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Rapid Commercial Response Links Australian East Timor Forces

April 2000
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

A fast drop-in system provides long-distance communications among peacekeepers and their national headquarters.

Faced with a burgeoning humanitarian crisis amid a virtually nonexistent communications infrastructure, Australian peacekeeping forces worked with private industry to establish a broadband network in the heart of East Timor that included connectivity with other peacekeepers as well as their own national headquarters in Australia.

This advanced communications architecture, dropped into the middle of a harsh environment, largely employs commercial off-the-shelf hardware. It features high-capacity asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) connectivity as well as conventional network routers providing voice over Internet protocol (IP) compressed through two satellites. The complete system was up and running in East Timor within six weeks of the official government purchase order.

It addition to providing needed connectivity for the Australian forces that formed the backbone of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping effort in that troubled area, this system also serves as the basis for a regional telecommunications system that could function after the international forces completed their mission.

Its configuration is based on integrated services digital network (ISDN) telephone standards using ATM, frame relay and voice over IP. The core ATM switching network uses Nortel Passport switches, on which resides a voice network connected by Ericsson MD110 private automatic branch exchanges (PABXs). This connects to the core and at the user level with Cisco routers and switches for data networking. Cellular telephone technology uses Europe’s group system mobile standard, and a number of cells have been installed in and around Dili, East Timor and two other locations.

The Australian Defence Force tapped a number of companies with which it has alliances for communications services. The system’s data network is predominantly provided by Cisco Australia, Sydney. Ericsson provided voice switching solutions similar to those currently provided in Australia. Telestra provided additional bandwidth on commercial satellites.

Andre Obradovic, manager, Cisco Australia defense team, explains that officials in the Signal Corps outlined their mission and its requirements in discussions in Sydney. All told, about six weeks passed from when the company was first contacted to when the network was installed in East Timor.

Obradovic explains that, working with the Australian Defence Force, company engineers developed two different designs: one with an ATM core and the other based on ISDN. This built on efforts spearheaded by an Australian communications and information systems officer, Maj. John Wilson, Australian Army, G63, Land Headquarters, Sydney, who journeyed to East Timor to finalize development of the network architecture and design.

The Cisco architecture comprises two parts: a countrywide element and a task force headquarters network. The headquarters network in Dili provides linkage with the Australian Defence Forces in Australia, while the countrywide network links the Dili headquarters with five remote sites.

Maj. Wilson relates that, when Australian communicators first deployed to East Timor, they were positioned only to provide support to a relatively small force. They were “stretched to the limit” by having to support more subscribers than ever envisioned with the existing tactical communications network.

The Australians requested, through the U.S. Pacific Command, that the U.S. Signal Corps assist by providing additional communications with the U.S. Army’s 11th Signal Brigade out of Fort Huachuca, Arizona. This brigade supported Australia’s efforts in East Timor for 60 days.

“We realized that, if we were going to sustain the operation, we would need to build a communications architecture to take up from our tactical communications systems, which we could only keep in place for a short period of time because they are manpower intensive,” the major relates.

Maj. Wilson’s five-man on-site team determined requirements for replacing and enhancing the early peacekeepers’ network that was up and running. They devised an architecture built around normal telecommunications standards using commercial equipment for all existing services while providing as many enhancements as possible in the limited time frame they had for deployment.

The group effectively performed a cost-benefits analysis to design the architecture. Available bandwidth was limited, so the group eschewed a full ATM network. Instead, it designed a system that was “close to leading edge” yet easy to install, configure and maintain in an operational environment, the major explains. Providing voice over IP had not been done in the field before, he adds.

The core network, using satellite and microwave links, was established first. This in turn was connected to the Nortel Passport system, which in turn was connected to the defense voice network in Australia. Placed on top of this was a voice and data network using MD110s and Cisco equipment.

Obradovic notes that Maj. Wilson’s Australian Army team in East Timor contacted the Cisco group by telephone and e-mail, providing company engineers with key details such as the number and location of network nodes. Obradovic relates that, with this in-country data available, Cisco engineers were able to design a network tailored to geography, available assets and mission needs.

The approved design provided secure and restricted network services and a coalition wide area network wherever Australian forces were deployed across East Timor. Cisco encryption technology served restricted traffic.

Less than two weeks after receiving the final order, company officials had the necessary equipment ready for deployment from Melbourne to the jumping-off point at Darwin. Within three weeks, most of the gear was in East Timor.

Maj. Wilson lauds the quality of service in the network. “We actually provided a grade of service that was equivalent to what soldiers, airmen and sailors would have seen back in Australia on their bases,” he says. “People were able to use their cellular telephones, to make ISD [international subscriber dialing] calls back into the public switched network in Australia with the clarity and intelligibility that they would expect a normal carrier network to have.”

