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Single-channel ground and airborne radio system retransmission planning during combat operations

by MAJ Trip Higgins, CPT Kris Ellis and MSG Robert Lipman

Planning single-channel ground and airborne radio system retransmission-team operations is tougher than you think.

During the first Joint Readiness Training Center rotation at Fort Polk, La., in 1992, retrans-team operations were listed as "needs improvement" by the rotational unit. Every brigade combat team training at JRTC during the last two years also listed retrans-team operations as "needs improvement." We think we’re seeing a trend here.

This article will discuss the challenges associated with SINCGARS retrans operations under combat conditions and provide recommendations to the battalion S-6 for planning successful retrans operations. While we’ll focus on retrans-team operations, many of the concepts and tactics, techniques and procedures will apply to any Signal team employed remotely – to include radio-access-unit teams and line-of-sight radio-relay teams.

Here’s the bottom line up front for employing a retrans team: if the S-6 is the only member of the battle staff planning and coordinating for the team’s employment, go ahead and request replacement personnel and equipment before releasing the team and implement the contingency-communications plan. Employing a retrans team is a combat operation and so the retrans team should be organized as a combined-arms team. Compartmentalizing retrans-team employment as an S-6-only operation is a formula for disaster.

Communications on the move SINCGARS retrans helps keep warfighters shooting, moving and communicating.

This article is divided into two sections. The first section will discuss retrans planning as it relates to the military decision-making process, and the second section will cover detailed planning of retrans operations.

Retrans planning and MDMP

MDMP is a single, established and proven analytical process used to assist the commander and his staff in developing estimates, plans and orders. MDMP has seven steps: receipt of mission; mission analysis; course-of-action development; COA analysis (wargame); COA comparison; COA approval; and orders production. This process helps apply thoroughness, clarity, sound judgment, logic and professional knowledge to reach a decision. It produces coordination, integration and synchronization for an operation, and minimizes the risk of overlooking a critical aspect of the operation.

Let’s examine how Signal integrates with a maneuver unit’s MDMP by discussing some common pitfalls in Signal planning. Remember, retrans planning is a subcomponent of Signal planning, so we’ll discuss both processes.

THE COMMANDER’S GUIDANCE LACKS DETAIL (Step 15 of mission analysis). After the staff completes its mission-analysis brief, the commander provides the staff with enough additional guidance (preliminary decisions) to focus staff activities in planning the operation. By doctrine, the commander’s guidance identifies decisive points, addresses COAs to consider or not consider, and contains both initial commander’s critical-information requirements and reconnaissance guidance. Most commander’s guidance is fairly detailed; in-depth commander’s guidance allows the staff to complete the plan more quickly and efficiently. However, commander’s guidance often lacks detail in the area of command and signal.

If the commander doesn’t like to issue command-post positioning guidance or address his position during his commander’s guidance, request this information. At a minimum, you’ll need to understand the commander’s intent on CP location/function/capability and succession of command. In many maneuver units the S-6 writes Paragraph 5 (command and signal) of the operations order, and you’ll require this information to write the paragraph. Without this information, you’ll be unable to support COA development and will probably end up trying to hastily integrate command-and-control and retrans into the operation just before orders production.

Often during the commander’s guidance (following the mission-analysis briefing), you’ll hear the commander say, "Signal officer, make sure we deploy retrans." While this is doctrinally correct, determining retrans requirements should (generally) be a product of COA development. Most maneuver commanders don’t provide commander’s guidance in enough detail to address integrating retrans assets and aren’t familiar enough with Signal capabilities/limitations to employ retrans assets.

SIGNAL COA DEVELOPMENT ISN’T INTEGRATED INTO MANEUVER COA DEVELOPMENT (Steps 3 and 4 of COA development). After receiving the commander’s guidance, the staff develops COAs for analysis and comparison. Doctrinally there are six steps in COA development: analyze relative combat power; generate options; array initial forces; develop scheme of maneuver; assign headquarters; and prepare COA statements and sketches. The scheme of maneuver provides depth to the battle and governs the design of supporting plans or annexes.

Signal COA development should be integrated into maneuver COA development. Why?

MDMP is a juggernaut. If you don’t conduct Signal COA development during maneuver COA development, it will be difficult to catch up.
COA development is fatal. Why do we say "fatal"? Because once all COA statements and COA sketches are completed, your unit will fight one of those COAs. Doctrine states a COA can be discarded during wargaming, but reality states the S-6 can’t cause a COA to be discarded during wargaming. If a given COA isn’t feasible for command and signal, you must identify it during COA development.
Allocation of space and resources are often implied during maneuver COA development. The earlier you reserve assets, the better.

CP LOCATIONS AND RETRANS SITES DON’T APPEAR ON THE COA SKETCH (COA development, Step 6). COA statements and COA sketches are the final products of COA development. The COA statement must clearly portray how the unit will accomplish the mission and explain the maneuver scheme. The sketch provides a picture of COA’s maneuver aspects. Together, the statement and sketch cover who (generic task organization), what (tasks), when, where, how (method) and why (purpose) for each subordinate unit, plus any significant risks and where they occur. The COA sketch should include locations of CPs (required by doctrine) and retrans sites (see Field Manual 101-5-1, 4-22, for a retrans station’s graphic symbol). If retrans sites aren’t on the COA sketch, then retrans operations will probably be overlooked or insufficiently examined during COA analysis (wargaming).

