"Always have a reserve, and never run out of options..."
I served in the British Army at the back end of the Cold War and during campaigns in the Balkans and Afghanistan. For communicators these campaigns stretched people and technology almost to breaking point in enabling complex operations, usually in coalition and sometimes across government. The lessons from these experiences remain pertinent today, perhaps more so with growing demands and threats.
Planning and delivering communications, on both “early-entry” and “follow-on” tours, have etched some key principles into my psyche. These include “assumption is the mother of many disasters” (or words to that effect…); “plan early, plan twice” (not an official defence approach…!!); and, of course, “no plan survives contact with… (insert: generators not arriving / other nations emitters on full power / dust that gets in every connector / the staff wanting far more than they asked for last week / that key cable going adrift on a chaotic landing site with zero visibility during a switch between helicopters etc etc…)”.
This all comes down to “do the detail, do it again and assume things will go wrong”. Finally, and probably the main lesson, is to have and develop good people and have a unity of purpose that cascades throughout the organisation so when things do go “off plan”, people can deal with it. I count myself blessed to have worked with great teams.
The Balkans - choice & resilience
In the early 90s, as a younger officer, I commanded a Troop providing comms for a UK Task Force across 100s of kms in the Balkans, working with nations ranging from Argentinian to Russian infantry units. I hadn’t planned the laydown, but inherited a mix of tactical HF links, local VHF “puddles” some commercial Push to Talk (PTT) systems and both X Band (on Skynet 4…) and HF “rear links” to the UK. As we dealt with issues such as contaminated fuel supplies, the actions of warring factions or units being cut off by snowstorms for periods, I learned that small comms teams needed choice and resilience in their links out from a “point of presence”.
This idea of aiming for PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingent and Emergency) comms stood me in good stead many years later at 16 Air Assault Brigade, when we twice had to plan and execute multi-national deployments as the “framework” nation. We had to make the case for additional resources so we could augment our organic equipment for both tours, with little time to plan, equip and train, and we had to liaise with many organisations - such as NATO, the UK MOD Corsham teams, the Permanent Joint HQ (PJHQ) and other nations - all while planning how we could deploy rapidly by air and hence with minimal people and equipment.
NATO - Op ESSENTIAL HARVEST
So, on NATO’s Op ESSENTIAL HARVEST, where we deployed to the Balkans in August 2001 to disarm warring factions, we deployed small teams with L-Band and UHF command nets to the task force units, augmenting HF in theatre links and VHF radio. There was also a smattering of Satphones just in case and for the odd welfare call. UHF was critical and I well remember my team deploying with the French Foreign Legion Commanding Officer straight into the valley with opposing sides firing across the top of them as they calmly kept the Brigade informed. Back to UK (and NATO) were separate and bulky satcom “rear links” to keep the Brigade plugged into the strategic HQs, along with a slice of commercial satellite for additional comms and satellite TV to provide the newsfeeds and around which the Brigade staff huddled to witness 9-11 unfolding…
Afghanistan - NATO's ISAF & satcoms to the tactical edge
Not long after recovering from the Balkans we were placed on standby to deploy to Afghanistan, but with a far tighter “air bridge” and hence more compromises and constraints. As the Northern Alliance swept towards Kabul, plans kept changing. But on New Year’s Day 2002, along with the French and German recce teams, we were on the first C130 landing at Kabul Airfield to establish NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The “rear link” of 2 Mbps to UK was rapidly set up along with L-band on 512 kbps to augment HF and transmit word documents and reports to the Brigade units. The main challenge was creating a secure VHF command net since the only hill in Kabul was covered in mines and unexploded ordnance and took many weeks to clear, even after negotiating access with the Afghan authorities. The fact this took so long and relied on deploying comms teams as “rebroadcast” detachments to very exposed locations clearly shows why, especially for early-entry tasks, satcom is key right down to the tactical edge.
Commercial satcom for welfare and operational traffic
Fast forward via a tour in 2004/5 as Chief of Staff of a US Task Force providing Civil Reconstruction Teams across Afghanistan, where every patrol base seemed to have more satcom than a UK brigade a couple of years earlier, and then commanding the Regiment delivering UK and NATO comms in 2008/9 where we had satcom down to company group level, so 100 or so people in a forward base enabling “proper IT” to support a complex coalition mission - and the early lessons remain valid. For me, the main change was the growth in satcom bandwidth (both in terms of throughput and in the number of sites), largely using commercial satcom for both welfare (a significant growth task for enduring missions) and operational traffic and where the use of Ku band for the myriad of fixed bases was added to the prolific use of L band (often alongside X and UHF).
My operational experience has been that a blend of solutions is needed, both commercial and military, and that these met slightly different but complementary needs and, overlapped enough (the more the better), they gave additional choice and resilience.
Bottom line remains - always have a reserve, and never run out of options!
Director – Defence and Space Programmes
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