The coalition wide area network carries five voice over IP sites from its core router at Dili. These East Timor sites, located at Manatuto, Maliana, Occussi, Balibo and Los Palos, were equipped with Cisco 2611 routers. The routers directly connect three handsets and one fax machine.

U.S. forces originally provided satellite voice communications into Occussi, but this was only a temporary solution. Australian engineers placed foreign exchange station cards into the 2611 routers at the remote sites to provide data and voice over IP without major equipment upgrades. This allowed the four telephones at each site to connect with other locations via 128-kilobit satellite links to an MD110 PABX in Dili. Within Dili, calls could be routed through another satellite into Australia to the country’s defense voice network.

While the remote sites have 128-kilobit connectivity, the main areas within Dili have 8-megabit microwave connectivity. A Cisco AS5300 with a PRI E1 card connected to the Ericsson PABX terminates all calls at Dili. Other sites on the island use traditional telephony connectivity instead of voice over IP.

This approach avoided the need for a traditional voice solution, which would require an additional remote PABX and more muxing equipment with their accompanying expenses and personnel demands, Obradovic says. “It wasn’t worth the expenditure to put in a huge voice network,” he explains. “All it took was two cards in a router, and they could plug their telephones straight into the router instead of buying another big box.”

He offers that this network need not be limited to five nodes. The only limit would be on the in-place microwave links and the density running on the 3660 routers operating in the main hub area. Two spare incoming links could be added to the main hub, and larger network expansion could be achieved by adding another 3660 to the hub. “We set the system up so that, if they wanted to add to it, they could use a standard range of boxes that were all the same so that people would not need different skill sets,” he emphasizes. Similarly, upgrades that add different functionality to routers can be achieved by downloading software off of Cisco’s World Wide Web site.

All connectivity between East Timor and Australia passes through satellites. Telestra 4-megabit pipe service runs into Australia, and this bandwidth is being extended to the rest of the force in East Timor.

Hooking into Australia’s military network proved to be no problem with the commercial solution, Obradovic relates. The government purchased all new servers, personal computers and microwave services that were installed in East Timor. The only military-furnished equipment was the system’s encryption device, along with some older personal computers.

While the network was designed for voice and data, it can carry some imagery. Most of this is sent via satellite from Australia to the headquarters in East Timor rather than around the operational theater, where users could view the imagery using a Web browser. The nationwide East Timor pipes are limited in their ability to carry imagery because they largely are 128-kilobit carriers instead of blanket ATM.

While Maj. Wilson characterizes the system as a success, the commercial equipment deployment was not without snags. Obradovic relates that the company had problems obtaining ear and mouth (E&M) protocol/signaling cards in the MD110 PABXs. The original cards turned out to be faulty, and personnel in East Timor had to scavenge cards from old PABXs left over by UN organizations.

Getting the Cisco encryption technology to work through multiple satellites was another challenge, Obradovic notes, adding that these issues have been worked out. Voice traffic had to be decompressed and recompressed with a trip latency of 500 milliseconds.

Configuring the gear in Melbourne required engineers working 18-hour days with IPEX Information Technology Group, Cisco’s technology partner. Also, the core numbering plan for voice links changed several times.

Meeting the government’s time frame for delivery was one of the biggest issues, Obradovic allows. From the decision point on the configuration, almost all of the gear was sourced within Australia in one week. Some gear, such as 2924 fiber switches, was obtained through a management expedite order from the United States, and this took two weeks despite the time frame being around the Christmas season. Obradovic estimates that the normal turnaround for configuring and readying the gear in this type of project would be a minimum of six weeks.

Another logistics problem involved booking airline space to move the gear from Melbourne to the staging area in Darwin, as the airlines could not guarantee the available cargo space until the gear was physically at the airport. The company shipped the gear incrementally, which placed some of the equipment in East Timor at the halfway point of the project. Maj. Wilson relates that the Australian Defence Force helped with priority support in sealift and airlift. The United States provided some surge airlift capacity to move the last of the gear into theater.

Because the gear was commercial, installers had to provide sufficient power and air conditioning in designated buildings. This removed mobility from the capabilities list, Maj. Wilson notes.

For the future, classified aspects of the network ultimately will be returned to Australia. Plans call for upgrading the network to serve UN operations once the bulk of the Australian presence leaves East Timor. Early upgrades will include additional equipment and construction, and Obradovic notes that the UN has contacted his company about building a longer-term infrastructure for the entire country.

