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Signal Company conducts first tactical air movement Radio Retrans Exercise

Washington National Guard soldiers with the 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, set up long-range, mobile antenna systems on JBLM Feb. 4, 2023. Photo credit: Pfc. Abigail Clark

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Whether on the battlefield during a federal deployment or responding to a disaster here at home, being able to communicate is one of, if not the most important thing for Guard members and first responders. Without communications, commanders do not know the status of their members, how the mission is going and what they need to complete the tasks.

During February drill, the signal professionals from Charlie Company, 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion put a new spin on this critical task. Working with 1st Battalion, 168th General Support Aviation, the unit conducted its first-ever tactical air movement radio retransmissions exercise at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"After a year of planning and working with our aviation partners, we were able to conduct airlift of two of our vehicles, move them to different locations and conduct radio retransmissions," said Capt. Laudy Choum, commander of Charlie Company.

Depending on the size of the antenna and the strength of the device, radio signals are limited on how far they can reach before they are too broken to understand. Through retransmission, two radios that are connected together provide an automatic retransmission of signals between two other radios that are too far apart to communicate directly with each other. With radios spread across multiple training areas, soldiers sling loaded two communication Humvees under two CH-47, Chinook helicopters to retransmit signals further.

"Through retransmission we are able to extend the capabilities outside of line of sight," said Choum. "Domestic operations like fires and floods, sometimes we cannot get a vehicle to an area by road so training on air movement we are testing a critical function. It was one of the coolest things I have done in my career."

Communications have been a hot topic for the Washington Military Department in recent years. Last year members of the Washington State Guard's Communications team visited armories and readiness centers across Washington, identifying that many had no back up communications tool outside of commercial land line or cell phone. By the end of 2022, all Guard locations across the state were set up with an RF radio system to provide another avenue to communicate. Doubling down on their work, the Washington State Guard conducted a communications exercise with members of the 111th Air Support Operations Squadron in January on Camp Murray. The group set up and tested Joint Incident Site Communications Capability (JISCC) equipment, which delivers high-bandwidth communications in areas with little or no connection. This capability was used during the 2015 wildfires at the Carpenter Fire, just north of Spokane, after cell towers and telephone lines were damaged.

A lot of work has been done improving communications and internet capabilities during disasters. In August 2020, Washington Emergency Management Division professionals began using Starlink user terminals to bring internet service to areas devastated by wildfires. In October 2022, four members of the Washington Air National Guard were activated to Camp Blanding, Fla. to support the response following Hurricane Ian, sharing their expertise with integrating a Starlink system into a JISCC.

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