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Britain's military techies honoured with new combat IT awards

The same job as you do - but with people shooting at them

By Brid-Aine Parnell, 3 Jun 2012

Military techies have been honoured for the first time in an awards ceremony for British soldiers that provide the IT infrastructure necessary to modern warfare and peacekeeping missions.

Three members of the Royal Corps of Signals were honoured at the event, hosted by London's Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, including Sergeant Lian Froggett, Corporal Martin Hempstock and another winner, understood to be working with Special Forces, who asked not to be named.

Soldiers from the Royal Signals have to drop into war zones and disaster-struck areas which are suffering from a lack of basic utilities, and set up working communications networks that let a British operation run smoothly.

Ex warrant-officer Crawford Samuel, who recently retired from the most senior non-commissioned IT job in the British Army (as Corps Foreman of Signals IS) said that their work was just the same as any IT professional, just under slightly different circumstances.

"Just like a back office staff supporting the front office staff, we're doing exactly that same sort of thing," he told The Register, "just in a more hostile environment!"

"In temperatures of 50 degrees with very little air-conditioning, very dusty and sandy, power that can fail at the drop of a hat even when you put in multiple generators, multiple UPSs and backup systems.

"No system is foolproof and you can test and test and test and it will be just one of things where it all goes wrong at the same time," he said.

He remembered a setup during a peacekeeping mission where his team deployed in a bombed out building to set up the network. Once all the equipment was set up, Samuel felt he had time for a run so set off for some strenuous downtime. He was only a half hour out when his pager went off and he had to turn around and head back.

When he got back, he went straight down to the servers in the basement - which were now waist-high in water. The engineers who had checked the building for safety had noticed holes in the foundations in the basement, which they understandably poured concrete into to make sure the building would stay up. Unfortunately, that caused pressure on the water pipes and they burst, flooding the basement where Samuel's team had carefully rigged up a network.

It took many hours of work with hairdryers to get the whole thing going again, since there were no spares.

Networking under fire

But that sort of thing pales in comparison to working in precarious positions in war zones, Samuel said.

"The young soldiers that they have nowadays in the Royal Signals, they are actually embedded with the patrols so they are going into patrol bases 200m from the enemy setting up LANs in that small dusty compound for the infantry staff to be able to do their job, and coming under enemy fire on a daily basis. They are really in the thick of it, these young guys," he said.

And Royal Signals soldiers in Afghanistan have to worry about a range of dangers from IEDs and mortars to suicide bombers.

That's why where the network sets up is so important, and that's decided at the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) where intelligence and planning pool their resources to analyse where there'll be power and real estate and where the threats are.

"If you look at Camp Bastion, that wasn't where we went into first of all in Afghanistan, but it's in the middle of the desert, there's nothing around it for 50km so nobody's going to attack. And because movement in Afghanistan is so dangerous with the IED threat, you're moving around by helicopter, all of that kind of planning is done by the staff," Samuel explained.

Samuel was in the Army for 24 years, from the age of 16, and went into the Royal Signals at the start, so he was working in military IT when it was bags of floppy discs and less-than-perfect giant satellite phones.

His first post was in Germany working on Wavell, a battlefield data processing system, before posting to Northern Ireland to work on the early days of vehicle number plate recognition systems. There they also had a team for PC repair, which Samuel switched into.

"[I] spent a year building computers with floppy discs - I think it was 27 floppy discs and a three hour build for Office - so doing a lot of things like that!"

He then moved to 30 Signal Regiment, which dealt with global disaster management, disaster relief and conflict zones.

"You'd be on a permanent six hour notice to move. If you were paged, you'd jump on a plane with all your equipment, your Land Rover, satellite communications and all your IT equipment and you'd deploy to that country and provide communications and IT for the staff," he said.

Strap a satellite to that Land Rover!

He describes their communications as being pretty much like a Sky News or BBC News van with a satellite on top that can beam back to Britain, except they were doing it with sats strapped to Land Rovers in the 90s.

"You'd have one Land Rover with satellite comms kit, another Rover with all your tent stuff, sleeping equipment, cooking equipment and another one that would have the hard flight cases, which would maybe have 30 laptops, a router, the switch and say a backup server or a couple of servers.

"We would take that out and set that up within 48 hours," he said.

Once comms were set up, any of the staff, whether it was disaster specialists or soldiers, could connect to base, though there's no BYOD in the army.

"Can you imagine?" Samuel asked incredulously, speaking of the new trend for using your own device. "I couldn't imagine somebody bringing their iPhone and plugging it into our secret system, it wouldn't belong to them any longer if they did, I would confiscate it!"

But he didn't totally rule it out as a possibility for the future.

"If that's something that the Ministry of Defence goes for in a number of year s… I'm not sure. It would be an accreditation issue that CESG [the Communications-Electronics Security Group] people would have to deal with."

Back in the 90s it was all chunky satellite phones, although these days it's slimmer handheld sat phones that are encrypted to provide secure voice comms up to secret level.

In networking, the army is still using LAN and WAN technologies, but there's a lot of virtualisation going on these days as well.

"We'll provide a virtualisation platform that allows us to decrease our footprint so you start taking off air conditioning, power, hard drive space. We also get the ability to work many more applications," Samuel said.

The number of applications a Ministry of Defence operation has to run compared to the banking sector, where the networks are running just security, financial software and business management and process software, is huge.

"[It's] actually having to support anywhere in excess of 140 apps, anything from planning for tides and currents for naval exercises through to air control for operations, through to logistics through to databases, HR for everybody that's coming in and out of the theatre of operations, security suites, network performance monitoring suites, the list is just endless," he said.

Google Earth operations

And it's here that one of the Royal Signals award winners has made his mark, with a system to mirror all the data in an operation to all locations using Google Earth.

Corporal Hempstock, who came up with the idea while on assignment in Afghanistan, said that there were many different tools to get information, but no one single tool to do everything.

"The main thing I did was - I don't claim to have invented Google Earth - I brought everyone together, I created a way of people copying files on the network at one location and that would cascade out to loads of different locations," he said. "This was one picture."

The programme basically overlaid all the data that the military was gathering onto an enclosed, secure version of Google Earth so that the information was there at a glance.

One way it can be used is by soldiers going out on patrol. If the patrol takes a helmet cam and smartphone with them, which is connected not to a commercial mobile network but to a femtocell back at their base, they can gather the information on any incident they're involved in which can then pop up on the overlay on Google Earth.

"Then the next time a patrol goes out, it can build up a picture of what's happening on the ground," Samuel explained. "That could be showing IEDs, contact with enemy fire and insurgents.

"Or actually it could be a normal meet and greet with local leaders, building intelligence on who lives in what area, where your friendly forces are, even that's where a farmer's field is or that's a culturally sensitive area.

"We can build up a much bigger intelligence picture so that we can win the hearts and minds battle instead of just bulldozing through it, which never works," he added.

This sort of potential is what won Corporal Hempstock the new annual award for operational military signalling. Sergeant Froggett won his award for his role as an instructor in the latest Microsoft software, Cisco network infrastructure and IP radio technology, training young Signals soldiers for operations in Afghanistan.

Details on the unnamed Special Forces tech-aoldier's achievements were undisclosed. ®