IT is a heck of a tough job in Iraq and Afghanistan

For this edition of Extreme IT, we spoke with officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan about their jobs. Participants included Air Force Lt. Col. Don Fielden, currently deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq, and Army Lt. Col. Patrick Dedham, just back from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Also on the phone were Army Lt. Col. David Wills and Air Force Col. Harold Bullock, both of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and both of whom have spent a good deal of time in the current war zones.

Let’s start with your location; can you describe the environment?

Dedham: Up until a couple of days ago, I was in Bagram, the largest base in Afghanistan. It’s just north of the capital, Kabul, in a high-plains desert at 5,000 feet. The temperatures range from -18 degrees celsius in the winter to 43 degrees in the summer.

Army Lt. Colonel Pat Dedham.

We have networks and IT systems running throughout the country in some pretty extreme places. For example, there’s a small combat outpost on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan at about 12,000 feet, called Shkin. And they have complete network connectivity.

Fielden: I’m at Balad Air Base, the largest air base in Iraq. It’s pretty flat and near sea level. Temperatures here range from 35 degrees in the winter to 140 degrees in the summer. It’s very dusty and often windy. You know how stateside, you have a wind chill when the wind is blowing, it makes it feel cooler? Here in Balad, when the wind’s blowing, it feels a lot hotter.

How long have you been there, and what is your role?

Dedham: I was in Afghanistan for 15 months. As the director of comms [communications] and IT for the Joint Task Force, I had oversight of all IT and communications for U.S. forces.

Fielden: I’ve been in Iraq eight months so far, and I’ll be out here for four more. I’m the commanding officer of the communications squadron here, which is the home of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. Our wing also comprises other units that are scattered throughout Iraq, and I play a role in ensuring command-and-control connectivity to our other Air Force locations.

Wills: Comms includes everything from computer networking through telecom, telephones, VoIP, fax, radios. Basically anything other than mailing a letter – and in Balad, they even do that.

Air Force Lt. Colonel Don Fielden.

How many users do you support?
Fielden: We’ve got an Air Force population of well over 6,000 people at Balad. If you throw in the Air Force personnel at the other bases we support, it adds up to over 8,500 folks.

Dedham: From a Joint Task Force perspective, it’s about 35,000 customers that we provide support to.

What’s the equipment you’re working with?

Fielden: It’s the standard stuff – we have a typical network control center that houses our file servers, routers, and Internet switches, and another control center that handles circuit routing. And we have our satellite communications equipment and associated vans established on-site as well.

We have Dell servers, Sun servers – the popular brands. Really, it’s a typical Air Force communications squadron, but operating in a forward location.

Dedham: We have a Cisco-based router network. On the transmission side, we’re predominantly satellite-based, with everything from very small terminals – 2.4-metre dishes – up to your big huge dishes, in about 93 different locations. On the server side, it’s a combination of Dell and Sun servers – the majority is Dell throughout Afghanistan.

Can you describe your data centers in a little more detail?

Dedham: At Bagram, we have a complete fiber-optic LAN infrastructure, with about 155 communications closets. I think it’s about 14,000 users on that LAN. But we also provide IT and comm service to about 98 different forward operating bases [FOBs] throughout Afghanistan. Some of them are pretty small, with just a small satellite dish and a handful of computers; some are large, with a complete fiber-ring infrastructure. And some are in the middle, with hub-and-spoke local-area networks.

Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain

So we support everything from a small point of presence to a complete state-of-the-art fiber-optic network. There are several units throughout Afghanistan that provide support for all those different FOBs. To give you a rough number, there are about 500 to 600 communications and IT personnel spread throughout the country.

In Bagram, there are really three data centers on top of the communications closets I mentioned. The biggest one is probably about 50 feet by 30 feet – state-of-art, raised floor, two stories, environmental control, dust prevention.

The other two are a little smaller, probably 20 feet by 10 feet – one has a raised floor, the other one’s a little more ad hoc. Each has about 12 42U racks; the large one has a good 40 or 50 full 42U racks on the top floor and another 40 or 50 on the bottom floor. We also turned a large marble hallway into a data processing center because we just ran out of space.

Fielden: We actually support about 15 different operating locations. Focusing on Balad, we’ve got a fairly robust infrastructure out here. We have a combination fiber-optic cable and copper-based backbone throughout the base. We have satellite communications and microwave capabilities, and we have the added responsibility of maintaining all of the air traffic control and landing systems.

Airlifting a communications assemblage.

As far as our data center – which I’ll call the network control center – currently we’re in a van roughly 40 feet by 15 feet stuffed with 30 different racks of equipment.

