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‘No Comm, No Bomb’: 455th ECS keeps warfighter’s communications out of the 1700s

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Nicholas Rau
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three part series on the deployed communications Airmen at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Parts two and three will take an in-depth look at the four major sections of Air Force communications: Cable, Network Management, Client Systems Technicians, and Network Operations.)

Facing an expeditionary communications infrastructure and unique hurdles not common stateside, Airmen in the last Air Force communications squadron in Afghanistan use a combination of hard work, resourcefulness, and teamwork to overcome the challenges presented to them in a deployed environment.

“We enable the warfighter in the fifth domain,” said Lt. Col. Heath Frye, 455th Expeditionary Communications Squadron commander. “We already have ground, sea, air, and space domains; cyberspace is the newest one we are maintaining. Just like with F-16s, you have pilots, maintenance, intelligence, weapons and a variety of other Air Force specialties in order to accomplish the air domain mission. In communications, we have the same structure to accomplish the cyberspace mission and be 100 percent in synch with the rest of the wing.”

In order to accomplish this goal, Bagram communications Airmen carve out “cyber key terrain areas” in cyberspace. Much like when a ground force takes a hill in order to gain a defendable vantage point, the 455th ECS establishes cyber base defense around operating systems like Secret Internet Protocol Router and Nonclassified Internet Protocol Router Networks.  These systems allow for secure and rapid information transfers that enable mission success.

“We have a saying in Air Force communications, ‘No Comm, No Bomb’,” explained Frye. “Without the communications that the 455th ECS enables, leaders would not have the command and control they require. We would be forced to deliver all messages face-to-face. We would be stuck fighting like it was the 1700s if it was not for communications.”

To maximize efficiency of the squadron, the unit blends a workforce made up of Airmen and DoD Contractors. The Airmen bring technically-trained skills during every six-month rotation, while the contractors provide continuity. This process has seen the success of the unit, leading them to earn the Best Small Communications Squadron in both Air Forces Central Command and Air Combat Command. 

By connecting each of the main four communications sections: Cable, Network Management, Client Systems Technicians, and Network Operations; the squadron’s Airmen swiftly address issues that arise and keep the combined network up and running, each building upon the work of the other.

First, the Cable section handles the infrastructure of the communications enterprise. They route and install the cable lines for networking and telecommunications, as well as building the communications closets that house the hardware required for operations.

From there, Network Management installs all the hardware inside the buildings that the cyber systems operate. They maintain that hardware and upgrade it when it becomes too outdated to function efficiently.

Once a computer is ready to be connected to a government network, it needs to be baselined and formatted with the most current operating system and programs. This is where the Client Systems Technicians come in.

Finally, once the system is on the communications enterprise, it is managed and monitored by Network Operations. They push the patches that keep the computer up to date and functioning properly, all in an effort to maintain a secure cyberspace.

However, in addition to these major functions, the squadron relies on smaller teams to the support the unit and the base as a whole.

The Communications Focal Point is the first step for users who need assistance with one of the multiple systems the 455th ECS maintains. These Airmen and contractors triage every computer, network or phone problem that is reported to them by the end user of the system in question. They then direct the task to the specialized 455th ECS sections for resolution of the issue.

Also, the Administration and Knowledge Operations section ensures the 455th ECS can maintain internal websites as well as its legal responsibility to protect privacy information and support the Freedom of Information Act by managing accurate record keeping.

“As admin, I protect the identity of the commander and maintain his data integrity,” said Senior Airman Andrew Cason, 455th ECS knowledge operations manager. “Whatever he puts his name on is a reflection on him. So I make sure whatever we do to help other units is done correctly.”

Lastly, the 455th ECS manages one of the greatest morale items of a deployment — mail from back home. With Airmen receiving packages every day, the job of a postal clerk adds up; and Cason has his hands full. But with the assistance of other squadrons volunteering to help pitch mail, he has found a silver lining in the thousands of pounds of parcels.

“It gets me out from behind my desk,” he explained. “A lot of my duties are at a desk behind a computer, so it’s nice to get out and do this for people. Mail is a huge morale item and a legal right, so with the help of the awesome volunteers that come out and help, we get it done. Plus, I get to drive a big forklift.”

All of these sections and more make up the award-winning 455th ECS, allowing them to ensure that the missions of every other unit on base are able to function. Day in and day out, these communications Airmen complete a deployed requirement that keeps the American military steps ahead of its adversary; and to their commander, it does not go unnoticed.

“Our people have done great things while they have been here,” said Frye. “The sacrifices these people make leaving their families behind, coming to these living conditions, and enduring the occasional rocket attack, is amazing. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those that have come here and I am proud of what they do.”