Unreliable radio communications proved to be catastrophic when U.S. special operators went into battle against al-Qaida terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan five years ago this month.
In their fight against the guerillas, special operators displayed uncommon courage, according to Sean Naylor in “Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda.” At several key junctures, however, their communication systems failed, and those failures cost lives.
While the book explores inter-service rivalries and chain of command issues that led to chaos when the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions attacked the stronghold in Shahikot Valley, it also detailed “notoriously unreliable satellite radios,” communication systems that weren’t interoperable, and a lack of friendly force tracking.
A half-decade later, special operations troops say their communication systems have improved. But they still have items on the wish lists, including better batteries, lighter equipment and simpler designs.
“Interoperability has greatly improved during the last five years,” said Sgt. 1st Class Rob Hicks, the noncommissioned officer in charge of communications for 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at U.S. European Command, Stuttgart, Germany. “The global war on terrorism has nearly eliminated the problems with interoperability. In my experience, I have been able to talk or data transfer to any other services equipment for at least three years now,” he said via email.
Special operators have unique communications requirements, he explained.
“We are almost always separated from the main military nodes of communication. We operate independently in small groups, but still have to have all the capabilities of the regular military.”
Operators in the field must be equally adept at setting up satellite links in remote locations as they are using standard radios to communicate with allies.
Special operators are known for employing some of the most sophisticated communications systems found in the U.S. military. Along with the breakdowns during Operation Anaconda, there were some successes detailed in the book. In one case, a SEAL team staking out a mountaintop prior to the invasion found an enemy position where a Russian-made DsHK anti-aircraft gun stood poised to shoot down Army Chinook helicopters full of Rangers. The team was able to snap digital pictures and transmit them via satellite to Bagram Air Base near Kabul. Commanders there gave the order for the team to destroy the enemy position, which they did, with the help of an AC-130 gunship. In that case, satellite communications may have saved lives.
Hicks said acquiring the bandwidth for satellite links is an issue that never goes away. The ability to take more detailed photos with today’s high-tech digital cameras, and to send streaming video and audio, is creating more demand for radio spectra, he said.
“Bandwidth has always been an issue and will continue to be one, because the operators have more requirements that need to be filled. Imagery has more details than ever, and the command and control element also needs to have a clearer understanding of the battle space,” Hicks said.
The improved capabilities come at a steep price. The cost of purchasing transponder time on commercial satellites is “staggering,” he added. “Normal tactical communications is very economical, if not totally free, to use. We are being driven to provide a robust communications suite that has leased satellite access and there is a cost incurred.”
As for the radios, Hicks said most have been “put through the common sense check to ensure they work together before the U.S. government commits funding for procurement.”
Three special operations communications specialists who spoke to National Defense during a training mission in Africa, wished they had more input in the development process.
“Make one system that does one thing well before adding capabilities that don’t work,” suggested one of the specialists.
The “one size fits all” mentality creates added weight as engineers tack too many features on one device.
“I think, ‘this is nice, but I probably won’t ever use it.”
“We have capabilities on systems that we don’t even touch,” a second specialist said.
For security reasons, special operators cannot disclose their names. Nor would they identify the brands or specific systems they use.
A 12-man special ops team deploys with four communications systems to ensure a “back up for a back up for a back up,” as one specialist put it. Each team must have at least two signals specialists. They must be able to contact their higher headquarters at all times. If a team splits up while on a mission, one radio operator must accompany each group.
Coordinating the four systems arguably makes the communications specialist’s task one of the most complex on the team.
Weight and durability are key issues, they said. Every piece of equipment must fit in a rucksack and be rugged enough to survive impacts after a jump, and other harsh conditions. If the hardware is fragile and breaks, then they’re hauling dead weight.
“You might as well be carrying around a brick, because you can’t leave it,” one said.
Power is a constant issue, they added.
“They are coming out with better batteries, but you can never have enough.”
Keeping systems running in cold-weather climates such as those found in Afghanistan is also a challenge. While foot soldiers have been known to sleep with their guns, in frigid temperatures, communication specialists sometimes sleep with their laptops to keep the liquid display from freezing and the battery power from degrading.
“We need systems that are lighter weight, durable, reliable, and smaller with stronger batteries,” one specialist said while summing up their needs.
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