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Secure communications: Making sure when generals talk, no one listens

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
photo by Nick Stubbs
Staff Sgt. Scott Fasulo, left, and Tech. Sgt. Mark McComb take a look at a scope reading on a computer in for repair, one of the many jobs that fall to the 6th Communications Squadron Secure Communications Element.

We've all seen it, bright red and perched atop the command table in the center of a command and control center bedecked with electronic monitors, world satellite feeds and technicians illuminated only by the green glow of their data panels. As we munch our popcorn in suspense, the four-star general picks up the receiver of the all-important "red phone," no doubt to issue orders that determine the fate of the world.

The Hollywood scenarios usually are far from reality, but there really are red phones and there is a team of techs charged with installing them at MacDill.

The job falls to the Secure Communications Element of the 6th Communications Squadron. Parked off a lonely road, secluded from the rest of the base, it serves MacDill's secure phone and data needs.

The Engineering and Installation team is part of a trio of specialties housed together. The element includes cryptographic and small computer maintenance. Between them, they have what it takes to make sure what is exchanged over secure lines, stays that way:

The crypto team handles the hardware that keeps secret transmissions secret and the computer techs are the saviors who keep the more-than 3,000 computers on base running the way they should.

The Engineering and Installation crew is a leftover of a bygone era, said Staff Sgt. Scott Fasulo, an Engineering and Installation team member. At one time many detachments were based throughout the Air Force and occasionally deployed together to set up secure systems around the country, but when the military began farming out a lot of that work to private contractors, the teams began to break up. The detachment at MacDill was deactivated.

It was later decided that it was still mission critical to have a detachment at MacDill. So now when a line is needed, the response is quick and installations are more efficient, said Tech. Sgt. Mark McComb, NCOIC of the Engineering and Installation team.

The phones are part of the Defense Red Switch Network. It is part of a private, closed communication system, which thwarts interception, said Sergeant Fasulo. The encryption systems used for the phones and secure data lines set up by the element's cryptology techs for fax and computer transmission, are about as secure as it gets.

"It would be very difficult (to intercept and decode) for anyone," said Sergeant McComb.

The communication element currently has 14 members, a number that fluctuates with deployments and other staff changes. Most of what members of this element do to assist the military's mission may be out of the limelight but there is little doubt how important it is.

"It's a critical job," said Master Sgt. Christopher McCain, chief of the Secure Systems Element, particularly with the current world climate of high tensions and increased operations tempo.


 

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