U.S. Forces Provide Deployable Communications to East Timor

The U.S. Army’s mobile signal brigade dove into the East Timor crisis to establish a communications network serving multinational forces scattered over the troubled island. This early network encompassed secure and nonsecure voice and data links connecting diverse island elements and U.S. and Australian headquarters in Darwin, Australia.

An unusual aspect of this coalition operation was that it featured U.S. forces in a key role, but not as the lead force, in the multinational operation. That duty fell to Australia, which led the peacekeepers seeking to restore order following violence that erupted after pro-secession voting.

The Army’s 11th Signal Brigade, based at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, worked closely with its Australian counterparts to set up the communications system. The brigade’s mission was to establish a network that could serve multinational peacekeepers until Australian forces could establish a longer-term system. Virtually all of the communications infrastructure on East Timor had been destroyed in the unrest. The U.S. forces began their work with a C-5 transport aircraft deploying 48 hours after receiving the deployment order.

All services, including voice, video and data, were provided through a network established by a limited number of soldiers. The network was fully commercialized with Australian companies within 60 days, which permitted most of the U.S. communications personnel to return to the United States.

A primary link connected the Darwin, Australia-based commander of all U.S. forces serving in the East Timor peacekeeping body. A system control element for interfacing with the U.S. commander’s staff also was located in Darwin. The commander of the joint U.S. forces land component in East Timor—Col. Randolph P. Strong, USA, who also was the commander of the 516th Signal Brigade—was based in Dili.

For Darwin, the 11th Signal Brigade established a solution featuring 42 tactical telephones with defense switched network (DSN) access and 33 commercial telephones. Other elements included 40 secure Internet protocol router (SIPR) drops; 50 nonsecure Internet protocol router (NIPR) drops; three international wide area network units; and five coalition wide area network lines. The international wide area network featured a higher security level than its coalition counterpart.

At the headquarters in the center of Dili, the network featured 95 tactical telephones with DSN access, 16 SIPR drops, 48 NIPR connections, and a router and server each for the international and the coalition wide area networks.

For Dili out-sites, the brigade linked the airport, seaport, aviation support group and logistics support group with line-of-sight communications. Satellite links connected Darwin with Dili and with a coalition airfield at Baucau on the more distant eastern part of East Timor.

At Baucau, the brigade set up 14 tactical telephones, six international network connections and eight coalition network connections for a Thai brigade stationed there. These network connections included routers, servers and computers.

Maj. John Dewey, USA, 11th Signal Brigade operations officer, relates that the brigade brought a significant amount of commercial equipment to the theater. While most forces brought their own gear, the brigade “brought enough to support the have-nots,” he adds. The Thai headquarters, for example, could not interface with the U.S. system. Despite differences as rudimentary as e-mail incompatibility, U.S. forces were able to provide the Thai headquarters with Internet access and brought services directly to Thai laptop computers.

The brigade also had to provide power to virtually all of its East Timor assets. Setting up the satellite system, for example, required supplying power to both the communications station and the users’ computers. “We not only had to run communications cables, we had to run power cables everywhere to the end user as well,” Maj. Dewey relates. This also required purchasing a large number of interface devices to adjust for the different international power standards. Many power cables lacked the necessary connectors for diverse systems.

The international flavor of the coalition generated some predictable complications. Both the United States and Australia wanted hookups with their own nation-specific network systems, and other coalition members had their own requests. The result was six basic networks serving data alone in addition to the intelligence network. Maj. Dewey relates that this required “a lot of gnashing of teeth” to sort out the different networks, their users and the desired information flow to the correct customers. Even though the U.S. Army was not managing all of the systems, most of the operational information flowed over U.S. transmission systems, Maj. Dewey states. All Australian logistic support traffic to or from East Timor, for example, traveled along U.S.-provided data pipes.

The system also provided a trunk between Australian and U.S. telephone switches. This allowed an Australian officer to contact his U.S. counterpart by merely picking up his telephone and dialing a special prefix along with the U.S. officer’s telephone number. This was especially useful for air traffic control. In Darwin, both countries worked interfaces through commercial switches.

A vital assist came from the exchange program that the Army Signal Command runs with allied nations. During the deployment period, Capt. James Murray, Australian Army, was stationed with the 11th Signal Brigade at Fort Huachuca. Another five Australian officers in their homeland were alumni of the exchange program, and some of them played key roles in the operation. Col. Daniel R. Judy, USA, 11th Signal Brigade commander, describes the effectiveness of the East Timor deployment as the fruition of this exchange program. He specifically cites Capt. Murray’s direct interface with his fellow Australians in that region as a key to helping U.S. forces efficiently prepare the deployment.