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A communications planning primer: what every "commo" needs to know.

Lt. Cmdr. Ima Eyep, a recent information professional lateral transfer from the surface warfare community, checks aboard a strike group as the communications officer, or "commo." Within two weeks of moving into her new job, an earthquake hits in the Caribbean and Eyep's strike group is assigned as the combined forces maritime component commander, or CFMCC, to manage naval humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) efforts for two countries located on different islands affected by the catastrophe.


It is unknown at the onset of the operation which forces will participate or if branch and sequel plans will be needed for potential peacekeeping functions, non-combatant evacuation operations or maritime intercept operations should the situation on the ground take a turn for the worse.

Eyep's new boss looks to her to quickly get the communications plan released to enable command and control (C2) of multinational forces. She does not have previous communications planning experience or training. However, she has an experienced senior chief information systems technician assigned as the strike group spectrum manager. They have 48 hours to get the communications plan out via naval message. Failure to plan and execute a robust communications plan will equate to uncoordinated C2 for the CFMCC forces, ineffective response and, most likely, loss of life. The clock is ticking.

This scenario could become reality for any commo today. The biggest challenge is that most commos have little or no experience in actual communications planning when they arrive on assignment. Additionally, there is no formal Navy training available regarding communications planning for tactical and operational scenarios so most commos credit the school of hard knocks as their training ground. Although the Afloat Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Program (AESOP) is an effective spectrum management software tool for managing radar and communications frequencies for shipboard equipment, and training is available through the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, the wider framework for communications planning is not covered.

Avoiding the School of Hard Knocks

While the Navy needs formalized long-term instruction for commos, as an interim step, there are certain basic communications planning concepts that can be followed to prepare communications officers to meet this challenge. This primer provides commos with fundamentals to consider when developing communications plans to support operations, as well as suggestions to avoid common missteps. Key tenets of the communications planning framework, regardless of type of operation, include the following lessons learned.

As commo, invite yourself to the planning party--be active in all operational planning meetings and ensure participants understand and include potential communications implications or limitations in their plans. Commos should be so involved in planning that operators would not even consider having a planning session without the commo present.

Understand the commander's C2 structure and its implications to command, control, communications and computers (C4) planning and operations.

Know the commander's critical information requirements (CCIRs) and those of the commander's boss.

Know the mission. Understanding the mission will help anticipate communications and C2 requirements in advance.

Identify C4 requirements. Coordinate with operators and others to gather requirements early and get their buyin for the plan prior to release. Give the commander some C4 maneuver space whenever possible.

Remember, based on the scenario, there may be unique C4 requirements to consider. For example, non-combatant evacuation and repatriation operations will involve heavy use of ship-to-shore communications with Marine ground units, and operational tasking order communications (OPTASK COMMS) need to be aligned with the larger joint task force (JTF) plan.

HA/DR operations may involve communications with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and interagency groups, like the U.S. Department of State and United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Internal response in the United States will also include communications with state and municipal local first responders. The commo cannot assume interoperability between all the players and their systems.

For any operation, consider where tactical ground units will be ashore and the issues that may be encountered, for example, electromagnetic interference, antenna look angles, foreign frequency landing rights, etc.

In combat operations, communications may be denied by adversaries' actions. Planning for redundancy and communications discipline is key.

Plan for the unknown. Build in additional capacity for potential branch and sequel plans and make the communications plan releasable to the widest audience possible from the onset. This will enable the plan to flex as operations change and allow effective participation by multinational partners.

Coordinate early with asset providers to provide maximum coverage across the frequency spectrum using all available C4 systems.

Know the communications capabilities and limitations of units assigned and those of anticipated participants.

Ensure the plan is aligned and in support of operational orders (Annex K for Communications and Annex C for Operations) from higher authority and strike group operational tasking orders for information and knowledge management, link, information warfare and intelligence.

Ensure maritime planners are in lockstep with joint planners coordinating spectrum use and assets in support of operations. This includes spectrum use by surface, air and subsurface unmanned vehicles.

Plan for communications failure. Build in sufficient redundancy to ensure continuous C2.

An effective communications planner builds a comprehensive communications architecture with sufficient redundancy and robustness to deftly support the commander's ability to seamlessly execute command and control. Getting the architecture and plan in place is not without challenges.

