OPERATIONS TEST UK SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS
By Yvonne Headington
07 Dec 11. Operations in Afghanistan (Op HERRICK) and Libya (Op ELLAMY) point to a number of enduring challenges in the provision of military satellite communications (SATCOM), including the need for more organic capabilities and the insatiable requirement for bandwidth.
Addressing delegates at SMI’s Global MilSatCom Conference in London (29 Nov – 1 Dec 11) in London, Wing Commander Andy Eccleston (SO1, J6 Information Exploitation at the UK Permanent Joint Headquarters) outlined the demands that contemporary Operations place on the provision of C4 (command, control, communications and computers) and ISR (information, surveillance and reconnaissance). Users expect instant, commercial standard, broadband communications (the ‘I-Phone factor’) as well as immediate access to, and dissemination of, information. “Information superiority complexities are agnostic of Operation size” he said. “Rich information is demanded at all levels of command”.
During the UK’s initial deployment to Afghanistan “force elements were scattered throughout the theatre and were wholly dependent on extensive bespoke SATCOM links” said Andy Eccleston. “The SATCOM links were all anchored and hubbed through the UK”. However, as the need for greater bandwidth services increased, the UK introduced an extensive terrestrial network known as Kestrel. This network provides the necessary communications down to the tactical level and reduces the dependency on stovepipe satellite links.
At the lowest level forces are still dependent on tactical Communication and Information Systems (CIS), including secure satellite telephones and UHF TacSAT terminals. Demand often exceeds the availability of UHF TacSAT channels but there is an increasing use of Integrated Waveform (IW) technology, which ensures continued interoperability within the Coalition as well as additional channel capacity. According to Andy Eccleston this technology is likely to prove invaluable during the security handover transition stage when “we envisage the greater use of small teams, operating in remote locations, as part of the wider partnering arrangements with the Afghan security forces”.
In Afghanistan the demand for information superiority has been driven by the threat of improvised explosive devices (IED) and ambushes. In response, coalition forces have established the Afghan Mission Network (AMN) a federated network providing all Coalition partners with access to a single information domain at Secret level. The UK contribution to AMN is known as Overtask and is provided through the Kestrel network.
The demand for bandwidth has increased alongside the development of particular requirements, notably intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR). Bandwidth hungry systems such as the Reaper and Hermes 450 unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan are now key capabilities. Telemedicine from Camp Bastion has proved invaluable in dealing with trauma casualties while overall welfare expectations have risen. Facilities include access to a mix of Wi-Fi, voice and text systems. Under the MoD’s Welfare Communications Everywhere (WelComE) service, Armed Forces personnel serving abroad on Operations receive a weekly minimum of 30 minutes free talk-time with extra time allocated for Christmas and the New Year.
Op HERRICK, a fixed, enduring, land focused Operation with heavy ISR demands has set the benchmark for the provision of in-theatre SATCOM. However high tempo contingency Operations, such as Op ELLAMY, create a different set of priorities. Andy Eccleston reflected on the fact that investment in HERRICK has not been matched elsewhere and that “we are now faced with the equivalent of an older generation of simpler, but effective, mobile phones in the contingent space”.
Contingency operations require early entry capabilities invariably delivered through bespoke SATCOM assets. Op ELLAMY highlighted a num