HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
An innovation in military communications made its first contribution to combat operations. In support of Regimental Combat Team 8, International Security Assistance Force, Marines from 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit attached to Battalion Landing Team 3/8 used the new Lofted Communications System to support ground communications in Helmand province , Afghanistan, Feb. 8, 2011.
The system, known as Lofted Comms, uses a communications relay attached to a helium balloon. It supported BLT 3/8's Company I conducting counter-insurgency operations in Helmand province. BLT 3/8 recently arrived in Afghanistan to establish and maintain security in portions of Helmand province not previously permanently occupied by ISAF. The security the Marines provide is intended to neutralize insurgent networks and support development projects, allowing the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to foster socio-economic development in the area.
Lofted Comms can relay encrypted and non-encrypted data and radio communications up to hundreds of miles. It can be operated in a tethered mode, in which the balloon and payload are recovered, or un-tethered, where the balloon and payload are released. The payload contains no sensitive equipment or data and does not have to be recovered.
According to Sgt. Kenneth Van Dame, non-commissioned officer-in-charge of the Lofted Comms detachment, each mode has advantages and disadvantages. Tethered mode offers a shorter range of extending communications and may not overcome some obstacles, but it allows multiple use of the same balloon and payload. Un-tethered mode allows the balloon to rise up to 80,000 feet, overcoming obstacles like mountains and even curvature of the Earth, but lasts only as long as winds keep the balloon in the area and affords only one use per balloon and payload.
26th MEU first experimented with lofted communications in Kuwait in Jan. 2009 during sustainment training for its 2008/2009 deployment. Further testing and refinement during the past two years has led to a system the Marines say they are proud to employ.
"We've put a great deal of effort into making this system support the Marines on the ground," said VanDame. "It feels good to use it in support of real operations, knowing that all that work is helping Marines communicate."