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Iraqi Communications Transition From Tactical to Practical

November 2004
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 
Soldiers from the 57th Signal Battalion and A/111th Signal Battalion pull fiber through manholes as part of the work to improve the telecommunication infrastructure in Baghdad.
Military builds foundation for the future.

Construction of a new tactical communications infrastructure is underway in Iraq that will support tens of thousands of troops and eventually benefit the Iraqi people as it is turned over for their use when the U.S. military leaves the country. With the help of commercial capabilities and industry expertise, the infrastructure will improve tactical operation coordination between multiple sites by increasing the speed at which information can be shared from kilobytes to megabytes.

Before combat operations were brought to the area, the commercial communications infrastructure in Iraq was far less than state-of-the-art. While fiber connectivity supported major population centers, a nationwide infrastructure did not exist, and by the end of major combat operations in May 2003, the coalition military had to rely heavily on tactical systems. These systems were built around mobile subscriber equipment at the corps-and-below levels and supplemented by echelons above corps (EAC) tactical and commercial systems at more than 100 base-camp locations throughout Iraq.

These technologies provided voice communications and datalinks with voice communications through tactical telephones or digital nonsecure voice terminals and mobile subscriber radio terminals. At times, these links offered 1,024-kilobyte-per-second service, but more often they were limited to 512 kilobytes per second.

Rear Adm. Nancy E. Brown, USN, vice director, command, control, communications and computer systems, J-6, the Joint Staff, who is currently in Baghdad, relates that because the transition from major combat operations to stability and sustainment operations occurred very rapidly, it became apparent that the military needed a way to relieve the tactical units so they could reconstitute and prepare for future missions. “The path that was chosen to accomplish this task was commercialization. Previous commercialization efforts supported only a few thousand troops in a handful of base camps. The major and crucial difference between the OIF [operation Iraqi Freedom] commercialization effort and previous precedents set in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan was the sheer magnitude of the undertaking. This new effort will support tens of thousands of troops in multiple sites throughout a region the size of the state of Texas,” she reveals.

As a result of the work already completed, capabilities have improved from the maximum data rate of 1,024 kilobytes per second to links that provide megabytes of data. Although the work is not finished, Adm. Brown says the work is well on its way to providing robust connectivity to every military node in Iraq, and the intent is to build out the Global Information Grid (GIG) at selected base camps then interconnect them with high-speed terrestrial links.

For example, a large base camp may have more than 30 tactical communications nodes connected to each other by a multitude of radio links on tactical towers that are connected to other base camps using satellite links. While replacing each node and link with a commercial equivalent is one possible approach, this requires a handful of operators for each system. Instead, by building out the GIG, services are consolidated into a few technology control facilities that feature large switches and data centers that need only a fraction of the operations and maintenance personnel to function. This results in a substantial cost and manpower savings, because 90 percent of infrastructure expenses are operations and maintenance, the admiral points out.

Services are extended from these facilities to end-user buildings through sustainable and easily maintained outside plants, and camps are connected by high-speed, low-latency and microwave systems. This drastically reduces the cost of leased commercial transponders.

The commercialization effort has evolved along with the overall mission in Iraq, the admiral notes. “Even though we have relieved the EAC units by commercialization, our requirements have skyrocketed with a tremendous desire for increased capability by flag headquarters that did not even exist six months ago. Additionally, many of our original assumptions proved false. Combat operations continue, insurgency has driven up costs, troop strength has been maintained rather than decreased, and we have a new four-star command and several other large efforts that were not envisioned 18 months ago,” Adm. Brown relates. The vision is to strike a balance between the need to build out the GIG in a deliberate fashion at the major base camps and extend it to more temporary locations quickly, she adds.

One of the most exciting efforts in this balance is the Coalition Military Network, the admiral asserts. From the theater hub, this system provides a rapidly deployable, self-contained tactical-type capability that extends a tremendous amount of bandwidth for secure and nonsecure voice, nonsecure Internet protocol router network and coalition classified data network connections to remote base camps and headquarters. This transformational communications architecture pilot uses a multifrequency, time division multiple access, demand assigned multiple access system to reduce transponder costs drastically and provide a hub and spoke data capability and a full-mesh voice system in a completely Internet-protocol-based system, she states.

 
Improvements to the communications infrastructure in Iraq involve work on land and water. Soldiers from the 57th Signal Battalion and A/111th Signal Battalion pull fiber optic cable at Al Faw Palace Lake.
The build-out of the commercialized infrastructure has definitely been a joint venture, the admiral notes, and the contributions go beyond joint collaboration to the coalition partners. All of the services have either shared tactical assets or provided direct support to tactical units as well as coalition partners such as Poland, Korea and Japan. “As commercialization efforts progress, these links are consolidated and service is provided by a sole provider. This will minimize the tactical resources that the next rotational units will have to provide and will allow them to benefit from the available bandwidth. Because we are building the network to joint standards, interoperability is being addressed up front,” Adm. Brown maintains.