Retrans better work in times of emergency! Faced with an enemy's Hind helicopter, it's a good time for the retrans plan to work.

Detailed retrans planning

The final section of this article will address considerations that will influence your retrans plan. As you’re developing your retrans COA, you should consider each of the following areas.

BE THE ENEMY. The position of your retrans should be unpredictable. If you try to put your retrans team in the optimal location, you’ll probably encounter the maximum number of enemy. The enemy analyzes the battlefield and goes looking where it thinks your C2 nodes will be positioned. There is some risk in using an electronically marginal location, but the benefit is that the enemy is less likely to template that location as a retrans/C2 site.

When planning for retrans-team employment, maintain your focus on the enemy situation. Epic battles have been fought over a single piece of high ground; the fight for a retrans site could be harder than the fight for the objective.

SINCGARS retrans in S-250 shelter A SINCGARS retrans installed in an S-250 shelter. This team was well-equipped with an M-249 squad assault weapon, Global Positioning System, AN/GRC-193, AN/PSC-5, two AN/VRC-92s, AN/PRC-119, two power supplies and a multimeter.

TO REMOTE SITE, OR NOT TO REMOTE SITE, THAT IS THE QUESTION. Co-locating a retrans team with another asset is generally a good idea. Notice we said it’s generally a good idea. A retrans team (a light-infantry brigade headquarters and headquarters company has modified tables of organization and equipment for two soldiers) will find it almost impossible to defend against even a Level I threat (a team of 10-12 well-armed, well-equipped soldiers). If a retrans team can’t avoid the attack ("hide with pride" should be the motto of all retrans teams), co-locating with another asset is the only way to survive. Co-locating the retrans team also facilitates logistics (to include casualty evacuation – have you ever tried to evacuate a casualty single-handedly?). The drawback of co-locating a retrans team is that you have little control over the asset with which the team is located (particularly, when/where that asset displaces). Consider the friendly asset carefully: the asset the retrans team is co-located with may be an enemy high-payoff target, and the team could suffer significant collateral damage (the Q-36 radar will be well defended, but it’s also an enemy magnet).

Always remember the conditions that require you to employ retrans will probably apply to other units in the combat team. Who else will need to use retrans to support this operation? Can you co-locate your retrans team with theirs? The daily S-6 conference call is a great opportunity to synchronize retrans team missions.

HOW DO I GET THERE FROM HERE? While a retrans team can "hide with pride," it can’t hide during a tactical movement. Retrans teams generally incur increased risk when they’re on the move. How do we mitigate this risk? First, remember that any time your retrans team leaves an approved route, you’re now embarking on a route-clearance operation. Most retrans teams aren’t trained for route clearance. You’ll have to work closely with the S-2 and staff engineer to manage the risk if your team leaves an approved route.

Second, even if your team is traveling on an approved route, make sure you know the last time the route was "proofed" (confirmed to be clear). This means knowing the last time vehicles successfully navigated that route without an ambush or mine strike. We would encourage you to map every mine strike that occurred on the route in the last 72 hours (minimum) and track the time those strikes occurred (pattern analysis). An armed escort is mandatory; three cargo humvees with two pax per vehicle and no crew-served weapons is not "armed."

Air-insertion of retrans teams is a proven technique (especially for dismounted teams), but you should carefully explore the signature of the insertion method and all logistics requirements (particularly recovery of the team after the mission is complete). A remote retrans team in an isolated area (no roads in) may enjoy excellent survivability.

Ensure that you build recovery of retrans assets into your plan. In some situations, recovery of the teams may be so difficult it will cause you to change the rest of the plan. The retrans plan isn’t complete until it includes recovery or exfiltration of the team.

SEMPER GUMBY. Plan for alternate sites; Mother Nature and the enemy will exercise their right to vote. Notice we said plan; simply identifying a second location isn’t a plan. You have to consider movement, force protection, logistics and operations security for the alternate site (all of which may be significantly different from the first location). Establish conditions to trigger movement to the alternate site, and ensure that both the team chief and the approving authority understand those conditions.

SLUMBER-PARTY MASSACRE. Soldiers at a remote site will have to sleep. A (non-doctrinal) technique often used at remote retrans sites is to "sleep away" from the vehicle; some units even set up an ambush on their own retrans vehicle. Another technique employed at remote retrans sites is the "one 31U retrans team." It only takes one 31U (combat communicator) to establish communications at a retrans site; some units will fill the rest of the team with 11Bs (infantrymen). A benefit of this technique is that if the retrans team is compromised and destroyed, you don’t lose all your 31Us (a low-density military-occupation specialty in an infantry unit).

