Roger Seaton

COMMENTARY

Soldiers need better communications training

Instruction and small-unit exercises are essential to ensure mission success

Roger Seaton is vice president of integrated logistics support services for TeleCommunication Systems.

Stewart Brand, creator and publisher of "The Whole Earth Catalog," famously said, "Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road."

Technology innovation moves rapidly. And our warfighters are being asked to do more with technology outside their normal responsibilities, especially in the area of communications. Yet, although the military is spending billions of dollars on the latest IP technologies for deployable satellite communications, the funding for training on these technologies is not keeping pace. In many cases, training is just an afterthought.

That fact is reflected by today’s in-theater warfighter who states, “This is the first time I have ever seen this type of communications terminal. I have no idea what to do or how to use it.”

That’s in contrast to a junior enlisted Marine who, after formal training, recently said, "At first, I resented being sent to this training because I was 'voluntold' to attend. Now I am really enjoying it because I feel empowered to perform my mission."

It is important to point out that training is available. The problem is that there too often isn't adequate planning for training. The wrong people end up attending the training classes, or there are too many warfighters sent to a class with too few instructors. Many times, when a training class is available, the mindset is to send as many warfighters as possible — if 19 attendees are good, then 40 attendees must be better. In that scenario, five warfighters might want to learn, while the rest fade into the background.

A better approach is to limit the number of trainees-to-trainers and systems. We find a ratio of 15 to 18 attendees to two trainers with five systems is a good ratio to ensure warfighters receive proper individual instruction.

The lack of proper training increases the risk that the mission will be compromised or will even fail. Compared to older communications equipment, the newer IP technologies are simple. But to an infantry or artillery soldier, they might seem utterly magical. If warfighters are assigned to an unfamiliar terminal, the chances are greatly reduced that they can install and operate it correctly. Moreover, improper use can cause interference with other satellite and communications equipment. Poorly trained operators can not only adversely affect their system but also can adversely affect multiple systems, resulting in a potentially catastrophic outcome.

Avoiding that outcome begins at the leadership or decision-making level. Leaders must recognize that the person they send to training will be the person in theater who operates the communications terminal. They should not divorce the two assignments.

It is also important to schedule ongoing small-unit exercises or have training terminals available to warfighters. That allows them to become proficient at using the communications terminal, so when the time comes to use it in theater, they will be able to successfully execute their mission. Like any acquired skill, learning a new communications system is a perishable skill set. Think of something as basic as changing your golf club grip. If you do not practice, the results of the improved technique will be worse than the original.

Industry also must play a role in the training effort. Most training for newly fielded equipment is offered on a per-class basis, which limits training to people available at the scheduled time. Through public/private partnerships, we must develop ways to structure training classes that the military can summon at a moment's notice. Industry must be creative with training solutions that can be easily used and adopted by the military.

The bottom line is that without proper training and associated processes, communications equipment might not be used to its full effectiveness. The worst-case scenario is that the lack of training could cause loss of life if critical data does not get to where it needs to be in a timely fashion. Put it this way: Government would not spend millions of dollars on a weapons system and not train its operators. Communications systems must be held in the same high regard. In today’s theater of operation, information is often the most powerful weapon at our warfighters’ disposal — and those who wield it correctly will be successful.

Reader Comments

Wed, Jun 23, 2010

This problem faces all services wrt the shift to ip comms. The days of HF and UHF based nodes are fading rapidly. DoD training is an afterthought, we deploy new systems and then wonder why they don't perform as advertised. If we trained our folks to the right level our performance and effectiveness would increase 10-fold. But then again that would cost way too much money. Right?

Wed, Jun 23, 2010 Brad Shultis Quantico

Two common flaws: 1) "Operators" thinking of guns and artillery pieces as "weapons systems", but thinking of radios or communications systems as "just radios or communications systems"; and, 2) Program Manager's failing to incorporate training requirements, strategies, and resources into the R&D, acquisition, and fielding of those systems. Flaw ONE fails to recognize that the radio or comm system is THE MOST IMPORTANT capability on the battlefield (because it provides the ability to command and control, to communicate, to call in fires/supplies/medevacs/reinforcements, and extends the eyes and ears of everyone), and ALL MUST know what it can do and how to use it; and Flaw TWO makes training an afterthought, which ultimately results in dead Marines and Soldiers on the battlefield.

Wed, May 26, 2010

Someone did not discuss all the "approved product lists" DoD and the services mandate. Testing costs money and then there are all the acquisition hurdles (including small business laws) to deal with. We could go on and on about the "requirements" of DOD. Are they really needed or just for show?

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