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AFCENT Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC)
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New Gear: Executive communications team keeps top leaders linked to the fight through innovation, modernization

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar – Technology drives the modern battlefield. Combat leaders more than ever depend on keeping pace with changes in technology.

 

Behind the clandestine networks that connect the Pentagon to units worldwide, stand Airmen in specialized communications teams.

 

A select few Airmen deployed to the 609th Expeditionary Air and Space Communications Squadron at the Combined Air Operation Center here stand ready to connect the Coalition’s top air power leaders to the ongoing fight against ISIS and other regional threats.

 

The team’s main customer is the Combined Forces Air Component Commander for U.S. Central Command, who is responsible for developing contingency plans and conducting air operations in a 20-nation area of responsibility covering Central and Southwest Asia.

 

“We provide communications for our key leaders here, from the CFACC and his deputy all the way to their support teams,” said Tech. Sgt. Albert Cabello, the 609th EACOMS NCO in charge of executive communications. During trips, I setup our mobile (communications) kit with a secure network connection via commercial medians and establish voice, video, e-mail, and data services.

 

Travel for Cabello, a cyber transport Airman with a background in network maintenance and combat communications, is frequent and fast-paced. One week’s tasking alone took him to Jordan, Turkey and Cyprus. Other destinations are more remote and include forward locations in the AOR as the team goes wherever senior leaders go. 

 

“The executive communications crew members are really on their own most times,” said Capt. William Tyrrell, the 609th EACOMS Communications Focal Point flight commander. “They work side-by-side with the aide-de-camps and support personnel. And knowing that a lot of people rely directly on their work requires professionalism, self-reliance and competency.”

 

Charged with establishing connections upon arrival, Cabello faces a variety of possible scenarios -  from elegant hotels during official visits to remote outposts during the commanders’ visits to the field. No matter the existing infrastructure or purpose of travel, the executive communications team is charged with providing reliable network connections.

 

Whenever CAOC leaders travelled throughout the area of operations, the team used to carry the legacy communications fly-away kit, network routers, full-sized phones and large ruggedized laptops. As of late, these kits had become gradually outdated.

 

We began with hauling an 80-pound case of equipment that was very complex and difficult to quickly setup and ensure reliable network services,” Cabello said. “A lot of that was legacy equipment. Some of it was pretty much on its last leg of operation. Our team came together to identify a solution that would be smaller, faster and more up-to-date.”

 

To better serve the need for secure communications while travelling, the team recently acquired the new  executive communications kit, or ECK. Offering more capabilities in a smaller package the ECK is a leap in technology for the agile team and its on-demand, mobile communications mission.

 

“Our unit is the first in the Air Forces Central Command and the (area of responsibility) to have this kit,” Tyrrell said. “There are only a handful of these kits in the military and we are fielding it here for the first time for AFCENT.”

 

The kit comprises inconspicuous commercial touchscreen tablets, network cables and a simple black router and network box. It weighs a fraction of the original set and can blend in undetected when carried in a simple backpack or travel case. The sleek, simple exterior, however, the system is packed with a powerful military-grade encryption suite that can open secure communication channels anywhere in the world within minutes.


“The ECK allows our commander to effortlessly stay connected to other key leaders while travelling,” Cabello said. “It now takes far less time to set up communications and link to important command and control nodes around the world.”

 

Secure communications are the lifeblood on today’s battlefield – no communication with operational content enters or leaves the CAOC without intricate encryption protecting it from enemy eyes. The kit enables a secure tunnel through commercial internet access or highly mobile 4G connections, for secure voice, data, email, internet access on secret and unclassified channels.

 

“The cryptography (module) inside is smaller, the router is smaller -- it simply takes less size to do more than before,” Cabello said. It has more capabilities and it all fits in a briefcase size box versus its multi-piece predecessor."

 

While the technology does not come cheap, it is a cost-effective investment that Cabello said is well worth it to reliably connect decision makers in the war against ISIS to the Pentagon and forward deployed troops alike.

 

Because of the nature of 24-hour operations, the team is always on stand-by and the mission can quickly go from calm days to high-stress scenarios should networks degrade or disconnect during critical moments. Despite the responsibility for his team, Cabello said he wouldn’t want it any other way. 

 

 “I’ve very much enjoy this mission,” he said. “It is a demanding and at times stressful job, but it’s been a great opportunity and the kit helped make it smoother and easier to guarantee a great connection on demand.”