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SATCOM: Establishing connections of astronomical proportions

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Marianique Santos
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
He recalls being deployed to Madagascar with a team of four. The country was in a civil war. With an army coupe ousting its leader, the country was left in violent turmoil. The ambassador asked Africa Command to send its advanced echelon team to help formulate a course of action for evacuating the citizens in case the situation worsened. With an Army lieutenant colonel, a sergeant major and an intelligence analyst, he remembered being snuck into the city. They got through safely, establishing his equipment's first-ever communications shot that far south of the equator.

"It had never been done to that point, so we weren't sure if it was even going to work," said Tech. Sgt. Robert Chrisman, 644th Combat Communications Squadron radio frequency transmissions crew chief, in recollection of one of his best down-range experiences in satellite communication. "It was successful, and I had the chance to represent COMM."

In the modern day world, where technology, communication and networking has become a necessity for both individual and industry, satellite transmissions have been a national commodity. For the military, communication capabilities have been a valued asset, especially in a deployed environment.

"We establish connection from our location to enable many users to have telephone and internet capability," said Staff Sgt. David Foster, 644 CBCS RF transmissions supervisor. "Without the major connection, there is nothing that can be done. Unless we get our link established, the others aren't able do their job. We also have tactical radios that allow ground-to-air communication and also enables multiple users to communicate between each other."

"We establish the satellite link," he continued. "Our job is important enough to require us to be one of the first out to establish the bare base. Usually you'll have security forces, civil engineers and communications Airmen. After all, the first part of a deployment is security, base build-up and communications. COMM allows the first responders to report back to main base and let them know vital information to mission success."

Sergeant Chrisman compared the satellite link they make to a garden hose.

"If we were to stretch a garden hose from earth to the satellite, that's your path," he said. "If you send water through it, that would be the data you are sending. We as SATCOM basically establish the water hose that allows user data to flow through it."

Having to establish the first-line connection requires urgency. The SATCOM team works in less than an eight-hour window along with difficulties posed by the environment where the connection is being established.

"The biggest difficulty in a bare-base environment for SATCOM, I would say, would be finding the right satellite to connect to," said Sergeant Chrisman. "There are times that multiple satellites are around the same area in space, so it is possible to track the wrong satellite in orbit. We can find it, but you won't be allowed to transmit information to the wrong satellite. The hardest thing is making sure that we are on the appropriate satellite and that the equipment communicates properly."

"Occasionally, you find unstable satellites that are difficult to connect to," he continued. "We just happen to be in a very good region here, where we are using a new, stable Wideband Gap System satellite."

In addition to the difficulties of finding the right satellite, Sergeant Foster said that lack of manpower and amount of equipment can also affect the job pace for SATCOM on the field.

"Manpower is also a limiting factor in this kind of environment," he said. "You have to have enough people to operate the terminal. If SATCOM goes down, and I'm at my security job, they would have to go out there and relieve me so I can take care of the problem."

Both downrange and on base, RF transmission services are on high demand.

But despite the mergers and the occasional difficulties of the job, both noncommissioned officers are aware of the importance of their role, especially out on the field.

"I really like my job, and it's definitely important," said Sergeant Foster. "When you're doing real missions, communication is vital."

"I like a lot of aspects of my job," said Sergeant Chrisman, echoing Sergeant Foster's appreciation of being in their career field. "I'm starting to learn more of the networking side and really enjoy that aspect. I love tactical satellite equipment and proud to serve in the military, do my job and defend my country in the process."