Thunderbird brigade overcomes challenges of East Timor

by Lisa Alley

While the world’s eyes were locked on East Timor’s humanitarian crisis, the U.S. Army’s Signal Around the World logo focus was on the mission the Australians had requested of it: mostly communications support. The Australian-led International Forces East Timor asked the Signal Regiment, via U.S. Pacific Command, to assist by providing more commo in the form of 11th Signal Brigade from Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

The 11th Signal Brigade, an echelon-above-corps brigade, supported (primarily) Australia’s (and to some extent New Zealand and other countries – see related article) work in East Timor with 127 soldiers for two months. The brigade first deployed to Darwin, Australia, by way of PACOM and then Sydney, Australia. Thunderbird soldiers first left home Oct. 1, 1999, and were in-country in East Timor by month’s end.

The 11th Signal Brigade already had its deployment package in place before Army Signal Command notified it Sept. 20, 1999, that it had a potential mission in East Timor. As MAJ John Dewey, the brigade’s operations officer, noted, "The communications-support request that brought the (INTERFET) mission to 11th Signal Brigade came from the brigade’s ability to be a one-stop shop for communications ranging from strategic interface to tactical-user equipment installation. The brigade normally deploys a task force commonly called Task Force Thunderbird to provide a full range of capabilities."

86th Signal Battalion LOS  team in East Timor
86th Signal Battalion's line-of-sight team, SGT Cleophus Rowland and PFC Timothy Platero, bring up their system. This team provided links to the airport and seaport near Dili, East Timor, enabling communications among operations at the airport, seaport and INTERFET headquarters. (Photo by Chap. (CPT) Kenneth Williams)
Most of the brigade’s assets – soldiers and equipment – for Task Force Thunderbird came from the brigade’s 86th Signal Battalion, a tactical theater battalion. Some soldiers also came from brigade headquarters, 40th Signal Battalion and 504th Signal Battalion, all located at Fort Huachuca. The brigade’s Australian exchange officer (the exchange-officer program is a program the Signal Regiment has with several allied nations) and two Communications-Electronics Command local-acquisition representatives also deployed as part of the task force.

According to COL Randolph Strong, 516th Signal Brigade commander and commander of U.S. Forces East Timor, 11th Signal Brigade assessed the communications situation well, in spite of lacking vital information. The Australians were working to establish a commercial-off-the-shelf communications network in East Timor to provide the country an infrastructure it could use later, but in the interim the Aussies needed American commo support until the private-industry orders could be installed – about six weeks down the road, as it turned out.

"Communications requirements were ill-defined," Dewey recalled. "The execute order for the Signal task force didn’t fully address the communications mission’s scope. Some capabilities and requirements identified on the ground (in East Timor) weren’t provided to the task force as requirements. Most importantly, the supported unit on the ground wasn’t informed that some requirements, either all or in part, weren’t validated and therefore weren’t listed as requirements in the execute order. Also, the execute order contained a request for a list of additional equipment instead of a capabilities requirement."

In spite of these hurdles, the brigade’s predeployment assessment drew Strong’s praise for being on target. The Thunderbirds were not only well-prepared with their engineering solutions, they knew about East Timor, as Australian army CPT James Murray had briefed his American hosts on Timor’s background back at Fort Huachuca. The exchange program was another thing singled out for praise, this time by COL Daniel Judy, former 11th Signal Brigade commander. Judy cited Murray’s work with the brigade – and that of the five Australian officers in their homeland who were alumni of the exchange program and who played key roles in the commo-support operation – as vital and a sign of the exchange program’s effectiveness.

Task Force Thunderbird’s journey to Darwin, the staging area for moving into East Timor, began problematically within the Australian theater. At Darwin, according to Dewey, intra-theater logistics were troublesome because "U.S. lift requirements didn’t have a high priority unless a tremendous amount of effort was made on the part of the U.S. air-component commander and the J-4. We began our movement (from Sydney) to Darwin Oct. 6 with 12 C-5s and one C-17 (aircraft) that closed in Darwin Oct. 16." Otherwise, Task Force Thunderbird took care of itself, coordinating for its own contracting and support.

