Bold Alligator 2012, the largest Navy/Marine Corps amphibious exercise in the past 10 years, tested the limits of naval equipment, personnel and training. Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic (NCTAMS LANT) was a key player in the exercise providing vital communications links for command and control of operating forces.
To give you an idea of the scale of BA12 and the complexity of communications, consider that exercise participants included two submarines, 25 ships, 120 aircraft, 20,000 Sailors and Marines, along with forces and assets from eight other countries.
Embedded within their participation in BA12 were the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group's Joint Task Force Exercise and Composite Unit Exercise; the Iwo Jima and 24th MEU certification exercise; and Riverine Group 1 Maritime Security Operations Ready certification by Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. These pre-deployment exercises are designed to forge individual units into a cohesive fighting force.
The exercise scenario combined synthetic and live training which allowed units to meet their training objectives. BA12 included three large-scale events within the exercise: an amphibious assault at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; an aerial assault from the sea into Fort Pickett, Va.; and an amphibious raid on Fort Story, Va.
Units were required to demonstrate their ability to effectively carry out their missions in a challenging communications environment, which involved close coordination and execution with NCTAMS LANT and other shore facilities, such as NCTAMS PAC, Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station (NCTS) Naples and the Naval Satellite Communications Facility Northwest in Virginia.
Among other capabilities, NCTAMS LANT provided the connectivity for alternate secure and non-secure Internet Protocol (IP) service paths and ultra high frequency (UHF) voice nets.
NCTAMS LANT provided the data, voice, messaging and video communications systems for command and control during each phase of the exercise, including capabilities from the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS), Commercial Broadband Satellite Program (CBSP) and all IP services. There was continuous planning and coordination between the war-fighting platforms and communication providers due to the complexities of the communications involved. NCTAMS LANT advised operational commanders within BA12 about support that the regional shore communications facilities, such as the Unified Atlantic Region Network Operations Center (UARNOC), NAVSATCOMMFAC Northwest and NCTS Naples could provide, especially in the areas of messaging, IP services, voice nets and video. NCTAMS LANT also worked closely with afloat units, embarked Marine Corps units, combatant commanders and the U.S. Air Force 527th Space Aggressor Squadron.
The success of the communications in BA12, and the other embedded exercises, would not have been possible without the diligent operations and reporting between NCTAMS LANT's messaging and tech control divisions, as well as the UARNOC, the regional IP service provider for the ships and the satellite Earth stations responsible for the physical receipt and transmission of the electromagnetic signals between ships and shore.
The NCTAMS LANT messaging division manages regional naval messaging systems. The division operates such IP-based systems as Fleet SIPRNET Messaging (FSM), the Navy Regional Enterprise Messaging System (NREMS) and Navy Interface for Command Email (NICE), as well as legacy systems, such as the Common User Digital Information Exchange System (CUDIXS) and Fleet Broadcast. The NCTAMS LANT tech control division terminates and troubleshoots RF communications circuits, including but not limited to those used for IP services.
NCTAMS LANT's Joint Fleet Telecommunications Operations Center (JFTOC) watch officer, the central point of contact for communications and troubleshooting within the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian Ocean regions, maintained careful coordination with operators and area supervisors. The JFTOC watch officer ensured that operators at the supporting shore commands were properly executing the requirements of the exercise. Furthermore, JFTOC was responsible for tracking the real-time communications capabilities and limitations of the units involved, as well as informing the NCTAMS LANT chain of command of relevant changes in capabilities.
BA12 was designed to challenge the operational commanders as well as the operating forces. As part of the scenario, Commander Strike Force Training Atlantic (CSFTL) laid the blueprint for just how and when communications outages would occur to force units to quickly come up with alternatives. For example, if super high frequency (SHF) IP platforms were denied, there was an extremely high frequency (EHF) platform available. If an UHF command net was lost, EHF or Iridium satellite phones could be used for secure point-to-point communications.
The ability to quickly switch from one communications method to another is important because capabilities in real operating environments can be lost or denied by enemy forces at any time, and the various frequencies and methods of communications cannot be used at the same time, therefore, communications professionals must be able to quickly assess a lost connection, rapidly restore it, or come up with an alternative.
NCTAMS LANT and its subordinate commands, NCTS Naples and NCTS Bahrain, and NAVSATCOMMFAC Northwest, UARNOC and the commercial SHF providers shared tasks relating to the planned outages and provided procedures to prevent disruption. Procedures included testing the connectivity of existing circuit trunks and ensuring non-disruption by instructing operators how to maintain connectivity and verify that alternate circuit trunks were in place in the event of a circuit outage where outages were not planned.
NCTAMS LANT's operational priorities are always defined by the current situation. The command's mission of providing classified and unclassified messaging, voice, data and video to Navy, joint and coalition units does not change. If, however, NCTAMS LANT knows that a unit or group of units has a planned outage on the only SHF IP path, maintaining the EHF IP path becomes more important. To this end, NCTAMS LANT, the regional provider of secure and non-secure voice, messaging, video and data platforms to surface, subsurface, air and ground forces, instituted watch stander reporting procedures for leadership in the chain of command to keep them informed of the rapidly changing capabilities and limitations of exercise participants.
Operators and their supervisors paid special attention to how unplanned outages and weather-related problems could degrade communications capabilities. For example, rain may cause outages for equipment operating in EHF, which might be used as an alternate IP path in the event of an SHF outage. Heavy winds and heavy seas may inhibit a ship’s or shore facility’s ability to track a satellite. Therefore, watch standers at NCTAMS LANT are always mindful of any conditions that may disrupt communications.
To ensure successful communications between units, NCTAMS LANT embedded junior enlisted personnel and officers on board the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7). This enabled both the ships' and NCTAMS LANT’s personnel to learn firsthand about the communications and troubleshooting capabilities of one another and to refine the reporting and troubleshooting procedures of each in a controlled exercise environment.
Lessons learned included new techniques in the detection of satellite jamming and the importance of maintaining a SHF IP link during rainy conditions. If it is raining units can't rely solely on SHF. During BA12, whether it was a denial of services attack, closed ports, denial of UHF voice nets or unplanned outages, ships’ personnel kept their chains of command informed of their communications capabilities and limitations.
Providers, such as NCTAMS LANT and NCTS Naples, NAVSATCOMMFAC Lago di Patria, Italy, NAVSATCOMMFAC Northwest, UARNOC, the Landstuhl Global Information Grid Facility, NCTS Bahrain, and commercial satellite providers located in Holmdel, N.J., and Fuchsstadt, Germany, tracked anomalies and responded via troubleshooting procedures, communications spot reports (COMSPOT) and service advisories to units reporting problems.
The vigilant maintenance of the communications links between ship and shore demonstrated that even in a less than ideal communications environment, the command and control capability of shore commanders is not lost, nor is the ability to actively troubleshoot and restore communications circuits.
Results of exercises demonstrated the ability of joint U.S. amphibious units to effectively operate in a challenging communications environment with both U.S. and international military forces. The high visibility of the exercises, which included national and international media coverage, embarked Congressional leaders and foreign military leaders, marked not only a tremendous operational success for the Navy/Marine Corps team, but a diplomatic success as well.
Lt. Peter J. Beardsley is a NCTAMS LANT JFTOC watch officer.