OKINAWA, Japan --
During Spring Patrol 2019, the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit completed a first in its 50 year history: split operations spanning a vast swath of the Indo-Pacific region. Marines and Sailors dispersed across thousands of miles of open ocean completed a series of complex amphibious maneuvers – called Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations – planned and commanded from a central hub in Okinawa, Japan.
How does a 2,200 person unit connect its widely separated components, simultaneously planning, rehearsing and launching missions to flex its amphibious capabilities in one of the World’s most strategic corridors? Ask the Marines in the 31st MEU’s communications and data section, the S-6. “It takes a variety of communicators to provide complete command and control to the commanding officer and his staff officers,” said 1st. Lt. Dakota Deter, a communications officer and the Communications Platoon commander with the 31st MEU.
The S-6, composed of Marines from a variety of occupational specialties – including satellite communications operators and maintainers, cyberspace operators and radiomen – link each component of the 31st MEU together with expeditionary communications capabilities. In layman’s terms, they connect decision makers to each other and the world in garrison, at sea and in the field, according to Deter.
“Whether it’s secured email correspondence, Department of Defense work, or a Google search, it’s going through us,” said Deter.
The 31st MEU, which partners with the U.S. Navy twice each year aboard ship for patrols of the Indo-Pacific region, trains and operates in a wide variety of littoral landscapes from the mid-Pacific west to the Indian Ocean, and from mainland Japan south to Australia. Covering roughly 20% of the Earth’s surface, the Indo-Pacific region is vital to the interest of the United States and her allies, and the 31st MEU is forward-deployed to address a myriad of crises at a moment’s notice.
And the Marines of S-6 enable the 31st MEU’s ability to remain forward, flexible and ready, according to Sgt. Jimmy Siackasone, who recently completed a patrol aboard the USS Green Bay. While many Marines deploy as a small team, S-6 Marines are often alone and unafraid, helping connect the MEU and prevent incursions from cyber threats.
“It’s a lot of responsibility for one individual,” said Siackasone, a defense cyberspace operator who oversaw 150 users on the Marine Corp’s network aboard Green Bay. While satellite communication operator-maintainers maintain connections on the ground, defense cyberspace operators build and protect connections at sea. As one of the few with permissions and technical knowhow to regulate cyber traffic, Siackasone functions as the gatekeeper of the ship’s network. “I am constantly scanning the network, checking for vulnerabilities,” says Siackasone. Daily tests keep these mobile connections safe from cyber threats around the world.
“It’s a highly, highly technical MOS, but our success as an organization also hinges on the routine services we need to do our jobs,” said Deter. Data systems administrators are responsible for the programming and configuration of practical applications and servers. Without everyday utilities such as Microsoft Outlook, secured chat servers, and Marine Online, operations on-and-off ship can come to a near standstill. Though these utilities are hard to appreciate, troubleshooting data problems can range from many hours to days.
Data system administrators aren’t the only ones proving it takes dedication to be a part of the S-6. Radio operators are proof “comm. is a 24 hour section,” said Deter. Around the clock, they take eight to twelve hour shifts on radio watch, “noting everything that passes over the net” on yellow cards.
These dense notes, or yellow canaries, are promptly received by the watch officer monitoring information flow and dissemination. During important training exercises, such as Amphibious Integration Training and Certification Exercise, yellow canaries keep the command informed in real time. Deter said “their vigilance ensures missions are being conducted as they’re supposed to be conducted.”
The privilege to keep the MEU connected doesn’t come without sacrifice. Weeks before anybody boards, the Marines of the S-6 are hard at work configuring the ship’s network for the upcoming deployment. “Those ships are like skyscrapers sitting on their side,” said Deter, “when we step on deck, we’re back on square one.”
A multitude of ever shifting variables, such as transitioning staff and new ships, calls for a constant reserve of flexibility. By the time the MEU boards just prior to disembarking, “we’ve already been there for a long time, getting it ready so that everything goes smoothly.”
The pressure doesn’t subside while underway. Inclement weather, technology failures, and aging infrastructure aboard the ships present regular challenges to overcome. “It only takes a few discrepancies to significantly degrade communications,” said Deter.
In order to keep the MEU capable and connected at every level, “we have to be performing at our best,” said Deter. Flawless and timely execution is only possible through the coordination of the whole spectrum of comm. designations. Satellite communication operator-maintainers, data system administrators, radio operators, and the rest are similarly reliant on one another to do their part. Luckily, the Communication Section is committed to keeping the 31st MEU intact whatever the odds, even if it requires connecting Marines across the globe.