The brigade’s advance party to East Timor deployed Oct. 17, according to Dewey, followed by the rest of the task force Oct. 18 in 13 C-130s and two surface ships, finishing up Oct. 25.

U.S. Army communicators were capped at 150 troops, according to Dewey. PACOM’s MSQ-126 telephone switch counted for 18 of those soldiers. Strong and two other U.S. Army Pacific officers were also counted in that number. Task Force Thunderbird was then left with 127 U.S. soldiers, its Australian officer and eventually two CECOM LARs possessing satellite-communications and switching specialties.

The task force was limited not only in numbers but also in size and type of equipment. For instance, no AN/TSC-85B satellite terminals could be brought into East Timor; they were too large. "The prototype triband satellite system gave the task force the ability to do a hub on East Timor without the 85B and its oversize lift requirement," Dewey said. "We did, however, get permission to take one TTC-39D digital switch to support INTERFET. The final solution allowed us to bring standard tactical-entry point services directly to Darwin and East Timor."

In short order, a primary link connected the Darwin-based commander of U.S. forces serving in East Timor, Marine Corps BG John Castellaw. There Task Force Thunderbird established 42 tactical telephones with Defense Switched Network access, 33 commercial telephones, 40 secure Internet protocol routing network connections, 50 nonsecure Internet protocol routing network drops, three international wide-area network units and five coalition WAN lines.

At Dili, East Timor, where Strong was based, Task Force Thunderbird built a network consisting of 95 tactical telephones with DSN access, 16 SIPRNET drops, 48 NIPRNET connections and a router/server for the international and coalition WANs.

For Dili’s outsites, the brigade linked the airport, seaport, aviation-support group and logistics-support group with line-of-sight communications. Satellite links connected Darwin with Dili and with a coalition airfield at Baucau.

At Baucau, located on the eastern part of East Timor, Task Force Thunderbird set up 14 tactical telephones, six international network connections and eight coalition network connections for the Thai brigade there. Network connections included routers, servers and computers.

"There was no real network as spoken about by communicators everywhere," Dewey said. "There was, however, through great effort by the task force, some redundancy in services. Data bandwidth and multiple data networks at each location were unique capabilities that U.S. assets brought. There were no less than seven separate data networks: SIPRNET, NIPRNET, Australian SIPRNET, Australian NIPRNET, INTERFET WAN, coalition WAN and at least one intelligence network. Every location had a minimum of two data networks requiring multiplexers – in this case FCC-100s. This was a small, yet complicated, series of circuits providing multiple services to each location.

"The task force provided the only videoteleconference capability on East Timor. Conferences were accomplished routinely in Darwin and in Dili simultaneously, and hubbed through the STEP interface in Hawaii. The task force’s tactical automatic switches provided U.S. tactical to U.S. tactical, U.S. tactical to DSN, U.S. tactical two-wire analog STU III to DSN, commercial fax through U.S. tactical to DSN, U.S. tactical two-wire analog AT&T 1910 to DSN SIPRNET dialup, U.S. tactical to Australian commercial through an E-1 line-termination-unit interface and U.S. tactical to Australian tactical.

"Using information-flow diagrams, the task force determined where the critical need existed for U.S. tactical voice," Dewey continued. "One example was for air traffic; the task force provided tactical telephones in the tower in Dili and Baucau. Ten FCC-100 multiplexers, 18 CV-2048s, 15 routers, two VTC suites, nine servers on four separate networks, 90 computer terminals with 268 active connections and 187 tactical telephones were completely installed and maintained with total success."

Checking power supply cable for FCC-100
CW2 Thomas Olson of 86th Signal Battalion and Carl Barrett, a Communications- Electronics Command local-aquisition representative, work on the power supply for an FCC-100. Supplying and distributing power was a challenge for Signaleers in East Timor, where subscribers had limited or no electricity. (Photo by Chap. (CPT) Kenneth Williams)

Dewey and other Task Force Thunderbird members have reason to be proud. Besides successfully installing and maintaining the INTERFET communications system, there was one other "small" hurdle to overcome: lack of go juice.

