Coalition Communications: Still A Challenge, But Improving

By Grace V. Jean
HONOLULU — Naval and ground troops from U.S. and coalition forces have long complained about not being able to talk to one another. While a new communications system deployed aboard ships has improved interoperability between nations, the ability to talk remains a challenge.  

During the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise here, the 10 participating nations have all invested in hardware that is compatible with a web-based communications network that allows them to interact with their coalition peers across language and government classification barriers.

The system, called Centrix, is a command and control network upon which the forces can email, chat and post information just as they do on websites in their own nations’ secure networks.  

“Everyone’s able to communicate via the same path,” says Capt. Pete Tomczak, deputy director for training at the Navy’s Third Fleet. The system replicates what’s done in Fifth Fleet, which covers the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he adds.

“This has been one of the real success stories of this RimPac,” says Vice Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the Navy’s Third Fleet and the commanding officer of the exercise. “Two days after we arrived, and we got underway, the entire force was effectively communicating with each other. That’s hard to do when it’s a U.S.-only exercise because it’s just hard at sea to make these systems work. I was very pleased with how that went.”

Aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, sailors and Marines laud the system as being one of the most effective tools in the exercise. “That communications piece is critical,” says Lt. Col. Robert Rice, operations officer for the Special Marine Air Ground Task Force that is embarked aboard the ship. The force had deployed a reconnaissance team that was operating about 40 nautical miles away. “The fact that we can reach out that far and have good communications is good,” he says.

“If they see things and they can’t communicate back to me, it doesn’t affect my decision-making.”
The team takes photos of the objective and sends that data back to the ship where it is downloaded for commanders to make near-instantaneous decisions.

But ashore, during the non-combatant evacuation operation portion of the exercise, there’s somewhat of a different story in communications. Ashore, Canadian soldiers are providing security operations while the U.S. Marines prepare to evacuate civilians at a notional embassy.

“The Canadians’ radios don’t have the same crypto as our radios,” says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Holt, the operations officer for 3rd Marine Regiment who is leading the Special Marine Air Ground Task Force mission ashore. “We have to embed a radio operator with them, and they’ve done the same with us so we can talk and communicate and do our operations together.”

Earlier in the exercise, when the task force’s company of Indonesian and U.S. Marine platoons was embarked on the Australian ship, HMAS Tobruk, communications were a challenge initially to talk to the forces, says Holt. But then the team discovered the computers that were running on the Centrix network, which allowed them to communicate via chat and pass data and plans via email, he adds.

“It’s been a good experience,” says Holt.

Locklear says that he wants to increase the size of the exercise and include more nations. The Russians, Colombians and Mexicans all sent small teams of observers to RimPac. Planners at Third Fleet hope that those nations will decide to participate in the next one in 2010.

“The key to interoperability is having a way to talk with each other and communicate,” says Locklear. “We need to figure out how to get new partners into that system so that they feel comfortable in this environment.”

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Marine Corps News, Navy News

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