NEWS | Feb. 2, 2018

Comms Team Fills Gaps in Any Environment

By Maj. Andrew Benbow 335th Signal Command (T) Provisional

U.S. Army Capt. Stein Thorbeck powered up his laptop and perused his inbox to start the workday. The first email was about a performance evaluation for one of his Soldiers, the next about an award, and so on. The laptop dinged to alert him to yet more incoming messages. They would each have to wait, however, as Thorbeck focused on firing off a situation report to his higher command.

Receiving and responding to emails is part of the standard way of life for most—there’s nothing extraordinary about it. This, of course, is unless you’re deployed to a harsh desert environment, where there may be no power or communication infrastructure—the colloquial “middle of nowhere.” Then there’d be something very special about having the ability to still connect to the world.

To stay connected in such an environment requires people with the unique skills and equipment to provide robust and resilient voice and data capabilities virtually anywhere on Earth. It requires Soldiers like U.S. Army signal professionals that make up the 335th Signal Command (Theater) Provisional.

Thorbeck is the company commander for Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment. He and 1st Sgt. Charles Smith led their company to Rukboot Range, near Salalah, Oman, where they spent nearly one-month training with the Omani military as part of Inferno Creek 2018.

Inferno Creek is an annual U.S. Army Central bilateral exercise held with Omani military forces, focusing on combined arms maneuver, including dismounted infantry. This year’s exercise began on January 15 and culminated with a live-fire exercise, urban terrain training, and the firing of live mortar rounds. Military-to-military engagements such as Inferno Creek are intended to expand levels of cooperation, enhance mutual capabilities, and promote long-term regional stability between U.S. forces and regional partners.

Charlie Company was one of the leading elements involved in the combat training events with the Omani military. Thorbeck explained that ensuring a meaningful training experience for both his unit and the Omanis called for much of his focus. But as commander, he didn’t have the luxury of only focusing on the current mission. He and Smith needed to also be able to do other things, such as handle administrative actions for the unit, send and receive reports, and plan for the next mission.

All of this required the internet. Providing internet to remote locations is a special skill set that U.S. Army signallers bring to the fight.

“[Having the internet] was the enabler here for us, because if we didn’t have it, we would’ve gotten back [to home base] and been 30 days behind on administrative actions,” Thorbeck said.

“It helped us a lot with maintaining communication with everyone around the world. Had we not had internet, it would have been a completely different experience, just because I would’ve been worried about what I’m not doing right now—awards, evaluations— those kinds of things,” Smith said.

Lt. Col. Jon Genge, 1-37 Task Force commander, in charge of the overall operation, explained that, as for the mission itself, having phones and Internet connection was crucial to the coordination such a complex operation requires. With approximately 270 U.S. and Omani military personnel participating in concurrent training events, there was a lot of moving pieces.

“We were able to quickly report our status up to higher and receive FRAGOs (fragmentary orders) instantly,” Thorbeck said.

The 1-37 Task Force headquarters, Thorbeck’s higher command, was at Thumrait Airbase, about 20 minutes from his command post on Rukboot Range.

“[Without Internet] we would’ve had to physically drive to Thumrait to receive any information. That’s 40 minutes, roundtrip, several times per day,” Thorbeck said.

“Without the Army phones, we would’ve only had cell phones, and Army phones are a lot more reliable,” Smith said.

“Plus, it allowed us to keep up on the news,” Thorbeck added.

These data and voice services are part of the strategic and tactical signal capabilities that the 335th Signal Command (Theater) Provisional provides to U.S. and coalition forces throughout the Middle East.

Headquartered in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, under the command of Brig. Gen. John Phillips, the nearly 2,000 Soldiers, civilians and contractors not only provide strategic (infrastructural) services, but on order, they are prepared to activate, deploy and establish these services in austere places where there were none before. The signal services they provide are self-contained, in that they provide their own power source as well as the trained personnel to operate, maintain and troubleshoot technical issues with little to no resources required of the customer unit.

Sgt. Robert Vayda is an information technology specialist with the 115th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, Alabama Army National Guard. He was part of the seven-Soldier team deployed to Oman to provide IT support for the exercise.

The benefit he and his team brought to southern Oman was not lost on him. He broke down what his team’s absence would have meant for Soldiers in dollars and cents.

“It would be very expensive. To get data from [commercial] service providers here, it costs 10 Omani riyals for 6 GB, which is about 26 U.S. dollars. Soldiers would’ve probably been paying for it out of their own pockets, just to get the job done.”

He and the rest of the 335th team provided around-the-clock support to ensure there wasn’t a gap in coverage.

“The system that was in place where they left a person there 24 hours a day—that helped us out a lot when we had issues with the network," he said. "We didn’t use them very often, but when we did, they were right there to help,” Thorbeck said.

Genge lauded the team’s work and its seamless entry into the exercise.

“The capabilities they provided were critical. Otherwise, I could’ve been in a black hole for three to four weeks. There was no friction; it was great. The way the 335th team integrated right into our operation is a great example of the Army today, and how Soldiers who’ve never worked together can form teams very quickly. We’re a truly agile and adaptive force.”