Marines march in via phone

When the Marines stormed ashore in Newfoundland this summer, they carried cellular
telephones for secure communications and global links over a tactical cellular network.

NATO’s Maritime Combined Operational Training (MARCOT) exercises, hosted by Canada
in June, marked the first deployment of tactical encrypted cellular communications by U.S.
forces. The 2nd Marine Division used the TacCell system from Wheat International
Communications Corp. of Reston, Va.

“It worked well for us,” said Lt. Col. Tim Learn, the division’s
communications officer.

Although the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., still is evaluating
the TacCell results, “I would like to have this capability right now for a number of
applications,” Learn said.

The MARCOT exercises culminated in an amphibious landing at Stephenville, Newfoundland,
June 15, by the 2nd Division from Camp LeJeune, N.C. The Marines’ opponents were
other U.S., Canadian and NATO forces.

The Marine lab had negotiated a sole-source contract with Wheat International as the
only supplier of tactical cellular communications systems approved by the National
Security Agency for Secure Telephone Unit III encryption. The Marines took along two
TacCell mobile units containing wireless telephone switches.

A TacCell portable cellular switch can network up to four mobile sites in a multicell
architecture. The cells provide local communications; the switch links them to other
networks by land line or satellite.

“We had a linkup to the Canadian telephone system,” said John Craighill, vice
president of corporate development for Wheat. The mobile unit hooked into a Northern
Telecom Inc. switch belonging to the 79th Canadian Communications Regiment, via a 128-Kbps
satellite link, for voice service on the Canadian public switched telephone network.

A line from the mobile switch to a separate satellite dish provided a videoconferencing
link. Wheat headquarters in Reston supplied the network access point for the video link.

Each mobile phone had a 128-bit STU III encryption device located between the battery
and the cellular handset. “It was not difficult to use at all,” Learn said.
“You put the code in one time, and when you wanted to go secure, you pushed one

With access to Canada’s public network, the STU III interface could secure
communications from the field to any other STU III unit in the world.

The current TacCell system is analog, Craighill said, but “we eventually want to
go digital.” For the time being, an analog system has greater range. During MARCOT,
the cellular phones communicated up to nine miles over flat ground and open water.

“There are things TacCell won’t do,” Craighill said. Although it can
support conference calls for up to 10 users, a radio is more practical for one-to-many
broadcasts, he said.

Although TacCell’s first field test was in a simulated amphibious assault, Learn
said, the real value is in logistical and command situations rather than combat.

A maritime prepositioning deployment—in which Marines move into an area to set up
a support infrastructure for combat troops—would be the ideal application, he said.
Mobile cellular communications could eliminate many of the transport and setup chores
necessary for cable or microwave links, he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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