Military branches combine for Joint Lightning exercise

Cannon Connections: Tony Bullocks Roy Priest of GATR Technologies talks about an inflatable satellite prototype Thursday. The satellite would replace a traditional saucer satellite dish used to transmit and receive signals.

By Gabriel Monte: Cannon Connections

Inside what looks like an 8-foot tall green beach ball is a satellite terminal that represents the future of special operations communications technology.

Tethered by cables tied to four metal plates, the inflatable satellite was surrounded by three tents housing millions of dollars worth of communications equipment.

The mobile communications unit is the hub of a two-week long exercise at Cannon Air Force Base involving special operations forces units from the Air Force, Marine Corps and Army.

“This is the only exercise in (the U.S. Special Operations Command) of its nature,” said Col. Anthony Faughn, director of the communications for AFSOC.

The goal of the exercise is to synchronize communication technologies during special operations missions, according to Capt. Johnnie Jones of the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to marry our communications skills and train with our component brethren,” he said. “It’s essential for us to be able to communicate with the Air Force and Army and the like.”

High-technology communications have changed the way wars are fought. Instead of the trench warfare used in World War II, wars are commonly fought by smaller, specialized covert units, according to Capt. Vic Norris of the Air Force Special Operations Command.

Communications is the glue that holds the operation together, according to Faughn.

Faughn said Cannon was an ideal location for the exercise because the flat lands allowed the units to train with wireless systems that require a line of sight between antennas. He said the antennas can work up to 30 miles away from each other.

Capt. Eddy Edwards, who is in charge of the AFSOC deployable communications program, said it enables communicators to set up a network without having to dig trenches to lay cables, which enables stations to move with less equipment and leave areas quicker.

Special operations communicators need to set up their stations as soon as possible and with little equipment, according to Edwards.

“We try not to disturb as much of the infrastructure as possible,” said Edwards. “A small footprint is the key.”

The inflatable satellite terminal is a prototype that weighs less than 150 pounds and packs into two cases, according to Roy Priest of GATR Technologies, the manufacturer of the satellite. He said the inflatable satellite dish can withstand 60 mph winds. And it costs less than satellite dishes, which costs about $600,000, according to Norris.

How special operations communications systems work:

Special operations command units use the Department of Defense information system, which is basically the military’s version of the Internet, according to Norris.

Step sites located worldwide beam the DOD network to satellites in orbit.

When special operations units set up communication tents, satellite terminals receive the information and separate it into Internet, radio and telecommunication signals.