Toward an Expeditionary Army

​During the recent Mission Command Workshop at Camp Robinson, AR, several of the speakers made comment on the Army’s need to return to being expeditionary.  I found this puzzling.  Within my 25 years in the Army, I would argue that the Army has never been expeditionary.

To my mind, the hallmark of an expeditionary force is that the lowest unit of deployment, if not of employment, must have the capacity to be self-sustaining over a sufficient time for follow-on forces to arrive or for logistics avenues to be established, AND (and this is where the Army doesn’t make the cut) always, with no time limits, with regard to critical functions.  Communication is always a critical function.

The one service that I think has always been expeditionary is the Navy.  And that is borne of an iron necessity.  If comms go out aboard ship, they can’t just go purchase a spare part off the local economy.  It has to be repaired in place with what is on hand and by those that are on board.

I deployed with my brigade in 2011.  Our headquarters occupied a FOB and upon the previous tenant vacating, we began moving in.  Certain assets were left in place.  In particular, the COM-201 B antennae arranged on the Hesco barriers ringing the building that would be our TOC.  The RTOs plunked down their radio sets, plugged in, configured them and discovered quickly that something was wrong.  I left a junior 25U, who had identified the antenna as the problem, inside to continue assisting the S3 personnel and went outside to inspect the suspect device and quickly found the problem.  As soon as I disturbed two of the three antennae, the RF cable dropped off the connector to the ground, leaving the terminator firmly attached to the connection point on the antenna.

The cable itself was in perfect order, but no kind of strain relief had been employed, and the antennae had been left in the elements for at least a year, if not longer, with, apparently, no periodic inspection or maintenance.  Add to this the simple effect of gravity and the weight of the cable and that the crimp for the termination was the weakest point in the system….  There were two courses of action open.  I could either replace the entire, otherwise completely serviceable, cable assembly, which would also require crawling under the building and through its attic, or I could re-terminate the cable and place it back into service.

Actually, I could not.  Despite being a senior 25U with decades of experience and training, the Army had never trained me to terminate RG-213 cable (nor to identify it as such*), but fortunately, I had picked these skills up on my own.  And yet, the Army also had never equipped a BCT HQ signal section with appropriate crimpers or terminators.  They had made certain we all had a tool box full of hammers and every socket size known to man, just nothing that was particularly useful to the actual signal mission.  (RJ-45 crimpers are similarly not provided, despite the rise of Cyber and the proliferation of Ethernet across all formations….)  The hammer wasn’t going to be very helpful.

Fortunately, as I was describing the problem to my S6 and the Ops SGM, a young Airman overheard me.  The Air Force is an expeditionary force, I learned at that moment.  He walked me out to a TRICON with their squadron logo pasted on the outside, and rapidly found a kit of crimpers and terminators for RG-213 cable.  I glimpsed a wealth of other contingency stuff in that box as well, none of which an IBCT leaves home with, and should.

So thanks to the Air Guard, the Army Guard got its comms up in an… expeditious… manner.

We don’t fully train our maintainers.  We don’t deploy with an appropriate Signal oriented PLL.  And we don’t integrate the preventative maintenance stuff into our operations and training (a few, very lightly supervised hours in the motor pool each month doesn’t cut it)–a few turns of electrical tape over the crimp on that cable by the tenant unit that put it in place, would have prevented, or at least delayed the failure.  Until we do these things, we cannot make a claim to being expeditionary.

*  Edited–I misidentified the cable as RG-58 in the original version, which should only emphasize the point.

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