How tech staff helped saved lives in Iraq

Nearly six-and-a-half years ago, IT engineers were among the first of the armed forces to arrive in Iraq when the war started. They were also among the...

Nearly six-and-a-half years ago, IT engineers were among the first of the armed forces to arrive in Iraq when the war started. They were also among the last to leave, after spending several months winding down and collapsing the information systems that people's lives had depended on during the fighting.

IS engineers must move quickly when they arrive in a conflict zone, setting up networks and making contact with UK headquarters. The systems they build and maintain will often be critically important in the success of the operations and the safety of personnel. IS engineers make up around 8% to 10% of the entire armed forces, a fairly big proportion.

Modern warfare depends on sophisticated technology, such as unmanned aircraft and robots. But it is not only these high-tech gadgets that are important; reliable information is crucial, and it is day-to-day information systems that provide this.

Technology has also made a difference to daily life for members of the armed forces. They can keep in touch with loved ones through social networking sites, Skype and web cameras - far easier than writing letters and dodging the censors.

Systems from scratch

Military IT systems are complex, but have to be built from scratch in often isolated and inhospitable locations. Rob Cogan, a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy and headquarters information manager, says, "When you start, there is effectively nothing there. You put up a tent or move into an old building. You have military computers with you, and you set up a small local area network inside the tent."

Officers also have a local server and use satellite communications to link back to the UK's defence infrastructure. Information is shared over the web and through shared directories.

"As you get more troops on the ground you have to build other headquarters," Cogan says. "They crop up all over the place. You then have to link these together and link them back to the UK - so you end up building a network. Then you start looking at specialist systems for intelligence, administration, logistics and management of equipment."

In Iraq, officers have been doing this in reverse as they get ready to leave. The officers currently dismantling the systems are from the Joint Force Logistic Component, a specialist group made up from the Army, Navy and RAF. They have been sent to Iraq to make sure all the kit and equipment comes home quickly and at minimum cost to the taxpayer. Not only does IT equipment need to be dismantled and removed, it plays an important role in helping to co-ordinate the wind-down.

Careful management

Running IT systems in a war zone is not easy. People's lives depend on the efficiency of some of the systems, security has to be watertight, systems have to be totally reliable and some of the time they need to be linked into other countries' or departments' systems. It does not help that Iraq is hot, with temperatures up to 47°C, and dusty, making equipment maintenance difficult.

Lieutenant Colonel Jon Cole, a Royal Signals officer in the Army, was sent to Iraq to oversee the IT and communications network. He says, "We have to close down operations in a very controlled way - we cannot just turn things off in one go. The commercial systems, which need to be managed more carefully, tend to be shut down first. The military systems are generally more 'rugged' and can be closed at the last minute."

According to Cole, a lot of the systems have evolved and degraded over time. "A lot of the equipment degrades here because it is very hot, and you have to fight very hard to keep it dust-free," he says.

Cogan adds, "We simply cannot afford to keep pace with every technological advance. Very few companies can. However we have a structured procurement programme that embraces new technology on a rolling basis to meet our requirements. At the moment, what we have works, and works well."

Security is paramount

Among all the challenges the engineers face, security is one of the biggest. There are multi-layered security measures to deal with different levels of threat. The internet, which plenty of people need access to, is open source. At the other end of the spectrum are computer systems that hold secrets. "We cannot have a single computer that enables all military activity to work, or a single set of applications, because there are so many diverse tasks. We have to use multiple applications and systems to keep the security side of things spread out," Cogan says.

During the war, security was made even more complicated by the need to link some systems up to US or German systems. Officers tackled the problems using both practical measures, such as the physical location of servers and equipment, and technical measures, such as specialist equipment that spreads information between different security domains.

Testing systems on the ground is not easy either, says Warrant Officer Ian Hurst, foreman of signals information systems. "Most of the systems we use are IP-based, which is challenging because you have to package, shape and present the IP information in a format that different systems can understand. The interoperability problems do not present themselves until the systems are deployed, so we have to manage and maintain things when they are being used on the ground."

Hurst says engineers need a unique and broad set of skills. "The people on the ground need to be experts," he says. "They have to work with minimum supervision in fairly isolated locations. The IT staff who work on these systems tend to be multi-faceted. We need them to be masters of many different trades, including Microsoft, Cisco and IP-tunnelling."

Decommissioning systems

Officers and soldiers began winding down operations in March this year. It has been a gradual, controlled process.

As well as the physical equipment, information assets needed to be recorded, collected, returned to the UK or disposed of. Most of the military's electronic information is held on five main systems, plus four smaller Lans. All of this has to be processed and sent to the right people, and then the equipment has to have all potentially sensitive information removed.

It has been a long process - but not quite as long as the six-and-a-half years it has taken to get to this stage.

Photos: IT saving lives in Iraqi warzone >>

Rebuilding Iraq: the role of IT staff >>

Read more on IT risk management