Tactical Communications

Army providing communications backbone for Ebola response

WIN-T Increment 2 communucations node

A soldier from the 101st Airborne trains in a WIN-T Increment 2 communications node. The Army is deploying WIN-T in West Africa.

The Army, which has been honing its tactical battlefield networks for years, is contributing those communications capabilities to efforts to fight Ebola in West Africa.

Earlier this month, working with the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Army turned on Blue Force Tracking, a satellite communications system fielded to all Army brigades and which provides real-time messaging and location information for vehicles and individuals. Next will be the deployment of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, in Liberia, one of the three countries hardest hit by the deadly virus.

Many medical workers and aid organizations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are "working in very austere conditions without communications reach-back," Lt. Col. Joel Babbitt, product manager for WIN-T, Increment 1, said in an Army release. "This provides the communications reach-back that will allow them to coordinate their efforts as an entire task force. It will make our response to the Ebola crisis much more coordinated and much more effective."

WIN-T, a mobile network that provides voice, data and video communications, will serve as the communications backbone for the task force headquarters, being run by the 101st Airborne Division, the Army said. The 101st and the 50th Expeditionary Signal Battalion also will provide commercial network connections to relief organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross.

The Army plans to deploy elements of both WIN-T increment 1, which brings mobile networking to the battalion level, and Increment 2, which extends communications to the company level. The commercial services are being provided by the service’s Regional Hub Node in Landstuhl, Germany, giving units and aid organizations reach-back access to the Army's global information network.

"Since they are commercial enclaves, you can go and buy commercial items like a WiFi hotspot, plug them in directly, and you instantly have a connection," Babbitt said. "As engineers flow in to build treatment facilities, they will be operating directly with these [non-government organizations], so the ability to provide a common backbone via commercial Internet is critical to an assistance response task force."

A lack of infrastructure in the hard-hit countries, which have been ravaged by years of civil wars and internal uprisings, has been a major contributing factor to the spread of the disease, currently undergoing its largest outbreak in history. More than 10,000 people have been infected with the virus and nearly 5,000 of them have died, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. And WHO estimates the number of new infections could grow to between 5,000 and 10,000 a week by December.

Medical personnel and other aid workers are the greatest need, but a communications infrastructure could go a long way toward helping organizations coordinate their response and slow down the outbreak.

For the Army, which continually tests and upgrades its tactical network through regular Network Integration Evaluations, having that infrastructure ready to deploy is key to the response.

"It highlights the importance of continually modernizing the network so that you can provide these sorts of capabilities when required," Babbitt said.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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