Army’s tactical network equipment providing communication lifelines in hurricane devastation

The 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion (ESB) uses organic Tactical Network satellite equipment, including this Satellite Transportable Terminal (STT) center and Joint Network Node (center right vehicle), in September 2017 to provide critical communications in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. | U.S. Army Photo

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — In the aftermath of the monster hurricanes that hit the U.S. mainland and its island territories, the Army is providing the network communications needed to help get these storm ravaged areas back on their feet.

Where communication infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, Army units are using their own organic tactical network transport equipment such as Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, as well as small deployable satellite terminals and the friendly force tracking system called Joint Battle Command-Platform, or JBC-P, to bridge the gap in communications until the local infrastructure can be restored.

“If you can’t talk, the mission suffers beyond words. With massive interagency collaboration requirements, communication assets are vital for the coordination, management and execution of disaster relief efforts,” said Lt. Col. Indira Donegan, commander of the Army’s 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, or ESB, 35th Signal Brigade. “In the wake of a disaster, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, signal units provide the critical communications infrastructure that allow first responders to move quickly and accomplish their mission.”

Hurricane Katia, Irma, and Jose on Sept. 9, 2017. The 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion (ESB) uses organic Tactical Network satellite equipment, including this Satellite Transportable Terminal (STT) center and Joint Network Node (right vehicle), in September 2017, to provide critical communications in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. | U.S. Army photo

Army signal units from U.S. Army North, a component of U.S. Northern Command, including ESBs from 35th Signal Brigade and the 11th Signal Brigade, together with U.S. Army Reserve and Army National Guard units, have been using their own organic WIN-T Increment 1 and other satellite communications equipment to improve communications in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

The Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, or PEO C3T, fields much of this network communication equipment to these units. It has also been providing engineers and subject matter experts to aid in the Army’s support to these devastated areas.

TACTICAL NETWORK COMMUNICATIONS

The 63rd ESB is currently serving as “the voice” of Puerto Rico as its only Title X signal battalion. The unit has employed its tactical network assets throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, supporting various entities including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, local fire and police departments, air traffic control, and multiple military units. Throughout Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria recovery, signal assets from 63rd ESB have made notable impacts on the relief effort, including providing vital voice and data support for airports, medevac missions, high water search and rescue missions and air traffic controller support, Donegan said.

The Army’s 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion (ESB), 35th Signal Brigade’s organic Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) equipment (WIN-T Satellite Transportable Terminal seen center with Joint Network Node the lower right vehicle) is the only source of communications for the air traffic control tower at the Rafael Hernández Airport in Aguadilla, on October 5, 2017. | U.S. Army photo

WIN-T Increment 1 establishes a robust tactical network backbone that provides a full range of data, voice and video communications, using beyond-line-of-sight (satellite and tropo) and line-of-sight (high-capacity radio) communication transport nodes that set up at-the-halt. Signal units are using WIN-T equipment outfitted with commercial network equipment packages provided by the program office. These packages enhance an ESB’s ability to provide commercial phone and internet services to non-governmental organizations so they can communicate with anyone in the world, despite the lack of local communications infrastructure.

For example, the program office sent nearly a dozen small form factor Commercial Coalition Equipment packages, or CCEs, to Puerto Rico to enhance the 35th ESB’s ability to provide commercial phone and internet services on the island. These expeditionary packages can be rapidly reconfigured to provide secure tactical access for the coalition or commercial networks to support both civil and military operations.

Additionally, CCE provides a radio bridging/voice cross-banding capability that enables radios on different frequencies, or different equipment such as radios and cell phones, to seamlessly connect to each other, which is essential in both disaster response or coalition operations where different countries and organizational entities have their own equipment.

Through the Army’s worldwide tactical network Regional Hub Nodes, or RHNs, the WIN-T equipment can relay information anywhere in the world, and in the case of disaster relief efforts, enable the coordination of emergency responders, and critical supplies and equipment between a multitude of civil, humanitarian and military agencies. The two RHNs in the U.S. continue to provide traditional military network services (.mil) services to Army units supporting the relief efforts, but they also help to securely deliver vital commercial internet and phone services to NGOs through the Army’s WIN-T equipment located on site in the disaster zones.

