Michael's Dispatches

SatComms for Soldiers

25 July 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

Have been out with British forces in the area of Sangin in northern Helmand Province.  This area appears to be turning into the main effort of the current fight in Afghanistan, but this is unclear to me at the moment.  I do know that air assets are heavy.  During our mission yesterday, a B-1 could be seen overhead, though it was miles high.  On the ground, this place is loaded with IEDs and there were many firefights during yesterday’s mission.   My section of eight soldiers did not fire a single round; we did not come into direct contact, though bullets sometimes zipped overhead.  Nearly all missions are conducted on foot and the soldiers like it that way.  I am with the British battalion called 2 Rifles.  The last mission I did with 2 Rifles was in Iraq, and they killed maybe 26-27 JAM members during that fight.  Yesterday they only killed two Taliban (Predator actually made the shot), but the mission was well run, and morale here is very high.  Everybody is ready to roll again and missions are near continuous.  I’ll ask British commanders to let me stay, though that might not be necessary because there are so few helicopters.  More likely I am stuck here.  FOB Jackson is probably going to be my Hotel California, but that’s all good because these are great soldiers, in the thick of it, and I want to stay.

More broadly speaking, our forces are spread to the high winds across desolate stretches of Afghanistan, sometimes in tiny “bases” with as few as a half-dozen soldiers.  Last December, I spent some time with a group of such soldiers in Zabul Province, but hardly wrote a word about them, yet. They were deep in wild country and it took two days for us to drive out to a paved road.  Those soldiers had no access to Internet, and said that on one occasion they didn’t even get mail for three months.

Until December, I used a satellite antenna called a “Regional BGAN” (R-BGAN) HNS-9101 to transmit dispatches from remote areas.  These small, portable systems are expensive; during a fifteen-day period last year, I spent almost exactly $5,000.  (Prices based on bandwidth usage.)

During late 2008, when I saw the group of a half-dozen American soldiers, out there in the boondocks, two days from a road and once going three months without mail, I told Mrs. Frankie Mayo, who runs Operation AC.  Frankie and Operation AC had sent loads of gear to Iraq, including air conditioners and generators.  When I told Frankie about the isolated soldiers, she got to work with Hughes to send R-BGANs to Afghanistan.

Lucky for me, with the old R-BGAN no longer usable, Hughes, through Frankie, shipped a newer model, the Hughes 9201 BGAN Inmarsat Terminal.  Many of this year’s dispatches will come through the 9201.

Without such a terminal, large numbers of Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors will be without regular communications for much or most of their time in Afghanistan.  The infrastructure is Spartan to non-existent.  Life here is tougher than it was in Iraq, and the fighting will be tougher still.  Yes, there are the gigantic bases—as in Iraq—where everything is available, but little of the war is being fought from the larger bases.

Extended battlefield journalism from Afghanistan is relatively non-existent.  Broadly speaking, folks at home will not know how their loved ones are doing unless they can communicate directly.  To learn more about the effort to send satellite communications gear to troops downrange, please see Operation AC.



 

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