Communications Marines test skills in urban terrain

15 Oct 2002 | Sgt. Roman Yurek

While the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit has an arsenal of weapons, vehicles and aircraft and the highly skilled Marines to put them to use, none could effectively accomplish any mission without good communications.

While most commanders would agree that communications are fundamental to the accomplishment of any mission, the means by which Marines communicate become as challenging as they are vital in the chaos of the urban jungle.

When the MEU arrived in Dayton, Ohio, for its Training in an Urban Environment Exercise (TRUEX), one of the first priorities was to establish a solid communications link with higher headquarters and with the aircraft, vehicles and elements that would be streaming into the area.  That is where the Joint Task Force Enabler, a portable satellite communications system, comes to center stage.

Built around a tactical satellite dish, the JTF Enabler can arrive within any theater and establish robust communications services within six hours of being on the ground.  Some of these capabilities include tactical and commercial telephone services, classified and unclassified Internet and e-mail communications, robust intelligence collection pathways, all of which are powered by the JTF Enabler's internal power supply.

"The JTF Enabler is our lifeblood once we deploy ashore," said Col. Andrew P. Frick, Commanding Officer, 26th MEU.  "In today's information-rich environment, the ability for me to be able to pick up a phone and talk to Maj. Gen. Osman [II Marine Expeditionary Force Commanding General] or other higher headquarters or send a status report via secure or unclassified e-mail as soon as I get on the ground is a big benefit that we didn't have when I did my first deployment many years ago," Frick said.

The urban setting presented a unique set of challenges to Marines in the air, on the ground and at the MEU command post at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.  Because tall structures prevent line-of-sight communications and sound waves experience interference from structures, facilities and competing electronic signals, communications between Marines on the ground and pilots and crews in the air supporting them can sometimes fail.  This is where redundant communications play a key role.  Finding a way to talk to the aircraft or warriors on the ground and accomplish the mission is a major obstacle to overcome, said 1stLt Trish Myler, officer-in-charge, JTF Enabler detachment.

First Lt. Myler, SSgt Dennis Lalena and the other Marines that comprise the JTF Enabler attachment are tasked with the mission of establishing and maintaining open communications between the MEU command element, all the MEU's subordinate elements and higher headquarters.  Myler knows the burden that she and her Marines carry, but they persevere.  "Our first priority once we get on the ground is to establish the location of the satellite dish where we can get an unobstructed shot to the satellite.  After we establish a good shot, we then build the network around it," Myler said.

In order of priority, we establish the power from the tactically quiet generators, satellite link, the technical control facility which is where the electronic circuits and networks are controlled, and lastly emplace wires throughout the camp to bring everyone online, said Cpl. Jonathan A. Rybkiewicz, a JTF Enabler non-commissioned officer.

"Maintaining a network as expansive as this one is a daunting task, but our Marines are well-trained and work hard, long hours to make it happen.  The urban environment was definitely a challenge, but SSgt Lalena and his Marines were up to the task.  I was pleased with their effort in Dayton," Myler said.

On his most recent deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, Lalena and a group of Marines provided telephone, secure and unclassified e-mail services and other communications for more than 3,600 U.S. and coalition armed forces.  While his gear was the same during TRUEX, Lalena's Marines are mostly new to the MEU's high-tempo operations thereby requiring expert training and sound leadership.

The Marines operating the JTF Enabler strive to ensure that the MEU commanding officer has all the communication assets available to him in the urban setting that he would have in garrison or any other combat environment, Lalena explained.  "My Marines were able to set up these local communication lines in the headquarters building by tapping into the existing wires.  By using existing wires, we did not have to use as much field wire in and around the building," Lalena said.  It is just that kind of improvisation and infrastructure analysis that makes these Marines successful time after time, he said.

After the basic informational and communications infrastructure is in place, the first priority is facilitating the MEU's intelligence collection assets.  On a near hourly basis, the intelligence section needed to be able to communicate the most recent information gathered about an objective to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Reinforced), the Maritime Special Purpose Force and the command element.  This is where MEU command element radio operators stepped into the foreground.

The ability to receive and communicate information through electronic or voice communications allowed the MEU to effectively plan and execute each assigned mission.  For every mission, communicators verified the serviceability of the radios, established the networks and communications procedures and issued frequencies.

"We maintained communications so everyone could talk when they needed to talk," said GySgt. Antonio Martinez, Radio Chief for the 26 MEU command element. "My Marines did an outstanding job as no radios went down during the nearly three-week exercise," he said.

In addition to maintaining good communications in this difficult urban area, the exercise enabled these Marines the opportunity to fine-tune their speed and efficiency of establishing, maintaining and breaking down communication assets.  "We advertise a six-hour standard for the establishment of basic services, but that is a hard standard to maintain without practice," Myler said.  "This was good practice as was our most recent work at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia with the [Battalion Landing Team]."

"In every exercise, we take away something from each mission," explained Lalena.  "We are constantly preparing and planning to be better and faster for the next time we have to set up.  When the call goes out for [communications] on the battlefield, the Marines of the 26th MEU Joint Task Force Enabler will be ready."

"In my experience, the communicators on the MEU are always right on target and right on time," said SgtMaj. Frank J. Knox, the MEU Sergeant Major.  "They worked through adversity and always maintained a positive attitude about everything they did in Dayton.  To my knowledge, we never experienced a loss of connectivity that impacted operations.  It's the kind of performance that we expect and they did not disappoint."

To learn more about the Joint Task Force Enabler or the communications Marines of the 26th MEU, visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.