Why are you still in a van and not in a permanent structure?

Fielden: We don’t really know how long we’ll be out here at Balad, so we’re trying to make sure we can easily relocate or pull out if the decision is made to do so.

We actually have several vans that we interconnect together. So the network control center, the data warehouse, is in one van; I have the control facility for circuit routing in a second van of about the same size; I’ve got a phone switch in another van; I’ve got a monitoring center in yet another van.

The vans get flown in and dropped on-site with some minimal equipment installed, and as the base population grows, we go in and add additional equipment.

Also, this used to be an Iraqi air force base, so we’ve taken over some of the buildings and house some of our comm facilities, office space, work centers and whatnot in those facilities.

Let’s talk about your typical workday. When you get up and go to work, what’s on your plate?

Dedham: Our days start at about 5:30 in the morning and end around 11 or 12 at night. That sounds kind of extreme, but that’s what it takes to operate in that austere environment. It always starts off with a quick update brief from my network personnel on the status of my network – what different nodes across the country are down and what we’re doing about it.

From there, it’s just a series of events – meetings, working groups, trips, all interrupted of course by a daily crisis, from small ones like the commanding general’s phone doesn’t work to big ones like an entire combat operating base isn’t connected anymore because of a major outage.

Testing a satellite communications trailer.

Fielden: It’s very similar here at Balad. My alarm goes off at 5:45. I kick the day off with a morning stand-up, when I call in my flight commanders and we review anything that happened the previous night and then establish priorities for the day. We also do personnel accounting, to make sure everybody is where they ought to be.

And then we proceed with the daily task of providing the best comm service we possibly can, all the while dodging and ducking mortar attacks and rocket attacks. The duty day typically for me ends around 2230 or 2300 hours, assuming there’s no crisis ongoing at that particular time. I call it “firefighting” – there are no two days alike out here, I’ve noticed.

How often are mortar and rocket attacks an issue?

Fielden: It’s getting better. When I came out here last summer, it seemed like we were always hitting the deck. The attacks came several times a day and several times a night. But as the situation is stabilizing out here, the number of attacks has been reduced by about 50%.

Were the attacks ever directly responsible for some kind of IT crisis?

Fielden: Not directly. They’re not really targeting anything. There have been some issues with comm outages resulting from mortar and rocket attacks, but those have been few and far between. We have a pretty robust network out here, where a single incident on part of our infrastructure won’t necessarily take us down.

Testing a small satellite terminal

So they’ve never hit one of your vans?

Fielden: No. They’ve hit near, but never a direct fire.

Is that an issue in Afghanistan as well?

Dedham: Just taking Bagram first, we had five different attacks in the 15 months I was there. One was a suicide bomber at the entry control point, and the other four were random mortar and RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] attacks on the base, none of which ever affected communications.

Outside of Bagram, we did have forward operating bases or combat outposts lose connectivity because of a direct hit – on a satellite dish on two occasions, and on a generator a third time. The command post nodes – little vans with satellite dishes on them and radio equipment associated with the satellite dish – were destroyed because of shrapnel from either RPG, suicide bomber or random mortar attack. We don’t think the enemy was aiming for the command post; we think it was just a lucky hit.

How long does it take to get a forward base back up if it’s hit?

Dedham: In those three cases, they had to switch over to what we refer to as “single-channel communications” – that’s just radio. Tactical satellite radio or high-frequency communications had to wait until their network connectivity was re-established, which took anywhere from 24 to about 96 hours. It required us to airlift new terminals to those sites in a sling underneath a helicopter; sometimes it took more than a day because bad weather prevented us from flying.

A lot of the terminals we use for network connectivity aren’t in a van; they’re modular cases that can be lifted by Black Hawk helicopter. We refer to them as POPs, point-of-presence terminals. They’re very small, but they can provide connectivity to those very small outposts. That’s very important in any counterinsurgency fight – having a network that lets us distribute full-motion video and provide access to databases gives us a real advantage.

Tower repair in Iraq. Click to view larger image.

Bullock: What these guys do is different from most commercial networks, because while most of them just have to provide one consolidated LAN or WAN, we actually have to provide multiple distinct networks.

One is SIPRNet, which stands for Secret Internet Protocol – it’s a classified network. We also provide NIPRNet, which is the Not Secret Internet Protocol.

And in many cases, we provide a third network, JWICS [Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System], which is a top-secret network. Unclassified, secret, top secret: three different networks that don’t touch each other at all, and they’re all provided in many cases at very austere, very small locations.