Understanding the C4 Requirements--Communications "Fairyland" versus Communications Reality

In all communications planning, the first step is to determine the operational requirements that need to be supported. This is where communications fairyland meets communications reality. In communications fairyland, operators understand the mission fully, know their C2 structure and understand the geography of the operation, the enemy and friendly forces at their disposal. They assume a flawless communications environment and perfect systems performance.

The reality at the onset of a crisis is operators, as well as commos, will need answers to a multitude of planning questions, and the structures will not be mature enough for many of the critical factors to be known. Communications planners must do their best to build sufficient capacity into the communications architecture to support what operators have identified definitively and to anticipate what might become important in later phases of the operation.

When planning the best C2 structure with operators, it is important to determine the commander's role. Will he or she be the coalition/joint task force commander, the JFMCC commander, an expeditionary strike force (ESF) commander, task group commander, etc.?

Understanding the commander's role, and if that role is likely to change, will be key for developing the correct type of officer in tactical command (OTC) and composite warfare commander (CWC) structure and corresponding communications plan.

For example, if the C2 structure is for an ESF and a SUBSIT A C2 structure is chosen, there are communications implications that come into play. SUBSIT A is essentially a flat organization structure where all warfare commanders and their subordinate units report to the ESF commander on the same voice and data nets, to include chat rooms. Depending on the number of participants, these nets could get very busy and cause delays in delivery and receipt of operational orders.

In a SUPSIT B, the composite warfare commanders report to the expeditionary strike group commander on ESF command nets but have separate voice and data nets for use between them and their subordinate units. Communications factors, such as a unit's equipment capabilities and limitations, as well as the number of participants and where units are located, must be taken into account when making decisions on which C2 structure to implement to meet operational objectives.

It is important for operations personnel to get operational orders, task unit (TU) and task group (TG) assignments out early. During a crisis, the situation is rapidly evolving so communications planners should not wait to get the first communications plan out while waiting for final TU/TG assignments.

The initial plan should be issued with an 80 percent solution to get the structure in place to immediately begin command and control; the plan can be amended as units are added or removed. Special attention to subordinate groups and units that often implement their own communications plans, such as Marine expeditionary units, carrier air wings and Special Forces, must be known by higher level communications planners to ensure alignment and deconfliction of frequencies.

Understanding Implications of C4 Capabilities and Limitations

The communications planner's attendance at all operational planning discussions is paramount to ensuring that communications asset availability and unit limitations are well thought out when determining the C2 structure. While operators will say that communications do not drive operations, in reality, that is indeed true in many cases.

For example, maritime forces are extremely dependent on satellites for communications between units separated by more than 200 nautical miles. Selecting a C2 structure with disaggregated forces all using high frequency (HF) or line of sight (LOS) for the commander's primary voice nets is unsupportable. If satellite assets are unavailable or limited, operators must decide on a C2 structure that accounts for these factors, and a SUPSIT B structure is more appropriate. Also, planners must acknowledge these assets are largely joint assets and not strictly Navy resources.

Communications planners also need to be mindful of joint, coalition and interagency unit communications capabilities. Use of these capabilities should be included in the overall plan to avoid interoperability issues or frequency interference problems. In a JTF environment, this could include special warfare units, elements of the Joint Communications Support Element, and other service, interagency or coalition unique communications platforms.

Many coalition units do not share common satellite systems or cryptographic equipment with the United States, so how operational orders will be passed to them must be built into communications and communications security planning.

Communications planners should aggressively work with satellite service providers to put as many of their assigned voice and data command nets on the same satellite for smaller units that do not have the capability to be on more than one satellite simultaneously due to equipment limitations shipboard.

Where communications problems exist, due to unit equipment limitations, casualties or lack of satellite access, operators who "own" the voice/data net (the net con-trolling station or NECOS) should assign a guard ship to help relay operational orders to those disadvantaged units. The guard ship relationships should be codified in the OPTASK COMMS to ensure continuous C2 is achieved.

For bandwidth disadvantaged units, afloat and ashore, special consideration should be given by planners when using websites as a primary means of information dissemination, particularly C2 information. The Army and Air Force rarely use traditional message traffic for disseminating operational orders and post most orders to websites. However, the Navy and many coalition partners still use message traffic due to bandwidth limitations afloat which make Web-based collaborative tools challenging or impossible to use while underway. Annex C to the operational order and the OPTASK for knowledge and information management must account for these variations.

