Exercise highlights wireless communications

USAF photo: Airman 1st Class Evelyn Chavez Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, is briefed during the Joint Lightning communications exercise July 15. Wurster visited the base during the second annual AFSOC communications exercise that took place July 12-25.

By 2nd Lt. Raymond Gobberg

By 2nd Lt. Raymond Gobberg

27th SOW

Gone are the days when airmen, Marines, and soldier communicators dug trenches to lay cables for a secure communication network in a deployed environment.

Providing a glimpse into the future, more than 100 of these communications experts, from across the Air Force, Army, and Marines gathered here July 12-25 for Operation Joint Lightning, where they successfully employed state-of-the-art equipment designed to create secure line-of-sight communication capabilities.

A secure wireless signal was shot from one point to another, in this case from Cannon, to Melrose Range, 28 miles away, completely free of ground cables across that distance. The result was a secure wireless network that forces linked to, sharing voice, video, and other data. All are essential elements for successful combat operations.

This “DoD first” could only be executed at Cannon, said Col. Anthony Faughn, Air Force Special Operations Command, A-6 Director of Communications from Hurlburt Field, Fla.

“By coming to Cannon, it allows us to test something that we cannot do at Hurlburt,” said Colonel Faughn. “At Hurlburt, there is a lot of testing going on and competing priorities; in the (Melrose) Range we don’t have those problems.”

This, coupled with the uniqueness of space at Cannon allowed for vast flexibility in the application of radio frequencies, said Colonel Faughn.

Communication over this wireless network was the culmination of two weeks of joint interaction, training, and learning. Airmen, Marines, and soldiers executed scenarios in the morning and conducted side-by-side classroom training in the afternoons.

“The Marines are teaching a class to the Air Force, the Army is doing the same thing, and they are in our classes,” continued the Colonel.

The joint aspect of Operation Lightning has been an extraordinarily beneficial learning experience for all services, according to Army Sgt. David Hughes, team chief of the 112th Signal Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C.

“Joint Lightning is an opportunity for special operations communicators across the command to get together and train together like we will in the real world,” said Sgt. Hughes. “It is good to see what our counterparts are using, to learn from them, and to teach them a little of what we know and what our experiences have been; it helps us grow as one community.”

Since most of the time these communicators use the same gear downrange, an opportunity to train on equipment in an environment emulating deployment is extremely useful when they execute a real operation together, said Capt. April Pierce, chief of the Air Force Forces Plans and Policy Branch at AFSOC.

In addition to establishing a secure wireless network, the communicators showcased several pieces of communication hardware that can be much more rapidly transported and deployed.

Much of the networking gear displayed can be set up for initial communication within 30-45 minutes, as opposed to the fixed communications dishes, which can take as long as three to four days. This rapidly deployable, rugged hardware fits perfectly with the quick-response nature of the special operations mission.

One piece of equipment, the Ground Antenna Transmit Receiver or GATR inflatable satellite, weighs less than 150 pounds and provides more coverage throughout the world in a significantly smaller package, according to Roy Priest of GATR technologies, the satellite manufacturer. Demonstrating its advantages, Priest said that the satellite can be packed into two carry-on sized cases and can withstand 60 mph winds, both characteristics that fixed dishes lack.

Overall, Operation Joint Lightning has been widely successful and extremely beneficial for the training of special operations communicators across the U.S. military, so much that special operations leadership is looking to broaden the scope of this exercise, said Colonel Faughn.

“General Wurster, (Commander, Air Force Special Operations Command), hopes that this will eventually become a Special Operations Command exercise, not an AFSOC exercise,” continued Colonel Faughn. “Everything in Special Operations Command depends on communications, not only Air Force, but Marines, Navy Seals, and Army Rangers need to be interoperable. You have to practice together and this provides the perfect forum for doing that.”