Fielden: For Balad, that’s very true. We’re providing all three of those networks. At other bases, we’re providing SIPRNet and NIPRNet connectivity, and at some of our still-smaller forward operating locations, we’re just providing NIPRNet.

Dedham: In Afghanistan, we use virtual LANs to distribute our networks. There are seven different networks we provide: the three they mentioned, plus plain old Internet; and then we have two NATO classified networks, and finally a bigger secure coalition network for countries outside of NATO. So seven different networks that we’re running, with the associated information systems: e-mail, databases and so on.

What’s the most challenging aspect of doing IT in your environments?

Moon dust in Iraq. Click to view larger image.

Fielden: The conditions that cause the most heartache are the heat in the spring and summertime, and the dust. It doesn’t rain that much, so we don’t have an issue with moisture. But the heat and the dust tax our equipment pretty good.

One of our regular duties is to change the filters in the air conditioners, and then dust. And dust. And when you think you’re done, dust one more time. The vacuum cleaner is a critical piece of equipment out here.

Dedham: The dust is a huge problem. We refer to it as “moon dust” – it’s not like the dust you might experience in the United States.

We had a call manager go bad one day. It had been in the system for a little over a year, and when we opened it up, there were literally four inches of moon dust covering all the circuit boards. The heat buildup caused a portion of one of the circuit cards to short-circuit and melt. Besides that, the dust gets into the fans, and they start to fail, which prevents the equipment from being cooled, which causes it to fail.

Wills: There’s also the matter of electricity. We’re used to a set standard here in the States, but in Afghanistan and Iraq you have more spikes and drops. So uninterruptible power supplies are our best friends.

Dedham: The dirty power is a huge issue, because you end up going through parts and life-cycling equipment a lot quicker than you do when you’re in a nice, clean environment like the States. Routers go bad, switches go bad, just because of the dirty power you’re getting from generators, unregulated power, power surges and things like that. That just adds another challenge in that you need a good stock of repair parts.

Fielden: The man-made environment is definitely a problem. Before we got here, when the base was first being built, they just threw comm cables in the ground, and record-keeping was terrible. When [our] civil engineers came in to do some construction or lay down some additional infrastructure, inevitably we’d have a comm cable cut.

Repairing a radio antenna in Iraq.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on recently?

Fielden: I’m working with the Army on figuring out how we can merge our comm infrastructures together. Both services have a very large and robust communications infrastructure on Balad, and we both have very smart, motivated personnel maintaining those networks. The thought is that if there’s a way to combine the Air Force and Army networks into a single infrastructure serving all customers on base, we’ll become more efficient and more effective.

Dedham: For me, probably the most interesting project was building a coordination center right on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. That site is a world-class operations center that Afghans, Pakistanis and coalition forces work out of. Inside it has all different types of network connectivity, information systems, large-screen TVs to view full-motion video from unmanned aerial vehicles, and other sensor data. It’s a state-of-the-art technical facility that was a challenge to build because the location is so remote.

How did you wind up in IT?

Dedham: I was a computer science major. I joined the Army right out of college, and I’ve been in IT full time in the Army for almost 20 years.

Fielden: I was always fascinated by electronics and radio as a kid. I enlisted in the Air Force in 1984 and became a radio technician. Eventually I went off to college and got a degree in physics, with an emphasis on electronics and magnetism. I came back in as a commissioned officer and requested to get into IT. I’ve been in for a total of 23 years now and loved every bit of it.

What have you learned from your IT experiences over there?

Fielden: I’ve learned that given the right people and the right motivation, you can make IT work anywhere in the world. Anywhere we need to have a U.S. military presence, I guarantee you we can get a robust information technology infrastructure in place, up and running, reliably providing services we’re used to back stateside, very quickly.

The 332nd Expeditionary Communications Squadron. Click to view larger image.

Wills: The individuals who work for Don [Fielden] and Pat [Dedham] are truly innovative. I’ve seen people from Microsoft or Cisco come in and say, “It’s not supposed to do that.” Well, it’s not supposed to, but it does, because the men and women out there aren’t constrained, and they make things happen.

Dedham: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how significant information systems and networks can be in flattening information so it can get to everyone right away without having to follow any kind of bureaucratic hierarchy.

In a World War II movie, you see information move from team to squad to platoon to company to battalion to brigade to division. With IT, you can flatten that information and get it to everybody in real time. It makes a huge difference operationally on the battlefield, for everybody out there.

Are you going to stay in the military when your tour is up?

Fielden: As long as the Air Force will have me, I’ll keep right on going. It’s the best job an individual can have.

Jake Widman is freelance writer in San Francisco.

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