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Article – One Loose Cable: Why the 5th Generation Army Needs a Corps of Combat Communicators

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue of excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Aristotle

Introduction

The continued roll out of Joint Project 2072 (JP 2072) will see the further evolution of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) into a modern, digitised network centric force. The ability of the ADF to master these technologies has posed significant challenges as this evolution has come with a range of consequences, some predicted, others unexpected.

The ADF’s ambition to embrace continual change in relation to network centric warfare does not just involve improving old methods; rather it involves creating and testing entirely new ways of operating. This poses the question: ‘Is there a need for specialist communicators that support commanders at the tactical unit level’?

The main points of this article will discuss the age of network centric warfare, implementation and training, the difference between signallers and communicators, the current patchwork of communications implementation and historical risks of communications failures.

The Age of Network-Centric Warfare

New and evolving technologies and equipment are intended to keep our military in line with international best practises. In the wake of World War II, the ADF has continued its process of modernizing radio systems into the age of network centric warfare. Increased range, capacity and reliability of communications equipment have given the ADF greater tactical abilities and options. Technological advances are, however, constrained without proper integration strategies and recent new systems have come at the price of increased complexity and demand upon individual military personnel.

Many modern day pieces of military communications equipment are built to expand communications capabilities in short, medium, and long-range applications. The tactical wide-band radios have enabled our military to send and receive images, emails, text messages and data over thousands of kilometres at data rates greater than previous generations of Very High and High Frequency radios.  This allows for the sharing of mission critical information and increases the ADF’s situational awareness.

There have been significant steps from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in December 2015 holding a roundtable to discuss the ADF’s approach to modernisation and challenges in its digital journey. Its focus, however, was centred on command and control and falls short of providing a strategic plan that supports the changing needs of the communications environment. The increased education and training needed at unit and individual level has yet to be identified.

New technology and equipment, although providing great tactical advantages, brings with it increased operational complexity and demands. This has led to a shortfall in the doctrine relative to this equipment. The lack of understanding at the facilitation level has resulted in an ad-hoc instructional environment. Policies and procedures have not adapted sufficiently to encompass the instructional requirements of modern radio systems. This has led to a disjointed approach to communication courses, manning shortfalls and outdated training manuals.

Network centric warfare is challenging current policies and has shed light on a system that is well known for resisting change. Training strategies, training policies and implementation of doctrine to a uniform learning standard is a necessary step in order for the ADF to stay a current and a competitive military force.

Implementation and Training

The ADF’s ability to make the best use of this modernised equipment has taken a backseat to the acquisition of new technology, with training being an afterthought. As the ADF approaches five years into the roll out of the digital radio systems, there remains a lack of direction for the use and integration of this equipment.

The ADF should consider the possibility of introducing an organised, structured, dedicated corp such as a Corp of Combat Communicators. Why?… It is essential that the ADF acknowledges the overriding importance of staff training and education in the modernisation process. Software and high tech equipment are of limited use if operators do not have the correct skills, knowledge and attitude to employ it as it is intended.

As part of JP 2072, the Harris system of Military off the Shelf (MOFS) radios were selected to replace the outdated Pintail, Wagtail and Raven (Legacy) systems. These legacy radios are simplex or duplex in operation. Operators set up and power on the radio, enter the frequency and encrypt; at which point the radios are ready to receive and transmit a signal. The Harris system has turned this simplicity on its head. Advanced software , multiple presets, numerous modes and options define the complexity of these radios. Now the platoon signaller has a satellite capable radio system at their fingertips.

The complexities of the Harris radios are matched by advancing military capabilities. Until training and education levels for all these systems are integrated to their full capacity, the utilisation of the new radio systems are limited at best.

To fight effectively, the armed forces must be manned, equipped and trained to operate under dangerous, complex, uncertain, and austere conditions, often with little warning. They require the right personnel operating the right equipment with the right training.  A Corp of Combat Communicators would allow trainers and trainees to provide the evolving learning requirements in communication processes and equipment. Advanced technological equipment in communications is proving to be a highly desirable component in the arsenal of military strategies across the world and the ADF should make it a priority to be trained and efficient in its uses.

Signallers vs Communicators

How would a Corp of Combat Communicators differ from the Royal Australian Corps of Signals (RA Sigs)? On the battlefield the RA Sigs provide commanders with the means of controlling the battle using a number of methods including radio, fibre optics, microwave, information systems and satellite links. Their role is to plan, deploy and maintain robust, scalable, secure local and wide-area networks to ensure the army’s information services are available 24/7 anywhere in the world.

Specialist roles in RA Sigs include Communication System Operators, Telecommunication Technicians, Electronic Warfare Operator and Information System Operators. These detachments are the command, control, communicate, and computer (C4) experts between the Brigade and Unit HQ. RA Sigs provides electronic warfare and information communications technology to support the ADF in enabling situational awareness of deployed forces in all operations, domestic and foreign.

