Signal Strength

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro
  • Airman Magazine

The surrounding terrain was savage and impassable; the elevation left the non-indigenous laboring to breathe. The only way in and out of the remote Afghan region was along a hellacious pass, divided by a mountain range: aptly and religiously referred to as “IED Alley.”

During the winter, the snow and cold were paralyzing; the resupply route became impenetrable and drinking water froze. During the spring and summer, the high elevation created microclimates that would fog in the camp – hiding the approach of the enemy and ultimately leaving the base vulnerable to attack.

From a tactical perspective, the deck was forever stacked in the opposition’s favor.

Among the dozens of special forces personnel, residing at the forward operating base (FOB) was an unassuming communications specialist. To blend in on arduous and isolated missions throughout the rural parts of Afghanistan, he remained plain clothed and brandished a customary beard. His importance was well known; he was the link between the FOB, the battlefield, and the command headquarters — the mission hinged on his expertise.

Just two months into his six-month tour, came a set of orders from higher headquarters to assemble a convoy and seek out a high-level operative in one of the neighboring villages.

The trip started out as usual; crews assembled in their mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, and headed through the wire at calculated intervals. The faint plinking sound of sporadic small arms fire reverberating throughout the MRAP cabin served as a reminder that the enemy was everywhere and watching the convoy’s every move. For nearly an hour everything remained normal—then all hell broke loose.

First, the lead truck struck an incendiary device, engulfing the exterior in fire. Just moments later, a pressure-plate improvised explosive device (IED) completely shredded the second vehicle. Rushing to assess the damage, the trailing teams found the crew badly concussed. While calling back to base for support, the communications specialist was abruptly interrupted by the sound of another explosion. A member of his team had stepped on a mine.

In the same motion, he dropped the phone, ran to assist the injured, and quickly set up as a perimeter guard. What was supposed to be an eight-hour mission turned into three days of sheer pandemonium. Throughout the mayhem, the physically isolated and besieged convoy was never alone. The specialist maintained the communications lifeline between the stricken convoy, the FOB and headquarters, enabling medevac and response personnel to navigate to the scene.

This scenario is not foreign to most infantry or special operations units, but for an Air Force communications specialist, it’s practically unheard of. That’s why, when squad-mates found out the subdued technician was actually an Air Force technical sergeant attached to the Joint Communications Support Element (JCSE); they gained a new respect for him and the JCSE.

Joint force; Joint communications

As with Owens’ unusual deployment, there is nothing ordinary about the JCSE, which draws its personnel from the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. Each and every aspect of the organization is tailored to a specific mission set directed by the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and adapted at the customer’s request.

Given the priority of the missions they support, time is of the essence. That is why JCSE provides immediate deployment backing to regional combatant commands within 72 hours. In short, when world events necessitate U.S. military aid or intervention, these tactical technicians are among the first boots on the ground.

“Communications is one of three basic tasks in the military: move, shoot, and communicate,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Giles, commander of the 290th Joint Communications Support Squadron. “Before you can move and shoot, you must establish communications. Essentially, if you can’t communicate everything else breaks down.

“Because of that factor, the Joint Communications Support Element’s core mission it to provide premier communications, anywhere across the planet. Our taskings might be from a ship or submarine; might be from an airplane; might be from the ground. We must be ready to provide communications in all three domains.”

No matter if it’s by land, sea or air, JCSE is trained to respond to any situation. Their tactical capabilities allow for airborne and maritime insertion with the ability to set up in the most austere environments – and for good reason. Every moment they are not deployed, they spend training to deploy.

“These are not standard deployments and missions that we go on, we operate in some very dangerous locations; the weapons are different, the environments are different, and the situations require a different set of specialized training,” Giles said. “We must go above the typical combat, life saving, and weapons familiarizations – our job depends on it, our customers depend on it, and lives depend on it. We do everything we can to train and prepare for events we hope to never encounter.”

To meet the expansive mission requirement, the JCSE maintains a professional force of trained, rapidly deployable communications experts skilled in the latest forms of network and telecommunications. Their diverse and flexible organization is comprised of both active and Reserve forces — including three active-duty squadrons, two Air National Guard squadrons, and one Army Reserve squadron. They are a true model of total force integration routinely exercising and deploying together and working side by side with foreign nations.

Mr. President; meet Airman McGyver

Aside from being one of the most tactically prepared joint units in the Department of Defense, the JCSE is also one of the most technically proficient and diverse. Unlike any other communications unit, they have their own university on their compound, which bridges the gap between civilian and joint communications technologies. Every new member that is assigned to the organization must go through the six

“In this organization it doesn’t matter what your specific type of communications background was before you came,” Owens said. “In the Joint Communications Support Element, if you are a communicator, you must be able to do all aspects of the job.

“You could come in on Monday and work executive problems for units in D.C.; Tuesday you could be working satellite communications issues for multiple bases, Wednesday you could be working phone voice issues for regional support teams, and on Thursdays you could be working with troops downrange in Afghanistan getting their communications kits back on the air. Any and every day of the week can be something different and you must be prepared.”

“There was an issue not long ago where President Obama lost secure communications during a very important situation and had to resort to relaying messages via a carrier,” Owens said. “It was at that moment the president said ‘we need to fix this.’ The White House Communications came to us, knowing what we do, and said, ‘can you fix this?’

“We said, ‘give us a minute’ and within a short amount of time, one of our technicians sketched out a design on a cocktail napkin. On the napkin were the basics of the kit needed to accomplish the mission. We said, ‘we can do it.’ We went down to the local hardware store to get boxes, and one of our power guys even grabbed the battery out of his portable smoker. Next thing we knew, we had this Frankenstein kit – but it worked so we passed it on. Two days later the president’s team requested 20 more. Within seven days we were shipping out products.”


Big crisis, big response

At any given time, one-third of the JCSE is deployed in support of regional combatant commands, the Special Operations Command, and other agencies directed by USTRANSCOM. Typically, the teams are comprised of four to eight service members, but from time to time, a mission demands a more sizable squad.

People often ask why the JCSE is so important in today’s day in age, with such tremendous cellphone and internet-communication capabilities worldwide. To that he answers:

“Anyone can buy a phone or computer, go around the world, and communicate freely, but the problem is, they can’t do that securely. We bring the capability of type-1 encrypted transmissions over commercial or military satellites, so our leaders can have the assurance that no one is seeing or hearing what they are transmitting.”