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FORT POLK, La. Conducting the Army's first large-scale joint force entry air assault in more than 11 years, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), ascended into the night to confront a hostile, mobile threat.
Equipped with handheld smartphone-like devices, advanced radios, chat messaging, mission command software and other communications gear connected to the Army's tactical network, the brigade executed the assault mission as just one part of its training at the Joint Readiness Training Center. In less than 28 hours, the unit shifted focus to an advise-and-assist exercise in preparation for the brigade's upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
The flexibility to switch between two unique mission scenarios is a critical part of the Army's transition into a leaner, more agile and expeditionary force. Such versatility is also an essential element of the Army's new suite of communications gear, known as Capability Set 13.
"This is probably the most complex combat training rotation I have seen in my 23 years in the Army," said Col. J. B. Vowell, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. "The first part was going back to our core competencies of unified land operations and decisive action training. Then, we conducted mission rehearsal for our real deployment mission. There are multiple communications tools that we use depending on which phase of the operation we're in."
Designed as a "tool kit" for commanders to take what capabilities they need to match their mission, CS 13 combines data radios, mission command capabilities and handheld devices networked across waveforms and mobile satellite communications systems to transmit voice, data and video for enhanced situational awareness.
"There's an art to command and control - to using CS 13 - of when to use it and when to command face-to-face," Vowell said. "We're really fleshing that out here. We're learning how to use it in an expeditionary manner."
When the 3-101 "Rakkasans" deploy to Afghanistan to execute their mission, CS 13 capabilities will provide improved situational awareness, mission command applications and data radios to help address the challenges of fewer U.S. Soldiers and more mobile, dispersed operations.
"For counterinsurgency missions I can see a lot of utility," Vowell said. "When you deploy and go with a partner or host nation, you have the ability to take those resources with you. You can be expeditionary."
For example, the capability set's smartphone-like end user device took battle planning and execution to the next level, said Capt. Steven Kurvach, commander of C Company, 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3-101.
"The EUD is what allowed us to control the fight on the ground," Kurvach said. "Before, I would have to stop, pull out a map, overlay and stencil to plot the graphics. Now, with the EUD, I can type up a sit rep (situational report) or plot a front line trace with friendly positions with one hand, while I'm talking to my platoon over the radio with the other hand. It's a more efficient tool in allowing me to push information and guidance to my platoons."
Known as Nett Warrior, the EUD connects to the Rifleman Radio to send and receive information over the Army network.
"I can see exactly where my Soldiers are on the battlefield, in real time, and that's just not a capability we had before," Kurvach said. "We were able to control the individual elements - both the platoon and squad - with precision because we had that real time picture of what the battlefield looks like."
In the future, advancing these digital communications between air and ground would be a much-welcomed addition to visibility on the battlefield, Kurvach said. The 3-101 was able to tailor the network, using the upper tactical network known as Warfighter Information Network-Tactical for planning and reach-back, while relying on radios and EUDs for lower echelons to communicate during the air assault.
The 3-101 will be the Army's fourth brigade to deploy with CS 13 to Afghanistan to work alongside Afghan forces as they assume responsibility for the security of their country.
JRTC, located at Fort Polk, provides realistic pre-deployment training with role players acting as the Afghan army, civilians, village leaders and insurgents. Throughout the training, Soldiers and commanders receive feedback, including after action reviews that rate their performance and tactics.
"We allow visiting units to test and validate their (communications) systems down to the Soldier level in a complex, challenging combat environment," said Col. Carl Kelly, deputy commander, operations group, JRTC. "As technology is introduced into the force, we as a training center are trying to stay in front of the battle waves so we are able to capture what that unit is expected to do with that technology so we can capture best practices and get lessons learned out to the collective force."
The 3-101 finished training at JRTC on Aug. 4. The unit will apply its JRTC experiences and feedback to its growing body of knowledge on the capability set, which its Soldiers received about nine months ago.
"We've touched CS 13 more than other brigades (who were called to deploy faster)," said Maj. Justin Zeverbergen, signal officer with 3-101. "With reflection on JRTC, we now have a way forward of what we need to do for training."