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New Network Supports NATO's Afghanistan Mission

September 2007
By Henry S. Kenyon

 
The Thales Group is building a communications backbone to support NATO forces operating in Afghanistan. Consisting of more than 60 points of presence, these facilities range from single containers and large facilities. The network will connect alliance forces with line-of-sight, satellite and landline communications.
Defense firm is responsible for establishing, managing, maintaining and operating key alliance system.

International forces operating in Afghanistan are using a new dedicated communications backbone that is being deployed across the nation. The network consists of point-to-point radio links, satellite communications and landlines providing connectivity across the theater and reach-back to national headquarters.

The ongoing operations against Taliban forces have prompted NATO to award a contract to the Thales Group, Paris, to plan, install and maintain a communications network across Afghanistan. According to Laurent Maury, vice president, customer service and support, ThalesLand and Joint Systems, the project began in early 2006, with the first service contract awarded in April of that year. Maury explains that the contract is designed to provide long-term communications and information system and satellite communications service to support the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as it expands its operations across the country.

The program is part of an urgent needs request for proposal launched by NATO’s Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A). Thales’ solution was selected from a range of companies competing for the contract. Maury is unsure how many firms answered the tender, but he estimates that more than 70 firms were informed of the contract by NC3A. “It was definitely a difficult competition,” he says.

After the initial award, the contract was extended to augment its scope to support ISAF’s increased operational requirements. “We are also responsible for the transport, which is end-to-end from our factory to the final destination in Afghanistan,” Maury shares.

Transporting and placing the equipment was originally to be done by NATO, but the evolving situation on the ground has limited the availability of ISAF’s transport resources.

Thales is providing a communications backbone service into which NATO can plug its information services and applications such as e-mail, conferencing capabilities and command and control tools. Because of its critical nature, the system must operate seamlessly. “It has to be totally transparent to the user,” states Maury.

The Thales system is based on several communications capabilities such as line-of-sight radio systems, leased lines from private operators and satellite communications. Maury says that the satellite portion of the network is based on the Syracuse III telecommunications satellite. He adds that NATO leased some of the spacecraft’s X-band transmission capacity from the French government. “You have a combination of the three: line-of-sight, leased lines and SATCOM. That’s how you achieve redundancy,” he says.

The new network will cover the entire country with more than 60 points of presence. Each of these facilities must also connect a specified number of workstations for users to log into the NATO network. The size of each node varies from individual containers to large facilities, depending on  location. Some of the larger facilities can support up to 50 users. The points of presence are located in the provincial reconstruction team facilities or in five regional centers across Afghanistan. Thales also is deploying two hubs in major urban areas including Kabul.

When it is complete, the system will consist of more than 350 different shelters and containers comprising 2,000 tons of hardware. All of the system’s hardware and software remain Thales property. Maury adds that Thales is responsible for not only deploying the network but also operating and maintaining it with its own personnel. The company now has a 50-person team in Afghanistan, which he anticipates will increase as the network grows.

Thales must maintain service availability levels as high as 99.8 percent. “That is quite a challenge technically, but it [the system] is being progressively deployed in Afghanistan right now,” he says.

The network is deploying in two phases. The first phase is referred to as early service delivery (ESD), which will provide military users with most of the communication capability but without satellite communications. The second phase, referred to as full operational capability (FOC) plus, includes full satellite communications. The phases overlap, with the ESD having begun in January 2007. Maury expects the FOC plus phase to be complete by the end of the year. He adds that the deployment is taking place in a sequence designed to meet NATO operational requirements and priorities.

The system is made up of commercially available components. However, Maury adds that while all of the hardware and software are off the shelf, the system configuration is tailored to this particular deployment. He notes that some modification is necessary because Afghanistan’s environment presents its own set of challenges. The country experiences extreme temperatures during the summer and winter months. One of Maury’s teams in Kabul recently reported that the daytime temperature had reached 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit), and the nighttime indoor temperature in their non-air-conditioned rooms was near 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). “The equipment suffers. That’s a big challenge, because we have taken a commitment for a very high level of availability,” he stresses.

 
Because of the unstable security situation in Afghanistan, Thales personnel must be escorted by NATO troops.
Meeting the required reliability levels adds to the project’s difficulty, Maury explains. The company is setting up a 24-hour call center to help users. Thales’ Afghanistan-based teams also are required to begin the analysis and troubleshooting of a communications failure within an hour of the event, anywhere in the country. “When you know the difficulty of the intra-county transport, it’s quite an organization to set up. The infrastructure is poor, and the security situation must also be monitored quite carefully,” he explains.

The network features a robust automated and remote supervision capability to compensate for Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. Maury notes that system monitoring and some troubleshooting can be done remotely. However, he emphasizes that Thales personnel can reach the points of presence to provide service, regardless of their locations. The network is also designed for redundancy to support network operations. “We’ve paid a great deal of attention to reliability and maintainability,” he says.

System security is another challenge because of the varying levels of national security within NATO. The highest clearance level is NATO secret, but Maury says that no single solution is available to easily meet the alliance’s information assurance needs.

 All of Thales’ contractual and official dealings for the program are through NATO NC3A. But on the ground, military and industry personnel work together as a team. NATO also provides the fuel to run the network’s electrical generators. It is these operational requirements that make interoperation critical. “There are many things that we can’t do without NATO. Transporting people from one place to another is one of them,” he adds.

NATO forces are providing security for Thales personnel, who cannot travel without an escort. Company teams are housed within NATO military camps and transported by alliance vehicles.

The installation phase of the contract is scheduled to be complete by the end of the year. However, the changing operational situation may call for additional adjustments in the contract. “One of the difficulties of the contract is that a lot of flexibility is needed because the situation in Afghanistan is unstable. Because of that, the operational requirements evolve, so we have to be sufficiently flexible enough to adapt. In the end, there are people’s lives at stake,” he says.

Web Resources
NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency: www.nc3a.nato.int
International Security Assistance Force: www.nato.int/isaf
Thales Group: www.thalesgroup.com