Telecoms minefield for Army in Liberia

 

While widely admired for taking a responsible role in peacekeeping activities worldwide, Irish military capabilities are, it must be said, relatively modest when viewed on the world scale.

Nonetheless, when it comes to one area of defence - and a highly sophisticated one at that - the Republic ranks among the most elite forces in the world: communications.

"Irish communications ranks fourth in the world," says Comdt Ciaran Motherway, technical staff officer, directorate of Communications and Information Services (CIS) Corps. The US and Russia can spend millions on trying out various communications approaches, he said, whereas, for the Irish, "Because our budget is so small, we have to get it right." That means when it comes to setting up a reliable, encrypted internet network for communications out in the middle of an open field in Liberia, with scorching 56-degree temperatures and over 90 per cent humidity, the men and women of the Irish defences forces are the ones for the job.

That was the task that lay before Motherway and Lt Col Brian McQuaid, director, CIS last year as the Irish defence forces prepared to send 450 troops out to keep the peace in Liberia, they told an audience at Trinity College recently during a talk sponsored by the Systems Administrators' Guild of Ireland and Trinity's Net Society.

Communications is a broad church - so to speak - in the Defence Forces.

According to McQuaid: "If there's an electron in the device, it's a CIS problem." Thus they find themselves in charge of setting up and managing everything from video and televisions to computers and postage franking machines.

In Liberia, an advance group of one engineer, three technicians and one radio operator had to make sure that not only was a tactical communications infrastructure in place for strict military use, but that all the necessary "devices with an electron" were there for the troops, too - phones, internet access and television.

"Without communications, no one moves," Motherway says, whose team had all of four weeks to get a greenfield site up and running between early November and mid-December, when the troops would land.

Lest anyone imagine such work taken is taken on by skinny, shy geeks more comfortable with PCs and routers than military manoeuvres, consider that this small group - all qualified soldiers as well - arrived in an anarchic country in which heavily armed children roamed the streets, shooting each other during scuffles over food or clothes.

"There were very few adults left after the internal warfare that has plagued the country," says Motherway, showing slide images of a 13-year-old girl carrying a rocket launcher and youths with assault rifles. The situation was so uncertain within the capital city of Monrovia that his reconnaissance team couldn't get in to the country through Liberia's borders and instead had to do a beach landing. They were welcomed by Monrovians who apparently thought they were the Russian Army, he says.

Knowing there were trigger-happy kids on the prowl with automatic weapons did not exactly make the group feel comfortable as they settled in to assess communications needs.

First, they examined the existing (and threadbare) communications infrastructure set up by the United Nations. This was not exactly state-of-the-art, says Motherway. It featured limited telephony and internet access, limited satellite communications with UN headquarters in New York, and a congested radio system that UN soldiers were using for everything from military chatter to ordering food from the city.

So the first thing the team did was sort out the UN system, putting in high-frequency and very high-frequency secure radio channels, microwave and portable satellite connections and a surveillance system using radar and sensors. And they kicked the food orders off the network.

Then, they shifted to the location for the Irish camp, out on the edge of the city on a small peninsula, and assessed what was there to work with: zilch. "The copper [ telephony wire] had been ripped up and melted down and sold on," he says. "There was absolutely nothing in this place." So it would have to be brought in. On one day in November, they had five airlifts of equipment, one sealift of 172 vehicles and 130 20-foot containers, and three airlifts of personnel. "The camp was then built in 27 days," he says.

Information technology, telephony, satellite, radar and radio equipment all went into specially designed, portable air-conditioned containers - including 60 PCs, and eight "ruggedised" laptops, plus routers and other equipment needed to set up a network. The heat was brutal, as was the humidity, and affected all the equipment.

"The air conditioning couldn't keep up with the heat," he says. Cables and wires also started to rot due to the humidity. "The equipment did suffer, but we had redundancy (back-ups) built in," Motherway says.

The military uses a closed, encrypted network (both hardware and software is encrypted) for sending sensitive information. A separate network for internet access is set up for the troops to talk with family back home - and to receive streamed radio and television broadcasts.

"So the troops out there were listening to Gerry Ryan. There'd be some disagreement in the morning between those who wanted to listen to Morning Ireland and those wanting to listen to Gerry Ryan," he says.

Sports broadcast company Setanta allowed the troops to log in for free to watch the All Ireland final on the web as well.

"All the other nationalities [ around the camp] came as well and were introduced to hurling and football. So you might have a team coming from Monrovia before too long." If so, that will surely be considered one of the odder achievements of CIS - a dedicated group which views as normal the job of setting up a communications headquarters in 56-degree temperatures among gun-toting children.