CAMP SHORABAK, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
Since the dawn of organized military, communication on the battlefield has been a key factor to success in combat. From flags used to call infantrymen to the front lines during the Middle Ages to the data-input, voice-transmission radios used by coalition forces in Afghanistan today, communication continues to play a pivotal role on the battlefield.
The Communications Advisor Team with 2nd Marine Division (Forward) has partnered with the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army to move the corps’ communication capabilities from unsecure, two-way radios to fully encrypted secret transmissions.
The persisting problem with the Afghan’s formerly unsecured means of communication was directly related to force protection and mission accomplishment for both the Afghan and coalition forces, according to 1st Lt. Joseph M. Russell, a Richmond Heights, Ohio, native and the communications advisor for the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps.
“The reason for pushing encryption on these radios is very simple: that is operation security. The insurgency has the ability to purchase a radio at any bazaar, at any store, that can listen to unencrypted communications,” explained Russell. “You have to encrypt the radios that the Afghan National Army is using if you want to prevent that type of insurgency capability from coming to fruition.“
The local military units and insurgent forces, for the most part, used multi-channel handheld radios whose frequency could easily be picked up. The ANA, on the other hand, had one advantage over their insurgent foes: a surplus of high-frequency and very-high-frequency military style radios that could be easily encrypted through the right processes.
Russell noticed this when he came to Afghanistan 11 months ago and identified the security problem with the communications systems in use at the time. He then sought an Afghan solution for an Afghan problem by using the 215th Corps’ supply system and advised the corps’ communication officer in the next steps the army needed to take to implement the changes.
“It’s a different process than what most Marines might think. For one, they had to solder a circuit board into the radio, which involved a little bit more of a delicate environment than what’s presented in a lot of places in Helmand province,” said Russell. “The maintainers do a very good job in terms of doing that job in as clean of an environment as they can make it. The next part of the process is generating the encryption key that is then plugged into that circuit board.”
Russell and Sgt. Alan Coleman, a Fountain Valley, Calif., native and the enlisted communications advisor for the 215th Corps, trained the ANA soldiers with the corps’ communication section how to clean, build, maintain and encode encryption for the radios.
Colonel Abdul Rezwan, the communications officer for the 215th Corps, said after the soldiers were appropriately trained, they created two sections: one is a maintenance section that is responsible for installing the circuit boards that the encryption is loaded into, and another section that codes the radios.
After teaching the soldiers these skills, it was time to put their newly obtained knowledge to the test. The communications section formed the 215th Corps Encryption Team to set out in the challenging terrain Helmand offers to begin setting the ANA’s battlefield communication up for success.
"The first full mission we ran with the Afghans in order to encrypt radios was an experience,” said Russell with a laugh. “We went out on the first couple of missions with them just to see how the team worked, functioned, how it played into the local kandak, and tried to provide on-the-spot correction and guidance while they were on the ground.
“It went a lot better than expected the first time. They got on the ground; they went right to work. I don’t think they slept for two days encrypting radios,” Russell continued. “They traveled through the battle space in various convoys and patrols to go to every (Afghan) company position at some of the outlying patrol bases in order to encrypt the radios on the spot.”
Russell said in a counterinsurgency environment, it is difficult to bring all the radios into a central point because forces are so spread out. The team is traveling around the area of operation in Helmand province to ensure all of the corps’ radios are loaded with encryption, which will make their two-way communications untraceable.
“It is a dangerous job for these technicians that go out there in these trucks, risking their lives to encrypt these radios,” stated Russell. “They do a very good job at it; they do it quickly, and they are motivated."
The soldiers are essentially creating more work for themselves, according to Russell.
“Once you do some of the radios for a kandak, you have to do them all or else there is no point in encrypting them at all. You have everyone encrypted or no one at all,” said Russell. “You have to go in there, you have to do it fast, and you have to get out and touch some outlying areas.”
He added if they do not encrypt all of the radios, they will leave forces out in the area of operations that cannot communicate effectively with other units and would potentially be at risk.
This is a goal the soldiers are working toward, and now they are doing so without the assistance of coalition forces.
“Lately these teams have gone out without any coalition support at all. They are now planning these (missions) on their own and just telling me about it later,” said Russell. “To me, that is independence. What’s important about this is the ANA can see what they can accomplish on their own. They know what their mission is, they know how to accomplish it, and the local Afghan forces are happy to receive them.”
After the first few trips, the ANA soldiers grabbed the reigns and began to tackle this tremendous task by themselves, hoping to soon have all of the radios with encryption.
“As it stands right now, the 215th Corps, give or take, is about half way there. Many of the more dangerous areas, we focused on early to try to encrypt those radios first. If they can do it in a dangerous area, they knew they can do it in a safer area,” said Russell. “As time goes on and security improves, it is going to make it easier and the timeline is going to get cut shorter in terms of how long it takes them to go out and encrypt the rest of these radios.”
Rezwan made a caveat to Russell’s statement and said, “I aim to have all of my radios within the 215th Corps encrypted so the enemy cannot listen to what our missions are. I think it is very good to keep that secret.”
Russell believes the communications section with the 215th Corps has definitely put in the work to do so and said, “There are a lot of things the communications section here have been able to accomplish with very limited resources at their disposal, all on their own.”
Rezwan sees the good things his soldiers are doing, but gives credit to his mentors and advisors for helping stand the communications section up and moving in a forward direction.
“When the 215th Corps first stood up, we did not have any workshop facilities, and at that time we were not able to do any encryptions for the radios because we did not have anything,” said Rezwan. “Then we had the Marines with us; they started working with us, and they built a workshop for the 215th Corps. Now I have a lot of soldiers who know how to encrypt radios by themselves.”
Russell said encrypting all of the radios used by the 215th Corps’ roughly 14,000 soldiers is really just a benefit of what they are accomplishing here -- the real accomplishment is Afghan independence and security -- so he knows everything he does as an advisor will make an impact.
“Accomplishing independence requires many people (from) many organizations to come together and function as a group. They are not quite there yet, but they are close,” said Russell. “It is the little things that really matter to an advisor, day-to-day things, they’ll tell you that they’ve done before you even ask them. As far as encryption, I think I can sleep a little better at night by having a lot of these radios encrypted at the (company) level.”
“It is probably saving lives, not just Afghan lives, but the partnered coalition forces that are with them,” added Russell. “I think the Afghan National Army has really shown what it can do. I’ve learned a lot, myself, about what the Afghan National Army can do, and I think the future is very bright.”
Editor’s note: The Afghan National Army 215th Corps Communications Advisor Team is currently assigned to 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.