Not all soldiers charge around decked out in combat fatigues, face splattered with green paint, flying into war zones. As the army enters the digital era it is clear that future battles will be won and lost on effective communications and IT.
A sophisticated digitisation programme, known as Bowman, is being implemented across the British Army. It means that every soldier, vehicle, ship and combat aircraft will eventually be connected to a data network. The aim is to enable military commanders to know exactly what is going on in the field, with every weapon accounted for and with logistics able to provide critical supplies even when the army is on the move.
The project has suffered long delays, and the army received a great deal of adverse publicity about the near obsolete equipment it was using in Kosovo, but with the Bowman contract awarded to Computing Devices Canada last year, it is now expected to be fully deployed by 2007.
This means a massive upheaval as the system is implemented.
"Digitisation allows users to send messages to anyone on the network so we need to work out how this affects operations," says major Ade Clewlow, who works for the Director Land Digitization, which is co-ordinating the implementation of Bowman.
"As a result of introducing this application we are having to recruit a different skills set. We now need a far larger number of database administrators and application specialists and in the next five to six years we will have to increase manpower considerably," he says.
Every soldier will be affected by the programme and 68,000 personnel will have to be taught how to operate the equipment.
"For the soldier on the ground the key benefit will be secure speech. He will be equipped with a personal user data terminal, which will have all the basic functionality necessary to send data back through the network," explains Clewlow. "On a lower tactical level, Bowman incorporates tactical GPS positioning for planning purposes and to help prevent fratricide."
There will be a battalion-level trial next year for the first unit to convert to Bowman. This will then progress into a brigade-level trial in 2004.
"Operations, war, will still look the same, but it will be carried out securely and hopefully more efficiently," says Clewlow.
As the digitisation project and related applications become more prevalent across the army, an increasing number of recruits are wanting to specialise in this area, and the competition for places is tough.
For the time being, the army trains its own IT specialists, but if the demand for key IT skills continues to increase at the current rate it may well have to consider recruiting civilian ITers. This is not likely to happen in the immediate future, so all IT recruits are required to have been enlisted to the army between the ages of 16 and 30.
The army needs 15,000 new recruits every year and eventually 1,000 of these will specialise in IT.
Recruitment has been difficult in recent years because most young people feel the private sector has more to offer. In an effort to meet targets the army has revamped its recruitment advertising to appear more appealing to its target audience.
"As a lot of people have no contact with the army nowadays, we wanted to make the whole recruitment process more understandable," says major Allison Savage of the Army Training and Recruitment Agency. "We decided to split the recruitment into nine distinct career groups because 'signals operator' means nothing to most civilians but 'IT/comms' does."
However, before you can become an IT specialist you have to be trained as a soldier. This involves a 12-week course in mental and physical agility, which is followed by recruits learning their specialised trade. At this level there are various options for those interested in IT and communications, including area systems operator, systems engineer technician, installation technician and artillery command systems.
"After five to eight years in the army you can sit the information systems operator [ISO] exam. If you are successful you will be kept in the IT stream," says Liz Dallyn, who is responsible for soldier recruitment. "It is not a trade you can join from civvy street, you can only go for it when you have attained the rank of corporal."
To even be considered for the course you have to pass a six-week aptitude test that determines whether you have what it takes to make it in an IT role.
The three-month ISO course covers an extensive range of skills, including data communications, computer security, Unix administration and Windows NT. Corporal Geoff Wilman has been one of the lucky ones to get on the course and has been able to use his skills to work on the Bowman programme.
This is not the only area where army ITers are in demand. Immediately after gaining his qualification Wilman signed on as an instructor. He will shortly be moving on to Nato headquarters in Holland, where he will be working managing Nato's local area networks (Lans).
When Wilman first joined the army at 18 IT was not on the agenda, but he now considers it one of the most exciting areas to be in. "I first became interested in IT when I got posted to a unit where I was working on digital monitoring systems for insecure radio communications," he says.
Since then, as well as working on the digitisation programme, Wilman has researched what wireless Lans can offer the army and worked on Lan management in Kosovo. It is usual for soldiers to change role every three years, so all army ITers are guaranteed exposure to a variety of assignments - although they may not get much say as to what or where their next posting will be.
The army is more than a job, it is a way of life that demands a level of commitment that many are reluctant to give. However, the long-term rewards are the chance to work on a variety of exciting projects and an alternative to the deskbound nine-to-five.
This was first published in October 2002