Infrastructure improvements are aiding operations in several ways. Warfighters are the primary beneficiaries of the work currently underway. The ability to maintain situational awareness and collaborate on the move with other forces decreases the decision-making cycle time and ensures that the right information reaches the appropriate personnel.

“Our coalition partners have also benefited as we have transitioned our primary command and control network to one that is releasable, available and used by every member of the coalition. The other beneficiary is the Iraqi people as the plan is to turn over this infrastructure for their use when we leave Iraq,” Adm. Brown shares.

Although the communication systems upgrade is benefiting troops in many ways, the work has not been without challenges. The admiral says that agreeing on the target architecture and prioritizing all of the enterprise command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) requirements has been one of the challenges. Before establishing the Multinational Force–Iraq (MNF-I), a formal command hierarchy in Iraq did not exist that could tie together the C4I needs of the various organizations operating in the theater. “With the formalization of the MNF-I, there is now a focal point in theater for vetting requirements and prioritizing resources. This promotes a unity of effort that synchronizes resources and maximizes investments,” she relates.

Delivering these capabilities in an environment that lacks a commercial infrastructure throughout the region also complicates what in the United States would seem like a simple requirement, she adds. For example, there currently are three major cellular telephone providers, each with a dedicated region. “Coverage is spotty at best, except in very densely populated regions. There are no roaming agreements, so if you are traveling outside your home region, you cannot stay connected. Providing just plain old telephone service for forces on the move is not a simple matter,” Adm. Brown notes.

Because the hardwired communications infrastructure has not matured, cellular telephones rapidly have become the primary means of communication for Iraqi citizens. In and around Baghdad, the demand for cellular telephones has been tremendous, the admiral says, and initially the provider had difficulty satisfying it. However, through cooperative efforts between the MNF-I and IRAQNA, one of the country’s three licensed cellular telephone service providers and the only one currently serving the Baghdad area, more cell towers have been installed and service coverage has increased. “The tower on Victory South was the 102nd IRAQNA tower, and within two days of activation it became the busiest tower in the network,” she relates.

Getting the word out about the work on the improvements in the area of responsibility also has been a challenge. “Victory is occurring in a huge way based on a tremendous team of professionals dedicated to mission success. We are partnering with the Iraqi Interim Government, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the Iraqi Ministry of Interior to develop a command and control infrastructure that ties together their critical nodes with secure and nonsecure voice and data capabilities. These capabilities will provide a sound foundation for the Iraqis to build on as they mature their military capabilities,” Adm. Brown states.

Under a partnership with the Iraqi government and the Ministry of Defense, the U.S. military set up a situation room for the prime minister and a National Joint Operations Center for the ministry. By providing secure and nonsecure voice and data capabilities that range from high frequency to very small aperture terminal communications, these facilities have become key command and control nodes that are critical to the daily operational events throughout the region, the admiral says. With the assistance of coalition liaison officers at each center, information is fused and provided in real time to facilitate the decision-making process, she adds.

Industry also has contributed to the effort in two specific areas. First, highly skilled civilian technicians are installing, operating and maintaining specialized commercial equipment throughout Iraq. As a result, military communicators have been able to focus on immediate-need tactical links for the warfighter. Second, companies are providing innovative solutions such as free-space optics, microwave technology and commercial satellite communications that exponentially increase the military’s inter-theater and long-haul communication capability, the admiral notes.

The work that has been completed to date has increased bandwidth availability from headquarters to the brigade commander, which has ensured situational awareness and significantly shortened the decision-making cycle time. “This was particularly evident during the recent events in Najaf. The command and control environment was greatly enhanced through the collaborative environment that was enabled by a robust communications infrastructure,” she relates.

The coalition’s goal for the future in terms of communications capabilities is to transition from tactical/military communications links to a commercially provided and maintained infrastructure while assisting the Iraqi Ministry of Communication to repair and expand its existing commercial infrastructure, Adm. Brown allows. “The objective is to deliver reliable bandwidth and dial tone to every Iraqi citizen rapidly. When we leave, we truly believe the Iraqi population will be better connected and the communications infrastructure that is critical to international commerce will be in place,” she states.

Web Resources
Multinational Force-Iraq:
www.cjtf7.com/index.htm
Joint Chiefs of Staff, J-6: www.dtic.mil/jcs/core/j6.html
Rebuild Iraq 2005: www.rebuild-iraq-expo.com/news.asp?pagenumber=11
Embassy of the United States, Baghdad, Iraq: http://iraq.usembassy.gov