5 Things Commanders Should Know About Communications

Let’s face it, even the most humble and open-minded person hates to be wrong or seem ignorant in public. While it will always be fun for leaders to scream “SIGO!” when anything with electrons running through it fails, a deeper understanding of the S6 shop’s capabilities will improve decision-making and calm tempers. Below are five tips to help frame an improved perspective of the S6 shop.

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. James Cleary, with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, talks on the radio during a combined cordon and search with the Iraqi police in the West Rashid district of Baghdad, Iraq, June 26, 2007. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Tierney Nowland)

1Never accept “no” for an answer…at first.

Commanders often push the boundaries of what government-issued equipment is capable of…and there is nothing wrong with that. Unless explicitly prohibited, many innovative solutions can be accomplished through collaborative problem-solving, integrating commercial solutions, and accessing the expertise of program offices such as Harris or Thales.

“If you don’t have comms, you’re just camping.”
-Many an Army general

I cannot count the number of times we have used outside-the-box solutions to enable analog or digital communication in complicated environments. Bottom line, challenge the S6 and allow them enough time to research all available options to come up with potential solutions. Do not accept that something is impossible until all internal and external resources have been explored, or available time has expired.

2Smartphones have spoiled us.

Expectation management is a crucial job for the S6, but educated commanders can help mitigate high expectations through realistic guidance and intent. The typical battalion in an expeditionary environment has roughly 2Mbps bandwidth allocated; and it’s shared with its sister units! That’s peanuts compared to the dedicated 40-50Mbps we enjoy at our house.

Leaders must understand the limitations that come with the tactical environment and resources available ($) to better manage expectations and realize it isn’t Time Warner providing the connectivity. A smart S6 will prioritize bandwidth usage during no-fail events such as VTCs or commander update briefs. Ensure the S6 has a plan to mitigate bandwidth hogs like CPOF during these crucial time periods.

3Implement RTO Academies.

Does 100% of your unit practice and track marksmanship skills regularly? Why not implement the same training methodology and measurement with radio equipment and etiquette? The latter portion of shoot-move-communicate cannot be abdicated to just signal Soldiers. Every Soldier (including leaders) should know how to execute fundamental tasks on all communications equipment, as well as use proper radio etiquette. These skills are perishable and a quarterly RTO Academy will decentralize the expertise from the S6 shop to the lowest operator level, leaving the subject matter experts to better prioritize their efforts and not be consumed with user-level issues. Soldiers should rotate through an academy annually, or test-out to renew their certification.

RTO academies also force Soldiers in the S6 shop to maintain proficiency, promote great cross-training opportunities for the computer-based “signaleers,” and is just another great training event in general. Remember, just because no one answers your radio check doesn’t mean the equipment is broken. Often times there is a Soldier on the distant end too intimidated or unsure of how to use the radio. RTO academies will resolve many of these common occurrences we have all witnessed.

4. The truth about sunspots.

We’ve all heard the chuckles when the S6 blames sunspots or solar flares for degraded communications. Although this is possible, increased sun activity mainly affects HF wavelengths, not the typical FM/VHF frequencies more commonly used. There should always be redundant lines of communication, so if UHF frequencies for beyond-line-of-sight is a primary means, ensure there is an alternate path planned for and resourced- in other words, a PACE plan. Solar activity is real and affects communication worldwide, but it shouldn’t be an excuse briefed at every commander’s update.

5Dig into Communication Exercises (COMMEX).

Soldiers respect what you inspect. Too often, Soldiers have the mentality that their attached signal Soldier will always be within earshot to come troubleshoot and re-fill their radios. Rather, each Soldier must know how to do all operator-level tasks, just as they do their weapon systems. Each COMMEX must be thoroughly planned and conducted weekly to maintain a high-level of proficiency across all echelons. Additionally, leaders should maintain a presence at the event throughout the day and not disappear to their offices after a few hours. Too many elements struggle because they cannot talk, so deliberate COMMEX execution will pay dividends in any environment. Emphasize the importance and results will follow. 

Communication is Everyone’s Business

If you’re a leader, discuss this article with your S6 to start the conversation about igniting improvement in the organization. Furthermore, ask yourself these questions to assess your unit’s current tactical communications skill level and take action to improve the situation.

  • Do all Soldiers know how to perform the basic functions of radio operations?
  • Do I ever hear poor radio etiquette during training exercises?
  • Does my S6 prioritize bandwidth usage in order to optimize VTCs and other critical events?
  • What will be the result of not instituting an RTO academy?
  • Will establishing systems to measure operator-level radio proficiency throughout the unit be of benefit?

Formerly an Armor officer, John Geracitano has served as a commander and S6 within an Infantry battalion, combat aviation brigade and a cavalry regiment. He holds a M.S. in Cybersecurity from the Florida Institute of Technology, and is currently a Signal officer serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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