Tactical and Technical

Weak and Unreadable: Suggestions for the Army's Comms Problem

By Kristian Wynn August 5, 2019


Introduction

My experience of Talisman Sabre ’19 was an uneventful one. I filled the role of Platoon Signaller (PL Sig); an easy enough job if you sound confident and can make a decent brew. As part of the Reinforcing Battle Group (and, more particularly, as a member of Combat Team Charlie), I had a lot of time to think on the things we could be doing better as an Army. The idea that competence in using tactical communication equipment was lacking came about as a result of a day spent listening to increasingly frustrated radio checks from Combat Team Headquarters (CTHQ) to a section-sized standing patrol. The patrol’s task was to secure a new CTHQ location, and not being able to communicate with them brought the entire combat team to a standstill for a full day. After a visit from the sigs, it turned out the patrol simply did not know how to correctly operate a lightweight antenna. It seems this problem was widespread – it took only two days for the entire Battle Group to give up on using a Frequency Hopping (FH) pre-set (which has significant security advantages over Single Channel), because the soldiers on the ground had no idea how to work with it.

Clearly, this presents a problem. Reliable comms are essential for practically every aspect of warfighting, and even a small error can cause significant disruptions. The consequences are not only at higher levels, either. A platoon in contact and without comms are in a dire situation indeed. So – what is the solution? I believe it is two-fold. First, every soldier should be as competent at using communication equipment as they are at using their personal weapon. Second, the Army as a whole should invest in making tactical communication equipment more accessible (i.e. usable) to the average soldier on the ground.

The First Solution: Improving The Current Force

The Army has long recognised the value of cross-skilling soldiers. In theory, if any member of a section goes down, any other member should be able to pick up their weapon system and continue the fight. The rationale behind this cross-skilling is that, as a small army, we cannot afford to specialise (or at least not to the extent of our US counterparts). Viewed in this light, it seems remarkable that the same philosophy is not applied to communication equipment. It is true that a part of a soldier’s basic training is the Basic Combat Communications Course (BCCC), but after this course is complete how many of us spend any significant time holding a radio? Commanders do, but their interaction is often limited to pressing the PTT (Press To Talk) switch and adjusting the power settings; anything else often necessitates dragging a nearby signaller out of their G-Wagon. It is arguably more important for all soldiers to be competent on communications equipment than on support weapons such as the medium direct fire support weapon (MDFSW) or the general support machine gun (GSMG). After all, support weapons are employed in specialist roles, whereas everyone down to section level must utilise communications equipment.

Thus, a review of our training programme seems to be in order. We must start thinking of skill in using communications equipment as just as vital to survivability and combat effectiveness as competence on all our in-service personal weapon systems. Just as every soldier must complete their weapon handling tests and visit the range, so every soldier should be tested on their ability to fight for comms regularly, and in particular before any major exercise/operation. Those battalions who are mechanised and motorised should further be required to maintain their competence in communicating from these platforms (ensuring they remain competent on both digital and legacy equipment until the latter is completely phased out). At the very least, this will save many headaches on major exercises. At most, as in the case of a callsign needing to call in a contact or a NODUFF casualty evacuation (casevac), it could be the difference between life and death.

The Second Solution: Investment in Modernisation

Of course, the problems so regularly encountered cannot all be laid at the feet of the operators. I am qualified to train soldiers on the Harris AN/PRC-152 & AN/PRC-150 up to Programmer level (the next level up from Specialist Combat Communications Course (SCCC)), which I believe allows me to say with some authority that the user interface on these radios is garbage. The interface is not intuitive, with the menus being in peculiar places and the subheadings giving only vague indications as to where certain options might be found. Further, the whole mission plan construct itself is unnecessarily complex. Of course encrypted tactical radios are never going to look like iPhones, but they could be a great deal more user-friendly and still achieve their purpose.

For a pertinent example, take synchronising the time of day on two radios on  FH pre-set. This is a critical operation: if the radios are not correctly synchronised they will not talk to each other. As it stands, first one must press 7 (OPT), then scroll to Single Channel Ground Air Radio System (SINCGARS) 'SINGARS OPTIONS’, then ‘SINCGARS GTOD’. Then one must determine if all the radios should run off GPS time, or manual user entry. One must then choose an option accordingly. However, even if one syncs all the radios to GPS time, the ‘Day’ might still be off, which will mean you cannot talk to each other regardless of how close your times are. Then, even if you get the radios lined up, they can fall out of sync again if you do not receive any traffic for several hours (say, overnight). To avoid this you must go through another process to turn on Late Net Entry (LNE), which will bring you in to line with a radio that you are within a minute of, but will not bring you in if you are any further apart. This process is complicated enough if you are all standing together in a circle at an forward operating base (FOB) before stepping off, much less when you’re trying to randomly guess your way through it on piquet in a valley at night.