WHEN IS THE LAST TIME YOU TALKED WITH YOUR RETRANS TEAM? (translation: your team is dead). Unfortunately, once a retrans team employs (usually from the tactical-operations center), it’s usually "alone and unafraid" on the battlefield. S-6s and communications chiefs don’t think through how they will C2 their team. A proven technique is to ensure your team employs with formats for standard reports, a report schedule and an AN/PRC-119 radio (manpack SINCGARS). The team submits scheduled reports and "salute" reports by using the AN/PRC-119 across its own retrans equipment. Sure, the team will clog the net for a few seconds while it makes its report, but using a format will dramatically reduce the time it’s on the net. This technique is especially important if the team is retransing from frequency hop to single channel (you can’t hear traffic at the retrans in this mode). The additional AN/PRC-119 gives the team a spare radio-transmitter, and it’s a great tool for testing its equipment. The current trend, in which the only "report" the S-6 gets from the retrans team is when it stops working (reason for outage: enemy contact), isn’t a good thing.

Practice tactical discipline and field craft A reason for outage from your retrans team is the team failed to maintain tactical discipline and didn't practice field craft, resulting in enemy contact.

DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT.A retrans team needs a precision lightweight Global Positioning System receiver. The team may navigate like Lewis and Clark at home station, but it’ll need a PLGR anywhere else in the world.

Bring jumper cables; vehicles are relatively common on the battlefield, jumper cables are not.

Should you bring an automated net-control device? Yes. If you run the retrans vehicle’s batteries down (and the radios are in operation), you’ll lose your communications-security fills. We recommend you have one team member carry ANCD, while a second team member carries the cryptographic ignition key. Ensure your team has solid over-the-air-rekey skills and uses the cue-and-man frequencies.

Employ your retrans team with a "risk kit": spare OE-254 feed cone, spare coaxial cable, spare retrans cable (CX-13298), spare handsets, etc. Remember that any two SINCGARS RTs with a retrans cable can function as a retrans; order a retrans cable for each dual long-range SINCGARS radio system (AN/VRC-92) on your unit’s MTOE.

A combat lifesaver with a complete (inventoried) CLS bag is practically a requirement. Pay attention to Class VIII: packing additional saline bags is a good idea. Ditto for calamine lotion. A team member who’s allergic to beestings must have a beesting kit or risk derailing the retrans operation.

Estimate enough Class I for the operation and double it. Never employ a retrans team with less than five days’ supply of Class I and water.

FM 11-43, "The Signal Leader’s Guide," has a great checklist for retrans employment. We also encourage you to conduct troop-leading procedures (GTA 7-1-38) and include a backbrief and rehearsal (react to contact, casualty evacuation, react to mine strike). Require the retrans team to set up its OE-254s and precombat-check equipment in-system before employing.


When SINCGARS retrans planning is integrated into MDMP, the chances of successfully accomplishing the retrans operation greatly increase. Whether they realize it or not, the other officers on the battle staff will author into retrans-team employment as a combat operation. This assertion applies to both combat missions and stability-and-support operations.

Become familiar with FM 11-32 ("Combat-Net Radio Operations"), FM 11-43 and FM 101-5 ("Staff Organization and Operations"). FM 11-43 is especially good because it’ll help you with site selection (Chapter 5, Section III), tactical movement (Chapter 5, Section II) and Signal site security (Chapter 5, Section IV). Your own soldiers will clue you in on TTPs not found in the manuals – like covering the head of a sledgehammer with empty sand bags so you don’t have metal-to-metal contact while pounding in antenna stakes.

A final disclaimer: this article is intended to be a retrans operations primer, not the definitive work on the subject. We intentionally left out discussion of some important battle staff members – such as the fire-support officer (no-fire areas and fire-support planning) and air-defense-artillery officer (enemy air avenues of approach) – and the importance of a SINCGARS equipment matrix.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your wargaming.

MAJ Higgins is the senior Signal trainer at JRTC. He has five rotations as an observer/controller, 18 rotations as the JRTC Signal planner and three rotations as a Blue Forces member.

CPT Ellis served as the mobile-subscriber-equipment company trainer and a light-infantry battalion Signal trainer at JRTC. He was recently reassigned from JRTC with 23 rotations as an O/C and one rotation as BLUEFOR.

MSG Lipman is the brigade communications-chief trainer at JRTC. He has eight rotations as an O/C and 13 rotations as BLUEFOR.

JRTC Signal team members MAJ Thomas Hood, CPT Roger McDonald, SFC Rafael Gonzalez, SFC Daniel Padilla and SFC Jaudon White also contributed to this article.

Acronym QuickScan
ANCD – automated net-control device
BLUEFOR – Blue Forces
C2 – command and control
CLS – combat lifesaver
COA – course of action
CP – command post
FM – field manual
JRTC – Joint Readiness Training Center
MDMP – military decision-making process
MTOE – modified tables of organization and equipment
O/C – observer/controller
PLGR – precision lightweight G(lobal Positioning System) receiver
RT – radio transmitter
SINCGARS – single-channel ground and airborne radio system
TTP – tactics, techniques and procedures

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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This is an offical U.S. Army Site |
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