IT in the Line of Fire

IT pros serving in Iraq and Afghanistan talk about battling heat, 'moon dust' and mortar attacks to keep the lines of communication open.

This version of this Q&A originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Think your work is stressful? Try getting a network restored after it's been brought down by a mortar attack -- in 110-degree heat.

That's life in Iraq and Afghanistan for the members of the U.S. military who are in charge of communications, networks and other IT systems. The desert environment presents challenges beyond the harsh realities of war, taxing both the equipment and the men and women who maintain it.

Here's a status report from U. S. Air Force Lt. Col. Don Fielden and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Pat Dedham, who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

Let's start with your location. Dedham: Until [recently], I was in Bagram, the largest base in Afghanistan. It's in a high-plains desert at 5,000 feet. The temperatures range from 0 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the winter to 110 degrees in the summer.

Fielden: I'm at Balad Air Base, the largest air base in Iraq. It's pretty flat and near sea level. Temperatures here range from 35 degrees in winter to 140 degrees in summer. It's very dusty and often windy. You know how stateside, when the wind is blowing, it makes it feel cooler? Here in Balad, when the wind's blowing, it feels a lot hotter.

How long have you served in the Middle East, and what is your role? Dedham: I was in Afghanistan for 15 months. As the director of comms [communications] and IT for the Joint Task Force, I had oversight of all IT and communications for U.S. forces.

Fielden: I've been in Iraq eight months so far, and I'll be out here for four more. I'm the commanding officer of the communications squadron here, which is the home of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. Our wing also comprises other units that are scattered throughout Iraq, and I play a role in ensuring command-and-control connectivity to our other Air Force locations.

What equipment are you working with? Fielden: We have a typical network control center that houses our file servers, routers and Internet switches, and another control center that handles circuit routing. And we have our satellite communication equipment and associated vans established on-site as well. We have Dell servers, Sun servers -- the popular brands. It's a typical Air Force communications squadron, but operating in a forward location.

Dedham: We have a Cisco-based router network. On the transmission side, we're predominantly satellite-based, with everything from very small terminals -- 2.4-meter dishes -- up to huge dishes, in about 93 different locations. On the server side, it's a combination of Dell and Sun -- the majority is Dell throughout Afghanistan.

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%.

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.

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. 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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