A simpler process could be, for example, if the radio is on an FH pre-set, pressing 7 (OPT), selecting an option labelled “SYNC TIME”, choosing GPS or manual entry (get rid of the “Day” setting, or at least bury it in “advanced settings”), and LNE being turned on by default. Done.

Increasing the usability of tactical communication equipment would bring an immediate benefit in the form of a reduction in resources required to train soldiers in its effective use. It would also enable soldiers to pick up the radio from the PL Sig, if they are incapacitated, and continue the fight as effectively as they would if picking up a comrade’s weapon system.

Conclusion

In summary, the Army has a comms problem. The solution involves both improvements to the current force in the form of training and investment in future capability, particularly as it pertains to usability of equipment. If implemented, these measures have the potential to make exercises and operations smoother, safer and more productive.


Portrait

Biography

Kristian Wynn

Kristian is the Training Corporal at the 12th/40th Battalion, The Royal Tasmania Regiment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Army is developing its communications systems and is focusing on modernisation. We already have working projects focussed on that. An ‘uneventful’ talisman Sabre in the reinforcing battle group might not be the best example of communications in action. Our communications are not perfect. Perfect would require a lot more developments. But they are robust and good if they are planned for well and used appropriately. Our people are very skilled in using the equipment we have. What I am not qualified to talk about is the provision of communications and training received by reserve units. Maybe that is an area we can look to develop?

Hi Dan, I agree that we have people who are excellent at using communications equipment. My contention is that everyone, regardless of rank or specialisation, needs to be at a level of competency comparable to the level of competency an infantier is expected to maintain on their personal weapon. I have not worked with every Battalion, but I have worked with with a few, and I don't think we're at that level yet. As to the Reserve training aspect, we do need to examine the priority we give to communications training. Operating with the time-constraints that we do, prioritisation becomes absolutely key, and the reality is we simply do not have the time to be masters in every area. This is where I believe simplifying the interfaces/making equipment more user-friendly also comes in to its own. If we can make it more intuitive, not only does it reduce errors but it reduces the resources required to maintain competency.

Hi Kristian, Thanks for taking the time to write your observations of your recent experience on TS 19 within the Reinforcing Battle Group. I think it is a real positive that you took the time to contribute on The Cove and encourage the discussions beyond your own personal experiences.   I agree that every soldier should have a level of proficiency in communications. My belief is that the current BCCC/SCCC training continuum is sufficient to qualify soldiers on the systems and many of these issues you identify are addressed through unit level individual and collective training and Mission Rehearsal Activities. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on what you can do within your spectrum of influence to improve the training deficiency within the Reinforcing Battle Group for future activities. Kind Regards, Nick Chamberlin

Hi Kristian, I think you have nailed it. In my fairly extensive experience, comms issues are more prevalent the Army likes to admit and the single most common reason for this is, as you say, because too many soldiers are not sufficiently familiar with the radios they are expected to use.

Your identification of user un-friendly menus is also on the money. I doubt there is much that can be done to improve the menus in current radios. Which is why your proposed solution of making proficiency in operator training a priority is also true. This is the only way to ensure the necessary levels of proficiency.

I think a big part of the problem is culture - proficiency on using radios is not 'sexy' enough for Combat Arms to want to invest the training time in it. However, as we say in the Signals - 'No Comms, no bombs!' Perhaps that is a message that needs amplifying?

Well done, LCPL Wynn.

You have identified a problem and also suggested a solution. It’s interesting that you compare the current radios to an iPhone. Companies like Apple spend a LOT of time making sure their products are simple to use - because the company absolutely depends on it. Can you imagine sales figures if an iPhone was as difficult to use as a Harris radio? Army communications in the field show be as simple as picking up a radio, dialing a frequency (or pre-set channel number), and just talking to whomever you need to. It should just work.

I am not to clued up on Army Comms but just asking - Do Comms and Radios procedures work from acronyms, whilst with UK forces we kept it simple and used RSVP, and since moving across it is almost still the same in Volunteer Firies domain.

Rythm, Speed, Voice, Pitch.

and

ITASC for a sitreps in battle and in peace time, Incident, Threats, Actions On, Support, Command and Casualties?

Then the usual practice think of your message or write down body of it before PTT.

Recognising and then knowing any tell tale signs losing frequency strengths so to try a different frequency or radio channel where the traffic is freed up.

Your comments regarding the user interface for some systems nails it. Procrustes of greek mythology had a bed, in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith's hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fitted the bed exactly. 
The performance of any system benefits from well designed interfaces which avoid the Procrustean approach.
In an environment of accelerated warfare, if we let the technology accelerate without improving the user interface ergonomics and demanding greater complexity in the operator, we will leave ourselves behind.
I understand that simplifying a SINGCARS interface may not be easy, and I'm sure Harris had a crack at it. But it's surely worth improving.

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