advise-and-assist mission with Iraqi security forces in the fight to defeat ISIS.
Lessons learned from the deployment emphasized the need for more expeditionary network communications equipment, such as inflatable satellite antennas that can be deployed at the tactical edge of operations and as a sling loadable version of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, Tactical Communications Node (TCN), which the Army recently put through its operational test.
The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) provides expeditionary air assault capability to conduct forcible entry and other worldwide unified land operations in support of combatant commanders. During its most recent deployment, Task Force Strike Soldiers helped reorganize, instruct, and facilitate communication between Iraqi Security Forces to lead offensive operations.
Since this was a joint and collation fight and the unit was continually on-the-move, it needed robust network capability that could meet its high maneuverability requirements. The unit’s combat vehicles integrated with WIN-T Increment 2, or WIN-T Inc 2, network transport equipment provided robust network communications, mission command and situational awareness for both on-the-move crossing austere battlefield locations and at-the-halt in stationary command posts.
“When Col. Bret Sylvia was the brigade commander in Iraq pushing up towards Mosul, we had smaller elements of Strike Soldiers advising Iraqis far forward in some really remote locations,” said Col. Joseph E. Escandon, who assumed command of the 2nd BCT from Sylvia in June, after Task Force Strike returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd BCT replaced the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd BCT in Iraq.
“When you think about the capability they were able to have on M-ATVs [MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle] with WIN-T Inc 2 Points of Presence and Soldier Network Extensions, it was huge,” Escandon said. “They were not just making an FM radio call or [radio] tactical satellite, TACSAT, call back from their headquarters…now they can send a more holistic common operating picture.”
The WIN-T Inc 2 Points of Presence enables mission command on-the-move, and the Soldier Network Extensions provide on-the-move network communication and network extension capabilities. These and other WIN-T Inc 2 configurations helped the Strike Brigade relay critical situational awareness between forward ground forces, higher headquarters and coalition forces.
“A number of the units would go out for hours, maybe days, in small teams and establish a company [sized] command post, and the Soldier Network Extensions would serve as their redundant means of additional capability,” said Maj. Edward Timmons, 2nd BCT signal officer, who was deployed with the unit in Iraq. “Some of those company level advise and assist missions didn’t deliberately set up a company command post; they would just set up their own perimeter and a small camp [but still have network connectivity].”
Using line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight for optimal connectivity, WIN-T Inc 2 network transport equipment delivers a mobile, resilient, redundant tactical communications network. It enabled Task Force Strike Soldiers operating in remote and challenging terrain to maintain voice, video and data communications while on patrol, with connectivity similar to that found in a stationary command post.
“Most of the places we went were forward, and if they were occupied by us before, they no longer held that infrastructure,” Timmons said. “WIN-T Increment 2 served as our main [network] backbone for 80 percent of our organizations; only a few sites were on fiber that still resided in Iraq. The WIN-T network was very solid.”
During the deployment, WIN-T Inc 2 enabled the unit to connect to the U.S. tactical secure/non-secure networks and the coalition network. It was also the transport mechanism that enabled the unit to share its common operating picture and primary, alternate, contingency and emergency, or PACE, plan with the rest of the force, Timmons said.
“We tested the equipment before deploying and really maxed out the capabilities as much as we could,” Timmons added. “We tried our best to break them, and they held tough and they held tight.”
With the Soldier Network Extensions, the unit can also extend its operational reach beyond traditional FM line-of-sight radio ranges by using satellite-based capability to retransmit radio signals. Timmons said his unit integrated Soldier Network Extensions into the network to support forward fires battalions.
The Soldier Network Extensions improve the speed and reliability of the fires network, extending network range and increasing survivability for artillery units. It reduces end-to-end fires mission timelines, resulting in fewer dropped fires mission and providing a more reliable network.
“We are part of the world’s only air assault division using helicopters to get deep within enemy territory and seize any terrain,” said Maj. Timothy Chess, 2nd BCT operations officer. “During the advise-and-assist operation to our Iraqi counterparts, all of the sites were expeditionary and used either WIN-T systems or other expeditionary satellite capability [such as inflatable satellite antennas and other small deployable satellite terminals that complemented the WIN-T equipment]. It worked very well there.”
When 2nd BCT, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) returned to the United States in January, it immediately started its new mission as the operational unit for Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 17.2. After extensive preparations, the Army conducted the evaluation in the rigorous combat training environment of Fort Bliss, Texas, in July.
As part of NIE 17.2, the Army successfully executed the operational test for the Lite versions of the WIN-T Inc 2 TCN, which supports command post and on-the-move operations, and Network Operations and Security Center (NOSC), which supports network operations.
Previously, the TCN and NOSC configurations were integrated on five-ton trucks, such as those employed by Task Force Strike in Iraq. To better support expeditionary, quick reaction and air assault mission requirements, the Army integrated these configurations onto HMMWVs, known as Humvees, which can be sling loaded by a helicopter across the battlefield or rolled onto an Air Force C130 aircraft, providing significantly increased agility and operational flexibility.
“The TCN-Lite equipment would have helped us tremendously getting into some of those austere locations,” Timmons said. “[Once fielded] the TCN-Lite will allow the 101st to do the mission that it was meant to do — air assault, moving quickly, establishing communications — you can’t beat its [operational] flexibility.”
In addition to the reduction in size, weight and power requirements, the Army significantly reduced the complexity of these systems to make it easier for Soldiers to operate and maintain them.
Lt. Col. Keith Carter, 1-26 battalion commander for the 2nd BCT, said that being able to sling-load the TCN-L, versus the heavier legacy TCN the unit had in Iraq, enables him to get his mission command systems into the fight earlier.
“I can bring it forward with an initial [air] assault rather than a couple of days later with my truck-based assault,” he said. “That gives us an increased ability to see the battlefield both adjacently, higher and lower to share a common operating picture and to create a shared visualization amongst the echelons of the command. We have a greater ability to keep up the momentum during operations.”
By Amy Walker, PEO C3T