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CHIPS Articles: “Comms up! Targets down!”: Communications power AFCENT’s mission

“Comms up! Targets down!”: Communications power AFCENT’s mission
By Staff Sgt. Caitlin Conner, U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs - August 24, 2018
Have you ever had that morning where everything goes right? Your coffee is perfect, the kids were easy to get to school, no traffic on your way into work and then you go to log into your computer. That’s when everything changes. Your computer freezes. After you restart, finally the welcome screen pops up and you log on again. You open your email and there is an important document from your supervisor that needs your digital signature as soon as possible.

You open the document and the software is not reading your certifications in order to sign, the document won’t save, it won’t attach to the email, and the email won’t send. The list goes on and your frustration builds. A few choice words start running through your head as you pick up your phone and call your communications squadron.

Have you ever stepped back and really thought about who you were calling?

At Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the 609th Expeditionary Air Communications Squadron has a very specific mission at the Combined Air Operation Center. Their support enables the CAOC to accomplish air taskings in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the NATO Resolute Support Mission and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

“I usually challenge folks to come up with one particular job in the entire Department of Defense that doesn’t require some type of communications or information technology. You would be pretty hard pressed to do that,” said Capt. Henry L. Sims Jr., the director of operations for the 609th EACOMS. “I try to reiterate to our team that they are a pivotal part of the mission even though they may be behind the scenes.”

The communication squadron consists of 15 different shops grouped into three flights: operations, special missions and plans and programs. These shops cover everything from equipment, radio communication, command and control systems and video telephone conference.

The operations flight oversees what is referred to as the “face of the squadron,” the communications focal point. These technicians are the first line of troubleshooting for the CAOC and are a helpdesk, of sorts. They deal with all the phone inquiries and disseminate any additional work that requires more time or research to more specialized flights within the squadron.

“I think no one really thinks about COMM [communications squadron] until they need them,” said Airman 1st Class Shawn Willoughby, client systems technician with the 609th EACOMS. Tech. Sgt. Taylor J. Simmons, NCO in charge of tech control assigned to the 609th EACOMS, says being so close to the mission helps him feel as if he makes a difference, even if the user may not understand or recognize the unit’s mission or role.

“You’re fixing projectors on the COD [combat operations division] floor that are being used all the time,” said Tech. Sgt. Joshua Matthews, NCO in charge of the trusted thin client shop with the 609th EACOMS. “They are looking at the air traffic; you know exactly how important it is.”

The operations flight handles network connections going to and from the facilities, troubleshooting computers, video conferencing and specialized equipment allowing users to switch seamlessly back and forth from classified to unclassified networks.

On top of making sure all the equipment is working properly, the plans and programs flight handles the physical hardware and makes sure the equipment is being used properly.

The warehouse manages the logistics, hardware and equipment control. Any piece of equipment that has to be replaced goes through the eight-person shop.

Staff Sgt. Katelyn Grotegut, equipment control officer for the 609th EACOMS, handles over 8,500 pieces of equipment valued at over $19 million.

When anything breaks in the CAOC, it is all mission essential due to the overall mission of the CAOC, said Grotegut. As a result, the 609th EACOMS has to be quick to solve the problem.

Being in a deployed environment presents added challenges, however, such as having to go through customs to get the proper equipment in a timely manner.

After getting the equipment in the building, the information assurance office monitors the network to make sure everyone is following operations security and safeguarding the network.

One challenge for information assurance is dealing with the different levels of security clearances for U.S. personnel and also for our Coalition partners. Information support is integral in the CAOC for Coalition partners from nearly 20 nations who all require computer access.

“Dealing with different branches is not so complicated because their levels of clearances are the same as ours,” said Tech. Sgt. Meghan Reid, NCO in charge of cyber security for 609th EACOMS, “We have to make sure they have access to the appropriate security levels in order for them to do their jobs.”

Information assurance personnel can be seen as the bad guys when there is a security violation as this can lead to users’ privileges being revoked.

“You have to think about the bigger picture of why you’re doing this,” said Reid. “The user may not be happy with me but there’s a bigger picture there. It is there to protect everyone here and back home.”

Even though they often encounter frustrated users, the 609th EACOMS Airmen know how important their jobs are and the power of their squadron.

This deployment is a development opportunity, according to Sims.

“It’s very beneficial to have this experience,” said Sims. “being subjected to these daily challenges is not something we get the opportunity to do on a regular basis. I think we will have stretched and grown by the time we leave here. I often tell the Airmen I can’t promise things will get easier, but I can promise them things will get better. Comms up! Targets down!

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