The second and third order effects of using collaborative or Web-based tools should be included in communications planning. For example, do units have access to high data rate Internet Protocol communications? Do fleet firewall ports and protocols support use of the tool? Is the tool or website bandwidth efficient and usable afloat? Do afloat units have the software or Web plug-ins approved for shipboard use? Do Navy units have to implement bandwidth management measures to meet the requirements?

Navy commanders' assigned roles and where they physically reside during operations will have an impact on how they can effectively communicate with superiors and subordinates. For example, having the combined forces maritime component commander collocated with the JTF commander, specifically at a shore location with robust connectivity, eliminates the challenges of communicating with the boss although those challenges will remain in communicating with subordinates on the tactical edge.

Mitigation measures can be put in place, such as having the CFMCC push only required information to subordinate units via Collaboration at Sea or other bandwidth efficient tools, and ensuring sufficient redundancy for voice and data nets between the commander ashore and subordinate units afloat to allow for redundancy to pass operational orders.

When Web-based tools, including social networking sites, are able to be used they should be leveraged by communications and operational planners for their tactical advantages, particularly during unclassified operations - like HA/DR efforts. For example, communications planners could use Twitter to discern if commercial connectivity to an area is still operational. If the affected population is "tweeting"--commercial communications are available. This is important because where terrestrial and wireless commercial infrastructure communications can be leveraged, less military or temporary tactical commercial satellite terminals are needed for ground units.

Operations personnel can also use the tools to gain more real-time, albeit not analyzed, situational awareness of events happening on the ground where there is not yet a military presence.

Plan for Communications Failure

Taking into account all the factors discussed, a commo must plan for communications failure and have alternatives available when there is a disruption in primary communications paths and still be able to maintain command and control. Because of the Navy's over reliance on satellite service to reach-back ashore for high data rate communications, planners must be ready for operating in a satellite-denied environment due to equipment casualties, insufficient shared satellite capacity, or enemy disruption to communications links or space-based services.

A commo does this through the optimum C2 organizational structure with redundant communications paths via various systems using different bands of the radio frequency spectrum.

Working closely with a spectrum manager, a commo should build a communications plan that includes multiple paths for key C2 circuits using multiple portions of the spectrum. The spectrum manager coordinates with the Navy and Marine Corps Spectrum Center to obtain high, ultra high and very high frequency spectrum for use in the communications plan.

Spectrum managers also work with numbered fleet commanders to request satellite-based assets for voice and data nets via various systems. Prioritization of the multiple circuits is included in the plan. To remove ambiguity for operators and time permitting, the various paths should be tested with participating units in advance to ensure agility in execution.

Conscientious communications planners will also review the Navy and Joint Lessons Learned databases to discover potential pitfalls and avoid those early. Too often, the wheel is reinvented and lessons unnecessarily and painfully relearned. By the same token, at the end of operations, commos should enter their hard lessons learned into the Navy and Joint Lessons Learned databases to help shipmates prepare for similar operations.

Best Practices, Careful Planning and Working Together Yield Success

So we return to Eyep and her challenge. Working with the strike group's spectrum manager, she quickly researched lessons learned from previous HA/DR efforts and discerned best practices. She synchronized internally with strike group operations, and intelligence and logistics subject matter experts to obtain their best assessment of communications requirements and units participating--along with their capabilities and limitations.

Eyep coordinated with the joint task force J6 communications planners to understand requirements for information exchange with the JTF commander. She gave critical recommendations on communications factors which will affect decisions regarding which C2 structure will be ultimately selected by the commander.

Then Eyep creatively built a plan that included redundant circuits, paths and systems using all available assets to ensure continuous C2 between the commander and his or her forces. She included circuits in her plan that cover scenarios for potential branches and sequels deviating from the main plan and made the communications plan releasable to as many coalition partners as possible.

Eyep's coordination with the joint task force knowledge manager paid big dividends because she ensured the KM understood the communications limitations of maritime bandwidth disadvantaged units and included effective means to exchange information with those forces.

Finally, Eyep knows the plan is a first iteration and that it will evolve as operations change. She remains actively engaged in all aspects of operations, looking for the next opportunity to improve C2.

Capt. Danelle Barrett is an Information Dominance Corps officer with 22 years of experience in communications. She has led communications planning efforts during four carrier strike group and numbered fleet commander staff tours. Barrett is the commanding officer of Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic.
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Author:Barrett, Danelle
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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Next Article:Q&A with senior chief information systems technician Jason M. Rufa--carrier strike group two spectrum manager.

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