As 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit AV-8B Harriers conducted air strikes on Libya as part of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, the new Lofted Communications System was operationally deployed for the first time aboard ship, March 20.
The helium-balloon transmission system was used to bridge the gap in communications from ship to Harriers conducting air strikes against the Libyan Leader Muammar al-Qadhafi's ground forces and air defenses, as part of an international effort to halt an offensive against the Libyan populace.
Normally, Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft would be used to relay and ensure command and control from the ship. The system, which was first tested in Kuwait in January 2009 during the MEU’s sustainment training for its 2008/2009 deployment, costs a fraction of the expense to put additional aircraft in the air and doesn’t risk additional lives.
“Being able to loft one of these balloons saves the MEU money, manpower and limits the risk that is associated with flying aircraft,” said Capt. Kevin Soeder, the MEU assistant communications officer.
The system, which increases the range of line of sight radio communications, can also relay encrypted and non-encrypted data hundreds of miles for about six hours.
“It is exciting to see this capability utilized in support of MEU operations,” said Soeder, “especially with all of the training and standard operating procedure certification that has taken place.”
The MEU has both tethered and non-tethered variants. For the strike missions, the non-tethered version is required so that the balloon can reach the appropriate altitude. The tethered version is currently supporting Company I, Battalion Landing Team 3/8, which is conducting counter-insurgency operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
“Pushing the technological envelope to support a wide variety of operations throughout the (Marine Air Ground Task Force) is what the MEU is known for,” Soeder said.
“We are setting the standards for MEUs to come,” said Staff Sgt Juan Padilla, the MEU radio chief. “We are the tip of the spear – 26th MEU is leading the way.”