NEWS | Sept. 23, 2021

Building on success: communications, signal integration at NS

By Staff Sgt. Tristan D. Viglianco Michigan National Guard Public Affairs

There is a military saying regarding field training that if you can’t communicate, all you are doing is camping. Northern Strike (NS), the Michigan National Guard’s joint forces, multi-component, multinational exercise, pushes units to their signal and communications limits. The exercise demands communications personnel attending utilize their immense skillset, think innovatively, operate equipment in a real-world environment, and work with counterparts from other services.

Last year, NS 20-3 demonstrated the successful results of an unprecedented level of signal planning and collaboration between diverse multi-component Army and Air Force units focused on enabling joint force success across multiple domains. This work was facilitated in large part by the collaboration of both the NS air and land component signal planning cells.

“We coordinate communications needs with the units that have signed up to participate in Northern Strike,” said U.S. Army Capt. Jason Peterson, NS land component lead signal planner. “We work with them to determine training objectives they are trying to meet, specifically regarding signal needs, and ensure their systems are mission capable.”

One National Guard first that took place during NS 20-3 involved Joint Task Force (JTF-85) exercise high command; the 217th Air Operations Group (AOG), Michigan Air National Guard (MIANG); the 251st Battlefield Coordination Detachment (BCD), California Army National Guard; and the 31st Air Defense Artillery (ADA), Fort Sill, Oklahoma. These units were able to establish joint network integration by tying the Army’s Tactical Airspace Integration System (TAIS) into the Air Force Theater Battle Management Core System (TBMCS) or Air Operations Weapons System (AOC-WS).

The Air Force has established a number of Air Operations Centers (AOC) that provide the ability to command and control (C2) air, space, and cyberspace forces. By design and intent, the AOC provides the best C2 capability to command and control the joint air effort.

The BCD is an Army coordination detachment that enables selected operational functions as the senior liaison between the army forces commander and the air component commander. There is a BCD aligned within every geographic combat commander’s AOC around the world. The BCD interfaces with the AOC to ensure the Army commander’s needs are represented to the air component commander.

By achieving BCD and AOC-WS integration, the NS 20-3 joint communications team were able to reduce the time to de-conflict field artillery activity within the divisions’ airspace by 95 percent.  This was accomplished through TAIS’s ability to calculate the path of an Army surface-to-surface weapon launch in real-time and then pass that trajectory to the AOC-WS.  Personnel at the AOC no longer manually entered data points required for airspace de-confliction due to the newly established direct system-to-system communication.  This automation virtually eliminated human error, reduced the risk of fratricide to aircraft, increased accuracy, and exponentially expedited fires.

BCD and AOC integration was established for NS 21-2 as well when the 217th AOG hosted 14 members of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 560th BCD.  Key tasks included exchanging current intelligence, operational data and support requirements such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, joint fires, space effects, suppression of enemy air defense, and electronic warfare, coordinating ARFOR requirements for airspace coordinating measures (ACM), fire support coordination measures (FSCM), and theater airlift.

“I collect the targets of opportunity that the Army would like to strike on the battlefield,” said Warrant Officer Joshua Winchester, 560th BCD targeting officer. “If the Army requires assistance from the Air Force, my job as a targeting officer is to validate and talk those targets over with the Air Force to see if they can strike those targets as the Army needs.”

BCD training is difficult to obtain because of limited availability of AOCs, systems platforms, and interaction opportunities with AF systems.  As a fairly new unit, the 560th BDC used NS 21-2 as an opportunity to build standard operating procedures and check systems integration capabilities. Many of the unit’s Soldiers had not yet been in an AOC facility.

An additional first for NS 20 occurred when the 272nd Cyber Operations Squadron (COS), MIANG, deployed a Cyber Protection Team (CPT) and aspects of the Cyberspace Vulnerability Assessment/Hunter weapon system (CVA/H) at Battle Creek’s AOC to conduct cyber vulnerability assessment (CVA) operations across the NS 20 Army and Air Force network traffic, resulting in an enhanced cyber security posture.

Connections from the AOC-WS to the Army’s forward ADSI were also successful.  This allowed the AOC to share track data with the Army ADSI, providing a shared common airspace-operating picture with Army elements.

The success of that communications effort established the foundation for NS 21-2 to build upon. This led to testing and implementation of a Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) training environment during this year’s exercise.

“There were a lot of good things accomplished during the exercise in 2020 and we know we can continue to build on those successes and innovative methods,” said Peterson. “We take input from the participating units and track their improvements which allows our participant’s capabilities to grow while we also expand training opportunities at Northern Strike.” 

Military units representing a variety of services and components were successfully able to coalesce and communicate during this year’s exercise. One of the major players included the 36th Sustainment Brigade (SB), Texas Army National Guard, who used NS 21-2 as a validation exercise prior to a future deployment.

NS 21 was the first time two Distributed Common Ground Systems –Army (DCGS-A) IFS servers were used at the exercise.  One was centrally located on Camp Grayling.  The 36th SB was able to utilize the other one from various field locations, as required by the exercise.

DCGS-A is the Army’s cornerstone intelligence system for sensor tasking; processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) at all echelons; and provides unprecedented, timely, relevant and accurate data to Soldiers from up to high levels of classification. It gives commanders the ability to task battlespace sensors and receive intelligence information from multiple sources on the battlefield.

“With the support of the National Guard Bureau G2 we were able to get the systems upgraded,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Donald Jenkins, NS network chief. “They were then linked with the Intelligence Electronic Warfare Tactical Proficiency Trainer.”

All of the extensive work and coordination done by the NS signal planners is designed to better simulate the conditions and signal environment units will have to operate in when confronting a near-peer threat.

“We must train like we would fight,” said Peterson. “Northern Strike affords all participating units the opportunity to use their equipment in a real world environment. We force them to use a variety of functions they have access to, but may not regularly utilize.” 

Not only does NS strike provide military units a chance to test and operate their equipment, it allows defense industry partners to test their products in a simulated real-world environment. They work side-by-side with military member and take feedback from warfighters during the exercise as an opportunity to continue their research and development.

One industry partner tested their product’s ability to serve as a scalable principal technology path for the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), the Air Force’s part in achieving JADC2. By connecting disparate C2 systems, they were able to provide an operational picture for rapid decision-making and response. It also enabled delivery of Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) effects to and through all operational environments. Both capabilities are critical as the need for speed and versatility continues to grow.

“Northern Strike offers an extensive training environment and because we are in rural Northern Michigan, we have a variety of frequencies that we can pull from to run systems,” said Jenkins. “We have restricted airspace for both the Army and Air Force to operate in. This gives us the ability to pull in frequencies used on radars, communication devices, and sensors and tie them into a joint picture along with the aircraft communications and video feeds.”

All of the signal training capabilities offered at NS ensure units will be able to operate in a contested environment when the time comes. The challenges and struggles they face in the field will prepare them to fight and win, if need be, against near-peer adversary.