ABOARD USS BATAAN -- While you may use your phone and internet to call for pizza or download music, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit uses similar tools to call in airstrikes or send an infantry battalion into battle.
With such high stakes riding on a good communications pipeline, one can see why communications is a vital factor to mission accomplishment, especially for a MEU which operates independent of most support.
Enter the MEU's S-6 section. The S-6 is the all-encompassing group of Marines who enable the MEU to achieve successful, stable communications across a broad spectrum of platforms.
Maj. Jay Macias, communications officer for the MEU, said the mission of his department is technically complex but very straightforward.
"Our job is very simple," he said. "We provide the commander and staff the ability to command and control his forces whether in full combat operations or in support of humanitarian missions, disaster relief, etcetera"
Col. Gregg A. Sturdevant, commanding officer of the 26th MEU, said communication is essential to the success of MEU missions.
"Without good connectivity and the ability to communicate it is difficult to achieve mission success," he said. "If the Command Element is incapable of communicating with subordinate units it makes it very difficult to perform our main function (which is) command and control."
Establishing and maintaining the communications for the unit is no small feat.
The MEU is made up of roughly 2,200 Marines and sailors and is comprised of a Command Element and its major subordinate elements (MSEs); a Ground Combat Element (GCE), an Aviation Combat Element (ACE) and a Logistics Combat Element (LCE).
The S-6 supports the communications needs of all the elements.
"We have the capabilities to provide the same services as a provider in a small city," said Macias.
The difference is that the small city in this case is a highly mobile unit which rarely stays emplaced for very long. The mobility of the MEU is its hallmark, and the S-6 has to be able to keep up with the rest of the units and their needs.
"After an offload, in a little more than 48 hours, we can go from an empty desert to fully supporting the needs of more than 2,000 Marines in six separate locations," Macias said. Noting the set up ashore during the MEU's recent training in Kuwait he added, "In less than 12 hours the Command Element was fully command and control capable."
The S-6 provides the full-spectrum of current communications capabilities to the MEU.
"We can provide teams tailor-made for a specific mission-or we can bring all 59 Marines ashore to provide everything from video-teleconferencing, classified and unclassified email, to telephones," Macias said. "In addition, we have the ability to provide access to news channels and other forms of streaming video."
As the communicators from the S-6 support each element and their missions, Macias said a key to the success of his section is its adaptability. He said each mission and situation requires a different team composition, which takes different, specialized equipment to support the specific missions.
The S-6 is comprised of three distinct sub-sections: Radio, Data and the Joint Task Force Enabler (JTFE). Each of these sections deals with a specific part of the greater communications network for the MEU.
The radio communications section deals directly with voice communications for the MEU.
Macias said a contingent of radio Marines is often one of the first ashore during a movement.
"By sending in a small communications team in first we maintain command and control," he said.
As more Marines and equipment go ashore, the radio Marines eventually establish an area of a base camp referred to as the "antennae farm", or "ant farm", because of the amount of aerial antennas which rise above it.
Cpl. Ruben J. Salazar, Radio Operator Supervisor for the section, said his section's job is to maintain the lines of communication between the MEU as a whole.
"We make sure everyone can talk to each other by providing communication for the Command Element and all the other MSEs," he said.
They do this via a number of different methods.
"We set up VHF networks and satellite communications networks, and then connect them so every element can use them," Salazar said.
The networks of the communications section allow the MEU to reach as close or far out into the world as is needed.
"VHF is more for ranges and local communications, UHF is for line-of-site, HF reaches a little longer than VHF and SATCOM can reach anywhere in the world," Salazar said.
The portability of some of the equipment also allows the radio section of the S-6 to be the most mobile and tactical section.
"The single-channel radio section is a fluid team that allows the forces in battle to talk by tactical radios," Macias said.
Sturdevant said communications technology has come a long way during his tenure in the Marine Corps.
"Look at man-portable radios, for example," he said, "Instead of having to carry three separate radios plus (cryptographic) gear, you can now use a single radio to accomplish the same task."
After an initial offload, the Joint Task Force Enabler section of the S-6 begins to set up their equipment, a high-tech array designed to provide most of the communications systems not covered by radio.
"The cornerstone of the MEU's ability to command and control is the JTFE," said Macias, adding, "That is the hub by which we provide the phones, email, and wideband data and voice services."
Sgt. Christopher M. Nunn, ground mobile forces satellite communications operator in the JTFE section, said his section provides services "anywhere in the world." He said without the JTFE the MEU would have less communications capability, impeding the mission capabilities of the MEU. He also emphasized the importance of the secure lines which the JTFE provides the commanders.
"If we didn't have secure comm we would leak essential information," said Nunn.
Once the JTFE system is in place, the Marines connect it to the newest acquisition to the MEU's communications system.
The 26th MEU's deployment marks the first time the MEU Support Wide Area Network (MSWAN) has deployed with a MEU.
The MSWAN has made the communications concerns of the past irrelevant for the MEU. In the past, communications became exponentially more difficult as the Command Element and its MSEs became more separated. The MSWAN system has changed that, and now the MEU can maintain communications with its elements beyond line-of-sight or cable connections.
"Prior to the MSWAN we had to be geographically co-located (with the MSEs)," Macias said. "But the MSWAN allows us to be separated and still give the commander complete command and control capabilities."
The MSWAN does not just allow for voice communications like a radio; it allows the MSEs to harness the full communications suite of the MEU.
"The MSWAN allows us to push all the capabilities of the JTFE down to the MSEs," Macias said.
While the JTFE Marines are responsible for setting up and providing the services the JTFE allows, it is the job of the Data Section Marines to actually harness and control the information pathways that flow from it. The Data Marines are the gatekeepers to the JTFE system.
"We are the network administrators, we run the servers, maintain email boxes and also release messages," said Sgt. Vicente Gutierrez.
In addition, the Data Marines maintain the computers the MEU uses to access the JTFE.
"We have technicians that are certified and can fix just about any kind of hardware problems," he said. "We also provide software to Marines so they can accomplish their missions."
Data Marines also are normally part of the first teams that go ashore.
"One of the first things they use in the field is the Communications Support Teams," said Gutierrez.
According to Gutierrez, a Data Marine carrying a laptop computer and a satellite uplink system can provide secure electronic communications within five-minutes.
"That's important because we then have communications to the ship long before the JTFE is even ashore," he said.
The three sections of the S-6 give the 26th MEU some of the best and most technologically advanced communications systems in the world and make it a formidable, mobile force capable of operating anywhere in the world.
But despite the high-tech systems and equipment the MEU takes to the field, Macias is quick to point out what he feels is the most important piece of the communications department.
"What I'm most impressed with and proud of is the Marines", he said, adding, "Ultimately, the technology doesn't matter; it is the Marines. They make it work."
The importance of the job done by the S-6 is noted by the commander.
"I count on the S-6 to provide accurate, timely, and relevant information to assist me with decision making," Sturdevant said, adding, "I am extremely pleased and impressed with the S-6 section's professionalism and their ability to get the job done."
The 26th MEU is currently conducting Maritime Security Operations (MSOs) in the Middle East with the ships of the Bataan Strike Group.
Coalition forces conduct maritime security operations under international maritime conventions to ensure security and safety in international waters so that all commercial shipping can operate freely while transiting the region.
In addition to the Command Element, the MEU is comprised of the GCE, Battalion Landing Team 2/2, the ACE, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Rein), and the LCE, Combat Logistics Battalion 26.
For more on the MEU, including news, videos and contact information, visit www.usmc.mil/26thmeu.