ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Oct. 23, 2014) — Not only are medical workers and aid organizations in West Africa battling a cruel and contagious disease, but they have been doing it largely without the robust communications and digital tracking systems that deliver critical information for successful disaster response.
That is changing, as the Army now deploys tactical network and mission command capabilities to the area that will provide the infrastructure for improved communications between U.S. Africa Command, deploying units, non-governmental organizations and other partners in Operation United Assistance.
“Many of them are already there, working in very austere conditions without communications reach-back,” said Lt. Col. Joel Babbitt, product manager for the Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 1. “This provides the communications reach-back that will allow them to coordinate their efforts as an entire task force. It will make our response to the Ebola crisis much more coordinated and much more effective.”
A crucial first step was completed Oct. 16 when the Army turned on Blue Force Tracking (BFT) satellite coverage over the region, enabling real-time messaging and location status information for vehicles and individuals. As the mission unfolds, that coverage will allow leaders to maintain accountability of Soldiers and aid workers who spread out to conduct operations across the vast and undeveloped area.
In partnership with the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Army exercised an option to extend satellite coverage to the region within less than a week of receiving authorization.
“Having that infrastructure already set up, where you can turn on an option and have coverage, gives the Army the flexibility to respond to developing situations anywhere in the world,” said Lt. Col. Michael Olmstead, product manager for Joint Battle Command-Platform, which manages BFT.
The next step in Liberia is the arrival of WIN-T systems that will serve as the backbone communications infrastructure for the task force headquarters, run by the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). In addition to the WIN-T tactical network nodes that belong to the unit, the Army accelerated delivery of commercial internet enclaves to the 101st Airborne and the 50th Expeditionary Signal Battalion (ESB) that will allow the units to provide network connections for Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross and other NGO partners. The Army is activating commercial services at its Regional Hub Node in Landstuhl, Germany, which will provide the units and responders with reach-back access to the Army’s global information network to transmit voice and data.
“Since they are commercial enclaves, you can go and buy commercial items like a WiFi hotspot, plug them in directly, and you instantly have a connection,” Babbitt said. “The Army is providing the communications backbone for what is inherently a civil response. As engineers flow in to build treatment facilities, they will be operating directly with these NGOs, so the ability to provide a common backbone via commercial internet is critical to an assistance response task force.”
The Army also accelerated efforts to upgrade units’ modems, allowing for higher bandwidth to support the anticipated demand for medical information and other data. The modem upgrade, like the drive to expand commercial internet capability for ESBs, was already underway prior to Operation United Assistance — so the Army was poised for rapid response.
“It highlights the importance of continually modernizing the network so that you can provide these sorts of capabilities when required,” Babbitt said.
Gradually building network capacity as different units arrive in Liberia, Soldiers are deploying with elements of WIN-T Increment 2, including Tactical Communications Nodes, and WIN-T Increment 1, including Joint Network Nodes and Command Post Nodes. As a system of systems or “tool kit,” the network equipment is interoperable and the units can tailor it as needed to provide communications for the joint task force. As the operation progresses, the Army could also add radios, lightweight satellite communications kits and other solutions to meet unit needs.
“This is only the beginning of this mission, and we’re working with the 101st and AFRICOM as their needs evolve to make sure that we give them every tool available to support a very integrated mission with NGOs and with the medical community,” said Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, program executive officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical. “The Ebola response shows why our network must be adaptable and responsive to any contingency. We can’t take six months to build up somewhere and then say ‘It’s time to go fight.'”