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By Adam Baddeley, Deputy Editor, BATTLESPACE

27 Feb 07. Deployed Communications are critical to the UK’s warfighting capability and in Iraq and Afghanistan ensuring that a Beyond Line of Sight capability is in place is vital. Wing Commander John Wariner, Commanding Officer of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Tactical Communications Wing 90 Signals Unit (90 SU), emphasised the UK’s need for smaller, sufficiently rugged, common sense but capable systems – not standards based, high capacity systems, following his unit’s continuing experience in Afghanistan.

When the RAF deploys on operations, 90 SU provides all the Service’s Air Expeditionary CIS. In March 2006, the 661 strong unit had 170 personnel deployed to 14 locations around the world. In Afghanistan, the unit is largely based in Kandahar with a small contingent in Kabul.

Over the past year W/C Wariner said the unit’s role has evolved significantly from simply providing information infrastructure. Outlining this expanded role he said, “We have taken over increasing responsibility, together with other organisations, for delivering intelligence and information and presenting it to the commander.”

He offered his views into how the process could be improved. “We need to Web-enable the entire thing. Instead of stovepipes, we need one portal destination from which commanders can pull down sufficient information to make the right decision in a timely manner. It is not, all about standards.”

W/C Wariner provided a number of insights into the practicalities of deploying networks into theatre. He explained that in his experience, ‘bombproof’ equipment was not required. He cited the need for ‘Kind of COTS’ – modified commercial equipment that in many cases was good enough. Some equipment in service today with 90 SU was received in 1993 and would continue for another five years, proving it could last if properly maintained.

Effort is still needed is terms of equipment’s size and weight. The impact of ‘heavy’ equipment goes beyond simple logistics. Discussing the units deployment to Afghanistan, “Our biggest issue has not been building the network in theatre, but physically moving it into that theatre. If we could make the equipment smaller, we could ship it out quicker, could get on with our work quicker and complete the mission and leave quicker.”

Some equipment has worked very well such in theatre. W/C Wariner cited the simplicity of commercially available low cost VSAT terminals, which required just two cables and had a radome to deal with heat and complete and ready-to-go Inmarsat systems, delivered in a single crate were both able to undertake the immediate job at hand.

The experience of some Milsatcom equipment used has been more mixed. He gave the example of the Bantam and TSC-503 Milsatcom terminals; both work very well but have flaws. The Bantam is packaged poorly, being shipped in soft cases. In one example one of two terminals sent from the UK arrived in Afghanistan was damaged in transit and rendered inoperable. The Bantam was also found by 90 SU to cope poorly with an imperfect power supply, a fact of life in Afghanistan, with wood and tinfoil ‘tents’ being jury-rigged to protect it from the heat. In the case of the TSC-503 performance was also good but because one of its enclosures failed in high temperatures it needed to be permanently placed in an air conditioned ISO container. In another example a four part antenna assembly, if put together incorrectly could ‘tear itself apart’ according to W/C Warrinder.

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