"This operation created many firsts for the Thunderbirds: participating in a non-U.S.-led international peacekeeping operation with the communications element as the predominant force; and interfacing the new Australian Parakeet tactical switch and Australia’s public-switched telephone switch with our AN/TTC-39D digital switch. Then there was planning for a consideration that doesn’t normally present much of a challenge: power for end-user equipment," Dewey said.

"East Timor had no electricity of any kind. Subscribers often had no electricity, and if they did, it was limited and of the 240-volt, 50-hertz variety. Understandably, power became a major planning consideration," said Dewey. "Most terminal equipment can handle the additional load of multiplexers, converters, routers, hubs, computers and even some air-conditioning. The problem was in distributing the power to users’ locations. Extension cords, power-distribution boxes and load balancing all became a challenge that was overcome by good ol’ American ingenuity."

In spite of the power problems, once commo was in place, it stayed in working order for the most part. "Subscribers were pleased with their support," Dewey said. "We had minor outages as SATCOM controllers decreased power, extremely heavy rain blocked satellite reception, or through operator error. We believe the moisture and heat in (the East Timor) tropical environment led to component failures. The triband prototype systems have been used extensively in hot, dry, desert climates; this was the first extended operation in a tropical climate."

As one might expect a Signaleer to say, Dewey seemed to take the communications challenges in stride. "The communications support was the easier mission; force protection was our challenge in East Timor," he said. "Environmental hazards were the greatest threat to soldiers. East Timor’s climate of high temperatures and great humidity created a higher risk for heat casualties (which Task Force Thunderbird didn’t have)."

Heat wasn’t the only foe. Malaria, Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever threatened Task Force Thunderbird soldiers. Signaleers were vaccinated, issued malaria pills, ordered to wear their sleeves down, slept under chemically treated mosquito netting and wore insect repellent. Living areas were cleaned daily. Dewey related that the precautions paid off.

And if there weren’t the bugs to bug Signaleers, there were other dangers to avoid. "The threat of violence was always present," Dewey said. "We took precautions to keep our soldiers safe. When we arrived in East Timor, the task force set up a guard force of stationary and roving guards to maintain perimeter security around the compound, and to overwatch the main and pedestrian gate. The compound’s perimeter security was lined with triple strands of concertina wire, and heshing or burlap sheets were secured to the fence surrounding the compound to limit visibility into the perimeter. We fortified our position with sandbags. Three primary fighting positions with a tactical phone each were constructed to support the compound’s security.

"Force-protection training was a continual process. We held joint drills with 1st Topographical Survey Squadron, the Australian unit located in the compound with us, and the British 2d Royal Gurkha Regiment, the quick-reaction force. The drills were a great success, but of course they showed our weaknesses and areas needing more concentrated effort. An internal QRF for the compound was also established. We secured a location for combat lifesavers to treat the wounded, established a procedure to pick up extra ammunition for each fighting position and gave all soldiers refresher training on the rules of engagement."

As for lessons-learned, for Task Force Thunderbird, East Timor was a reinforcement of commonsense: plan, plan, plan – which they apparently did superbly. "Their initial assessment back at Fort Huachuca about what they needed was a very good assessment," said Strong. "We used nearly every piece of equipment. Every laptop they brought got used; every router, hub, server – it was almost the right exact amount. In most cases there was very little not used, and it was available as a backup; so I think they did a very good job."

Ms. Alley edits Army Communicator. Information for this article taken from sources provided by MAJ Dewey; by Bill McPherson, 516th Signal Brigade’s public-affairs officer; and other public-affairs sources.

Acronym QuickScan
CECOM – Communications-Electronics Command
DSN – Defense Switched Network
INTERFET – International Forces East Timor
LAR – local-acquisition representative
NIPRNET – nonsecure Internet protocol routing network
PACOM – Pacific Command
QRF – quick-reaction force
SATCOM – satellite communications
SIPRNET – secure Internet protocol routing network
STEP – standard tactical-entry point
VTC – videoteleconference
WAN – wide-area network


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