Very few people outside the military know much about the organization headquartered in the Vietnam War-era building at MacDill Air Force Base across from the giant golfball-shaped satellite communications antenna.
To the Pentagon, however, the work of the Joint Communications Support Element is vital.
Thursday afternoon, the element was ordered to provide communications support for U.S. relief efforts in the Philippines in the wake of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, which has killed more than 2,000 people.
But the element is not just called upon for disaster assistance or on faraway battlefields. Last year, after a failed phone call between President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dempsey’s staff reached out to the 600-member organization, because of its reputation for designing cutting-edge communications systems and setting them up around the world on short notice and often under duress.
The military’s current communications systems “weren’t good enough,” and an “immediate need was recognized in the department for secure voice communications for senior leaders,” Dempsey wrote in a June email to the head of U.S. Transportation Command and copied to some of the nation’s other top military leaders. In his email to Transcom, which oversees the element, Dempsey wrote that “in a matter of a few days, your team applied the innovation they are known for worldwide. They built a prototype from on-hand equipment and delivered it to the Pentagon to be tested. As leading innovators in Everything over Internet Protocol (EoIP) there was no surprise that the devices that they produced worked and worked well.”
Known as Executive Voice Kits, the devices allow the operator to have secure communications over any transmission system available — landline, satellite, WiFi, regular internet.
The kits have been so successful that they’ve been used by teams from the offices of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and “on a myriad of other JS Flag and General officer level missions,” Dempsey wrote...”It is this type of ingenuity and initiative that makes the JCSE more than just ‘relevant’ in our world of ever changing IT. ”
Last month, the kit earned a team from the element Transcom’s Innovation Showcase Award, which they were presented via video teleconference by Air Force Gen. William M. Fraser III, the commander of Transcom.
Standing in the “Skunk Works,” the section of the element’s headquarters where civilian and active duty technical experts designed the EVK and other innovations, Vernon “Ike” Isaacs Jr., the passionate, buzzcut-coiffed chief information officer, worries about the unintended consequences of building the kit.
Small, light, built mostly with components found at places like Radio Shack and at a little more than $10,000 a piece — far cheaper than what the Pentagon could come up with, the EVK has become extremely popular. The element, which is not set up to mass produce equipment, has already pushed out several dozen kits.
“Everyone wants one,” says Isaacs. “That could overwhelm our workflow.”
And that would be problematic.
His team is working to launch another modular Internet Protocol-based package, called JBLOX, the latest in tactical portable communications systems.
A scalable, communications mini-command center, JBLOX provides support to small teams or large headquarters with secure voice, data and video transmissions to any location around the world.
“This tactical communications kit is the next generation,” says Air Force Sgt. Joshua Falso, one of Isaacs’ techies, of JBLOX, which, other than the satellite dish, looks a little like a series of hard black-plastic carry-on luggage.
Though its name has changed over the years, the Joint Communications Support Element is the oldest continuously serving major mission partner at MacDill.
First created in 1961 as the Communications Support Element, its first overseas mission was Joint Task Force Leo in the Congo, where U.S. troops were sent to assist the newly created Democratic Republic of Congo fight off rebels.
Since then, members of the element have been constantly deployed around the globe, often leaving on short notice to serve in conflicts and humanitarian relief efforts the U.S. military has undertaken, as well as joint military exercises. Aside from continuous deployment in Afghanistan, teams from the element have served domestically too, providing communications after disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and Super Storm Sandy, says Chris Wilson, the element’s chief of staff.
The element serves as the military’s “unblinking eye,” says Army Lt. Col Bill McDowell, providing around-the-clock support, command, control, communications and computer planning and solutions for combatant commands, and bridging gaps between battlefield needs and major Department of Defense acquisition programs.
Thursday morning, the element sent a two-man team to Norfolk with enough communications equipment and generators to set up voice, data and video links on the ground in the Philippines, says Wilson. That team will then fly out to the region, and will arrive in the disaster area if ordered.
Chief Petty Officer (ITC) Edgar Carde, one of JCSE’s joint task force subject matter experts, says that the response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake is a prime example of what the JCSE can do.
Carde, who has been with the element since 2009, was in the Dominican Republic working with U.S. Southern Command on Jan. 12, 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti a short distance from the capital, Port-Au-Prince.
“I felt the earthquake,” says Carde.
Two days later, after a decision was made by Southcom to provide communications for relief efforts, the element sent its first team into Haiti on a C-130 cargo plane out of Miami carrying its initial entry and early entry packages. The initial entry package provides voice and data service, while the early entry package is bigger, allowing voice, video and data for up to 40 users. The systems allowed U.S. military personnel on the ground to have command and control in a country where all communications had been wiped out.
Carde was on a team that left MacDill the following day in three C-17s. The giant cargo planes were loaded with personnel, more communications equipment, fuel and water and landed at Port-Au-Prince shortly before midnight.
“It was pretty crazy,” says Carde. “When we first landed, one of the first things that really got us was as we were lowering the ramp, all of a sudden we got this rush of concrete dust mixed with burning, mixed with sewage that really didn’t smell that well.”
The earthquake was so devastating that it took Carde’s team about 18 hours to move from the airport to where it was going to set up, two to three miles away at the U.S. Embassy.
“The roads were damaged and there were damaged cars and buildings in the middle of the road,” he says. “They had no power. The only lights out there were from the vehicles.”
In about a week, Carde’s team set up communications for a joint task force headquarters.
But it only took a smaller element team one day to set up a system good enough for world leaders.
“Saturday, Jan, 16, we hosted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in our tents along with Lt. Gen. (P.K.) Keen and the president of Haiti,” says Carde of the team already on the ground when he arrived. “We actually provided them voice, video and data communications.”
Carde’s team was in Haiti for nearly six months, highlighting the unpredictable nature of the unit’s frequent deployments.
Cindy Gierke, the element’s Family Readiness Team Coordinator, says its operational tempo, one of the highest in the military, is challenging, both for those who deploy and their families.
“We deploy the most of any unit out of MacDill,” says Gierke, who is constantly looking for ways to provide activities and events to help alleviate the stress. “We have no budget, so we try to get funds through the kindness of strangers.”
To Isaacs, traveling to the front lines, whereever they are, is an important part of the job.
“I need to find out what they need out there,” says Isaacs, an Air Force veteran who took a $60,000 pay cut from his job as chief technology officer at a defense contractor to return to the element. “Who am I to tell them what I need?”