Wired warriors get to work

Deploying a network is challenging enough without the constant worry of triggering land mines or accidentally sharing vital information with enemy forces while doing so. But that’s the situation facing networking pros in the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan as they begin to play their role in the war against terrorism.

For Canadian troops in Afghanistan and surrounding countries, access to infrastructure can sometimes seem like a literal pipe dream. With mountain ranges blocking wireless transactions, and with drought-ravaged, cement-like terrain to contend with, laying cable and deploying access points are no simple tasks.

Major Kevin Ferguson with Canadian Forces J6 communications information systems for Operation Apollo was in Kandahar, Afghanistan prior to the arrival of Canadian troops. The types of infrastructure needed were determined from his report.

“Some of the bigger challenges that are involved first start with bringing the infrastructure into the area itself,” Ferguson said. “There is not much infrastructure existing there, so you basically must bring your own. Then as you try and set up that infrastructure, where the Canadian Forces are right now in Kandahar, the area is extremely dusty. It has been nicknamed “the moon with minefields.” Also, the hardness of the ground is an issue. Some of the other problems are that the area is so full of land mines that in some of the areas as you start to expand, you must be careful to make sure that you don’t hit any mines that may have been missed.”

Ferguson told Network World Canada that due to these issues, network equipment options are limited. The main links coming into the headquarter bases are satellite, and are then distributed out to other bases. The satellite links are distributed using military-standard fibre cable, which offers better protection of the fibre than commercial cables. While noting that commercial fibre is extremely sensitive to dust, Ferguson said that military fibre is only sensitive when doing a splice, which can take a long time in order to ensure that no dust or particles are in the area of the splice.

The Canadian Forces require military-standard encryption technology for all of their communications systems; it is typically in the form of an add-on piece. Ferguson said that a lot of the equipment brought to Afghanistan by Canadian troops have embedded encryption built right into the radios. Information security it crucial to operations and it is for that reason that Ferguson said the military does not rely on the 802.11b wireless standard.

“For any networks we build, we extend them using either fibre or, depending on the distance, we may use shielded copper pair,” he explained. “For longer distances it greatly reduces the throughput we have, but we can extend that through our military radios, which are capable of both voice and data interaction. We don’t stick with things like 802.11b because there are a number of security issues that can arise.”

Although satellite and wireless transmissions are becoming more prevalent technologies for military use, Colonel J.G. Lindsay, head of the department of applied military science, as well as the director of Land Force Technical Staff programme, at Kingston, Ont.’s Royal Military College of Canada, pointed out that there are limitations on wireless transmissions.

“I don’t think [wireless] will ever replace other means of communication for various reasons,” Lindsay said. “It might be for geographic reasons or for security reasons. We may have more of a concern in some areas of security compared to the enterprise, but our concerns are not necessarily that different from those in the private sector. We also have to worry about intrusion and if the network or communications can be interfered with in some way.”

According to Norbert Cyr, vice-president of communications for the Canadian Defence Industry Association (CDIA), military troops encounter problems with security in that it puts a heavy burden on bandwidth.

Cyr also offered that equipment must be rugged in order to withstand the harsh environments that Canadian Forces must deal with.

“Out there, a lot of the stuff doesn’t work because of dust and conditions,” Cyr said. “Military equipment must be able to withstand conditions from the Arctic cold to the desert warm.”

With this in mind, the Canadian Forces have implemented a tactical networking system called the Iris Communication System, Ferguson said. Iris was designed to feed all communications systems and all voice and intercom systems into one server within army vehicles, including Coyote Reconnaissance armoured tanks. On the back of each Iris-enabled vehicle are four electrical connections. According to Ferguson, electronic-to-optical conversion on a single cable connected to any one of those four connections allows the cable to be extended in order to plug into the next vehicle.

“The vehicles actually self-network,” Ferguson said. “As you add more vehicles, it allows you to put in a network between those vehicles that self-discovers, organizes itself and provides redundancy in case of a break in any area.”

One of the reasons the armed forces use an electrical connection on the back of the armoured vehicles, he continued, is to avoid any problems with doing a direct fibre connection to the vehicle.

“If you get dirt or dust on the electrical connection, you can just take water from your water bottle and clean it off. That is one of the tricks we use to avoid problems with fibre while still taking advantage of the capacity of fibre,” he said.

Although Canadian Forces do not know how long the Apollo mission will keep them in Afghanistan, Ferguson said that as long as troops remain, the network he helped design will be available for communications. He said that the network works much like spreading out hubs and spokes with a main satellite down link that feeds into Canadian headquarters in Kandahar. From there, the satellite can be linked to the multiple bases that comprise the Apollo Mission.

“With many of our systems, we have been getting much faster in transmitting information,” Ferguson said. “The near-real-time information becomes a factor the closer you get to the forces that have to do the engagements and the fighting. That is where you need information to flow: the places where you need people to act instantaneously.”