News: Comms up! MWCS-28 serves as the wing’s digital backbone during Exercise Spartan Xiphos
Story by Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. – During exercise Spartan Xiphos aboard Cherry Point and outlying military facilities, Company B, Marine Wing Communications Squadron 28, practiced providing a full array of communications abilities in an expeditionary environment.
The company spent the eight-day exercise preparing for Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course, where they will have to provide full communications support for units operating in 7,000 square miles of Arizona desert.
“You can get Google anywhere in the world as long as we’re there,” said 1st Lt. Charles M. McClurg, the operational leader of Company B, during Exercise Spartan Xiphos.
The squadron provides radio communications, telephones, satellite communications, live video feeds, voice over IP, internet, intranet, and more without plugging into a pre-existing network. When the network is up, the operators of Marine Air Control Group 28 go to work providing air command and control in the battle space.
McClurg said providing the communications that makes combat operations possible is a massive team effort.
“We need the Motor-T guys to get us out there, maintenance guys making sure our equipment is ready, operators to get the transmission links up, and then radios up so we can coordinate the troubleshooting,” McClurg said. “We need the data guys who coordinate getting services and making sure our routing is done right so we can get classified and unclassified intranets, Google, and email."
The first step in setting up a satellite-linked network is establishing basic radio communication between the headquarters and outposts.
“We are the first ones to get communications up so we can keep tabs on what’s going on at the other sites,” said Pfc. Austin Klemm-Thornton, a field radio operator with the squadron. “If anything goes wrong, we can give them support. Radios can do things that other equipment cannot. The support wide area network system, or SWAN, needs a satellite. With radio, all you need is another radio and you can talk to another site.”
For long-range radio, the squadron uses a tropospheric scatter microwave radio terminal, or AN/TRC-170A, for point-to-point radio communications up to 100 miles away. It works by sending 16 megabytes per second from one antennae to another directly, or by bouncing the beam off the atmosphere or the top of a mountain.
For the exercise, the radio operators set up a forward operating base and practiced relaying all the communications from that base to the main communications hub at the company's field headquarters, said radio operator Sgt. Adam Garcia.
He said his favorite part about his job is the important role he plays. Marines can’t call for air support without the communications he provides.
After the radios are ready, data specialists set up the wide area network for satellite access and then the servers and switchboards to run the network. Exercise Spartan Xiphos was useful for the data Marines in particular because they have few opportunities to practice their full capabilities.
“I’m responsible for building all the servers and setting up all the networking equipment so a laptop can get do whatever the mission requires,” said Cpl. Brayden Streeter, a data specialist with the squadron.
Streeter said communications school teaches only the basics of building a network, and exercises like Spartan Xiphos are a good opportunities to learn more of what they do.
Once the network is running, Company B has to operate and protect it. Switchboard Marines make sure phone communications are reaching the right places and information assurance Marines safeguard the information on the network.
“We’re always going to have people trying to get into the network to try and steal information,” said Sgt. Jennifer Finney, the information assurance Marine for the company. “We’re in charge of securing the network and safeguarding it.”
Finney said she updates the server's protective firewalls and other protective software to keep threats like enemy hackers out.
Switchboard operators work alongside data Marines to integrate the phone system with the rest of the network, said Lance Cpl. Vicky Sanchez, a switchboard operator with the squadron. Working from the digital technical control refresh truck, essentially a mobile switchboard station, Sanchez makes sure all of the remote outposts can talk to each other by telephone and can connect with the civilian network when necessary.
Other Marines keep the network running by maintaining the equipment and providing power.
“My job is to oversee all the maintenance operations just in case one of the links goes down,” said Staff Sgt. Lucian Noble, a ground communications maintenance technician with the squadron.
Noble maintains the network equipment to keep the impact of malfunctions to a minimum.
Lance Cpl. Kyle J. Dahood, acting as a utility board chief with the squadron, sets up the generators. The generators are hooked up to ‘turtles,’ which distribute power to various equipment.
It’s a critical job as Dahood keenly pointed out, "Without power, nothing would run."
This communications network provides the infrastructure necessary for Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course to be successful, said Capt. Kevin J. Stepp, the commander of Company B. Without the network, other parts of the aviation combat element would not be able to communicate or do their jobs.
“We essentially provide the digital backbone for the wing,” said Lt. Col. Matthew E. Limbert, the commanding officer of the squadron. “Without this squadron, we wouldn’t be able to move the air picture around, the air tasking orders around or launch or recover aircraft."
Limbert said the network is necessary for all parts of the air combat element to know what they need to so they can accomplish their assigned missions.
The purpose of the Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course is to train pilots to become instructors and in advanced aviation tactics. Course graduates return to their home squadrons to teach the same tactics to other pilots. It occurs twice a year and draws pilots from around the Marine Corps.
Company B will be part of the detachment MACG-28 is planning to send to support the upcoming course. The Marines will establish the communication architecture the students will integrate into.
“Are we the focus? No, the students are," said Stepp. "But would it be possible without the control group? No way.”
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