A Corp of Combat Communicators would replace current regimental signallers within units. Combat communicators should be the dedicated experts in modern digital radios and future battle management systems. Duties could encompass and include, maintaining, repairing, troubleshooting, and instructing high tech communications equipment. High physical standards would be of benefit in such a Corps in order to facilitate and support commanders at all levels. They would be the experts in battlefield commentary and counter Electronic Warfare. Communication on the battlefield should be prioritised to the highest standard and a Corp of Combat Communicators would address and prioritise these standards of practice.

Patchwork Communicators

The current provision of Battle-group and below communications is provided by the unit regimental signallers. Regimental signallers consist of personnel drawn from all Corps who have undertaken specialist communications training focusing on their unit specific internal radio systems. These soldiers are expected to fulfil the role of Platoon, Company and Commanding Officer’s signallers as well as maintain a current working knowledge of all relevant communications equipment on top of their Corps specific roles.

Under the current practice, soldiers who have undertaken specialist communications training have done so during specialist courses conducted within their individual units. Once completed, the soldiers could be expected to be posted to Signals Platoon as company detachment members within 12-24 months. Once training is complete, the average soldier will not even look at or place hands on a radio system until they post to a Signals Platoon, losing the necessary skill-sets and functional knowledge required to keep up to date with advances in modern equipment.

Being a regimental signaller does unavoidably come with its own set of challenges. In the new era of advanced technology, action on lost communications now comes down to the operator and their understanding of complex operating modes, programming, fault finding, waveforms and Radio Telephone Procedures (RATEL). These signallers are also required to adjust modem types, modify the global time of day, and facilitate being the master on a Single Channel Ground Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) hopping net. Add to this the upcoming Battle Management Systems (BMS), we could see skill fade being a critical vulnerability of the regimental signaller. The era of simple radios has now concluded.

In my view, the ADF has been somewhat slow to embrace the enhancements to communications security available with these new radio systems.  Half a billion dollars has been spent on arguably the best and most secure radios in the world. However due to the continued lack of understanding of these radios across all ranks, they are still being employed to the same standards as the legacy radio systems. Lack of training and understanding of this modernised equipment has lead to a distrust of its capabilities.

Understanding modern technology and equipment can only lead to a greater capacity that can improve the ADF’s effectiveness. Situational awareness as well as the speed and quantity of information that can be transferred or received will be of greater tactical advantage in the modern battle-space. The ability to act quickly and decisively will be unlike anything previously experienced.

Failing to take advantage of modernized equipment and systems could be attributed to a multitude of reasons such as doctrine shortfalls and resistance to change. There is also currently an absence of the RAINF Regimental Signal WO2, and the All-Corps equivalent, whose duties (as outlined in the Manual of Army Employment) are to provide Subject Matter Expert (SME) advice to the corps on communications issues, supervise and conduct the training for communication specialists, design and implement communications training and liaise with other corps to ensure communication interoperability. Imagine Snipers without a Sniper Master at the School of Infantry. So why has it been and continues to be acceptable for signals not to have a Signals Master?  This gap in unit establishment has led to no consistent standards across Army for these radio systems.

Historical Risks

The ADF needs to evolve its current manning and training structures for communications in order to reduce the risks of outdated practices and avoid incompetence. Although the ADF is procuring and implementing new advanced communications equipment it is far from mastering this technology. The ADF will be dangerously out of date or easily compromised by an enemy possessing the same or more advanced technology if the status quo remains. Unfortunately this risk may not be fully appreciated until the modern equivalent of Gallipoli or Operation Market Garden occurs.

History has proven to be the best measure of failure in the area of radios and communication. 1944 Operation Market Garden was an unsuccessful allied military operation, fought in the Netherlands in the Second World War. The operation was split into two sub operations: ‘Market’ – the airborne forces 1st Airborne Unit and ‘Garden’ – the ground forces consisting of the British Corps. Communication errors were identified as the subsequent failure of this mission. This included using the wrong frequencies along with a general lack of understanding of the radio’s capabilities.

 Conclusion

The ADF should consider the overriding importance of revamping soldier education and training in network centric warfare communications systems and equipment. The current situation does not meet the requirements that come with evolving high-tech communications equipment.

Human error is a very real and present risk that can be better mitigated with a modernised stream-lined training structure which could be achieved by raising a Corp of Combat Communicators. Listen to those identifying shortfalls in the system, stop resisting change and take on board the lessons learned from our predecessors as ‘one loose cable’ could inadvertently cause loss of life.


About the author:

Richard Morgan has served sixteen years in the Royal Australian Infantry (RAINF).  He has served as a Recon Platoon Control Sig, a Signals Detachment Commander in Timor Leste and Regimental Signals SGT. He is currently an instructor at the School of Armour.

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