ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE — On a bare patch of grass at Robins Air Force Base, about 100 airmen have pitched tents, assembled satellites and set up phone lines, secure Internet connections and radio communications — just like they would do in Afghanistan.
They are in the middle of a two-week communications training exercise, called “Operation Joint Lightning.” The airmen are assigned to or supporting Air Force Special Operations, based at Hurlburt Field in Florida.
The exercise sent about 100 airmen to Robins and 30 airmen to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to test how they communicate with one another using the military’s newest communications equipment.
“The big thing is bringing everyone together and learning the equipment,” said Capt. Chris Bryant, a communications officer assigned to the 1st Special Operations Communications Squadron. “All of these items are used in the wars, down range. Everything we have here, we use there.”
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The exercise is timely. Communications are a constant bugaboo for ground troops at remote locations. For small ground teams that are sent to remote locations in Afghanistan, establishing communications with their higher headquarters is not always easy.
Many airmen who are participating in the training exercise got some experience in just this kind of mission when they supported the military response to the January earthquake in Haiti.
With that in mind, airmen are tested on establishing communication and re-establishing communications once connections are severed — “troubleshooting” in military parlance.
“They went through hours of troubleshooting ... that way we need to figure out what to do,” Bryant said.
Two Marines from the Marine Special Operations Command, on a temporary assignment to Robins from Camp Lejeune, N.C., also are taking part in the exercise. Their presence adds another dimension to the exercise, training the airmen to cooperate with another military branch, “so when we go out in the field, we’re talking with the same equipment,” Bryant said.
If the exercise aimed to train in a realistic environment, they couldn’t have asked for better weather, working in desert-like, 90-plus degree heat.
It is hard to overstate the pace of advancement in the military’s communications in just the past six or seven years.
At the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, ground troops were frequently working with analog equipment, communicating with other ground troops only within their sight.
Now they are working with satellite equipment that is rapidly upgrading, becoming lighter and more portable but more complex. The advancement requires communications specialists to learn new equipment.
The first few days of the exercise were not perfect. Several teams were marked “red” for failing to establish secure Internet lines. None of their commanders seemed to mind.
“The reason we’re fine with them being red right now is we’re training,” said Al Reyna, the director of the operation, working for the Air Force Special Operations Command. “We want the D-team to come in, get the knowledge, so they can become the A-team.”
The exercise will run through this weekend and will end June 25.
To contact writer Thomas L. Day, call 744-4489.