Members of the Florida Army National Guard conduct planning operations at the Camp Blanding Joint Emergency Operations Center, located at the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, in Starke, Florida, September 7. The JEOC’s mission is to conduct response operations to determine the level of support needed and logistics planning in preparation for Hurricane Irma’s potential landfall in Florida. | U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Vann, 107th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

One such example is one of the 63rd ESB’s WIN-T Joint Network Nodes, or JNNs, which is supporting the joint civil-military Rafael Hernandez Airport in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Due to damage sustained during Hurricane Maria, the air traffic control tower could not communicate with inbound flights and the airport only managed to average one flight every 20 hours. Upon the arrival of 63rd ESB’s JNN team, the airport re-opened and sustained an average of 400 flights per day, far exceeding the airports historic average of only 43 flights per day, Donegan said.

“The communication support from 63rd ESB’s WIN-T asset at Rafael Hernandez airport made a direct operational impact, with huge strategic implications for the Hurricane Maria relief effort. Without it, the ability to receive in-bound supply flights and evacuate citizens would have been negligible–solid comms are everything, especially when we have to deliver results in hours and days vice months and years. The 63rd Soldiers are expeditionary to the core, and have performed with absolute excellence,” Donegan said.

When Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys in Monroe County, communications were down completely for a 72-hour time period. Fortunately, the Florida Army National Guard had pre-staged its tactical network communications assets, including WIN-T and smaller SIPR/NIPR Access Point satellite terminals, known as SNAPs, in preparation for the storm, said Lt. Col. Gray Johnson, G6/Chief Information Officer for the Florida Army National Guard.

The Florida Army National Guard 146th ESB used its WIN-T equipment to support both Florida Army National Guard units supporting relief efforts that did not possess their own communications equipment and NGOs, such as Monroe County Emergency Operations Centers.

“Phone towers were down, fibers was cut. They were totally black,” Johnson said. “They wouldn’t have been able to execute mission command, to direct their own fireman, direct their own police officers. We provided the communication assets in Monroe County to enable them to do that until they could get back up on their feet. And then we pulled out.”

In addition to WIN-T and SNAPs, Army units are also employing their organic easy-to-deploy Global Rapid Response Information Package, or GRRIP, satellite terminals to further extend the tactical network, and the Deployable Communications Capabilities System, an Army non-program of record that supports U.S. Northern Command operations by enabling critical communications interoperability between military and civil forces.

CRITICAL SITUATIONAL AWARENESS

Aiding in internal Army communications throughout all of the hurricane relief efforts, units employed their organic vehicle-mounted friendly force tracking system, Joint Battle Command-Platform, or JBC-P and its earlier iteration Joint Capabilities Release, to maintain command and control during the hurricane relief missions.

The JBC-P network component, known as Blue Force Tracking, or BFT, uses its dedicated satellite communications to maintain continuous communication among Soldiers in their Humvees and other tactical vehicles, such as Light Medium Tactical Vehicles, used to transport supplies and rescue citizens from flooded areas. With JBC-P, Soldiers know each other’s exact locations and can conduct chat sessions for optimal collaboration, with no loss of connectivity.

Simulated imagery represents the locations of vehicles using the Army’s Joint Battle Command-Platform, which is managed by Project Manager Mission Command, during the response to Hurricane Irma. | U.S. Army graphic

“BFT is part of our PACE plan…our primary, alternate, contingency, emergency plan,” Johnson said. “The BFT could be an E. If voice is down, your personnel cell phone is down, data is down, meaning your email, you can still text message through that BFT. It rounds out that PACE plan if you need it.”

Additionally, units are using Joint Capabilities Release – Logistics software to help keep track of vital fuel, food, water, and other logistical supplies as they are distributed across areas damaged by the storms.

“We used [JBC-P] a lot of our maneuver elements,” Johnson said. “They used it for text messages and to track movements at battalion and below level. The logisticians used it to track commodities.”

In support of hurricane relief efforts, as of Oct. 11, the Army used different variations of the BFT system in 34 vehicles in Puerto Rico, 64 in Texas and 317 in Florida.

Many of the Army’s signal units in its various branches play a dual role, supporting both civil missions on the homeland, such as relief efforts during hurricanes, forest fires, or floods. However, when called, they also provide communications support for federal contingency missions overseas. Whether fighting in a combat zone or helping with disaster relief efforts, for Soldiers, the functionality of all of these tactical network satellite systems is the same, and the life-saving network capabilities they provide fill critical gaps in communications, Johnson said.

“During disaster relief efforts, communications is undeniably the most important element in providing life-saving aid,” said Donegan said. “Without communications, there is no way to respond to emergency calls for help, or to coordinate the critical equipment, supplies and personnel needed to assist these devastated areas. Our network communications equipment is restoring that critical communication lifeline both internally within these disaster zones and externally, connecting them to the outside world.”

By Amy Walker, PEO C3T Public Affairs