Extreme IT: Battling dust, heat and bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq

How IT pros keep communications running in the desert and under fire

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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

Testing a satellite communications trailer.

Click to view larger image.

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

Testing a small satellite terminal. Click to view larger image.

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.

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