May 10 2008

Inside Charlie Company

In the ragged terrain of war-torn Afghanistan, a team of Army network specialists battles harsh conditions to keep data flowing.

Working in a war zone poses some unique challenges — staying alive for one. But the information technology specialists of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in northeastern Afghanistan worry not only about their personal safety but also about whether the network they’ve been toiling on for the past year can stand up to assault.

Since arriving at forward-operating base (FOB) Fenty in Jalalabad last spring, the 173rd ABCT communications section and the signaleers of Charlie Company, 173rd Special Troops Battalion, have been working around the clock to build a vast telecommunications infrastructure linking more than 3,000 users scattered throughout Nuristan, Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman provinces, an area about the size of Vermont that’s known as N2KL. The terrain is rugged, the weather unforgiving and the danger ever present. But when asked about their biggest challenges, these front-line techies point to the months-long wait for parts, a lack of additional tech support and keeping up morale.

“Our biggest technical challenges come from a lack of education and a lack of the correct tools to diagnose the problems we find,” says Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Bazer, who maintains network infrastructure for N2KL. “We research online, call other techs or anyone in the world to help us figure out the answers to our questions. All in all, we just work at our problems until we figure them out.”

Base Realities

The base was designed to accommodate one battalion, or 850 people, and now houses about 2,500 troops. When Bazer arrived in May of last year, the base’s computer networks operated on Category 5 cables only. Communication was restricted to 100 meters from any switch. The tech team has since laid fiber-optic cable, which allows transmission over longer distances and at higher data rates. “We have expanded our network from under a kilometer to just over two miles from the actual servers that provide users with network access,” Bazer says.

So far, the Charlie Company techs have installed more than 10 miles of fiber-optic cabling, providing secure and nonsecure Internet connnections; four miles of copper wire to support redundant telephone networks; 100 managed switches; 50 servers and 500 Voice over Internet Protocol phones. Their goal is “to be in a position to easily support any customer requirement with 100 percent reliable communications at a moment’s notice,” Bazer says.

“The troops need e-mail and phone and chat access every day. They rely on this more than radio. And now our radio communication can be pushed over the network. There’s no end to how important this is,” he says.

These upgrades affect not only day-to-day operations but combat capabilities. “The better, more reliable the communication, the easier it is for commanders to see what’s going on,” Bazer explains. “Command and control needs to have real-time response. They can’t be in the battle space, so they need to know what’s happening, to the second. If it takes two hours for critical information to get to the soldiers, the results could be disastrous. These improvements enable our commanders to make decisions and potentially save lives.”

Maintaining a balance between security and operations is the most difficult part of his job, Bazer says.

“We went to our Intelligence Section and had them draft up a security policy to help guide us on the physical parts of the network,” he says. “We then make all new installations within those guidelines.”

Bigger Campaign

The telecommunications overhaul is part of a larger expansion effort started by the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, which officially handed off control to the 173rd ABCT in June 2007. This effort includes building and expanding permanent structures, upgrading plumbing and electricity and other base infrastructure.

“We’ve added to the job that the 10th Mountain Division did while they were here,” says Pfc. Tiffany L. Leong, a cable-systems installer. “When we got here, this FOB was lacking so much. Since the first day, we’ve been working constantly to get everyone set up. We’ve done a lot since we got here.” Leong makes and maintains all the CAT5 cables and installs them throughout the base, providing every workstation with Internet access.

The Army is also helping local Afghans construct roads, schools and telecommunications infrastructure, among other projects, through Provincial Reconstruction Teams. These are special military units made up of soldiers and civilians whose mission it is to help facilitate reconstruction and economic development. There are four PRTs connected to FOB Fenty. Bazer and his team are in the process of building them a microwave system.

“Before they had a satellite terminal,” he says. “They were pulling off of our tactical network, which was stretched beyond any imaginable use. To alleviate the strain, we developed a microwave system.”

So far, systems are up and running at PRTs in Torkham, which is the data-crossing point in the Khyber Pass and in Nangarhar Province. Torkham is a border town straddling Afghanistan and the tribal area of Pakistan. It is the busiest entry point between the two countries and a strategically important location for the U.S. military.

The military has hired many Afghan civilians to work on these projects, providing not only economic opportunities but also a way to foster better relations, says Sgt. Christopher Masterson, who is in charge of installing fiber-optic cable for the base.

“It’s given them a chance to experience American culture and us a chance to experience theirs,” he says. “That’s what I liked the most out here — that and the sense of fulfillment I got when the primary fiber ring was completed. I now have personal experience to draw on should I ever come back to this country. That can only help me the next time any situation arises with U.S. coalition forces and the local populace.”

Masterson says completing the primary fiber ring, which runs the circumference of the base, was hard work, and no one expected him and his team to complete the project during the course of their deployment. His biggest obstacles? Weather and terrain.

“It’s hard labor,” he says. “I hate to put it that way, but we have some limited equipment, and there are only a few of us doing it — four people on a team. We’re digging trenches, using a pick ax and shovel to break the soil up to allow a conduit for cable to run through.”

And most of the work was done in the summer, when temperatures soar to nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alert to Danger

In addition to the elements, the threat of violence is a potential obstacle, but it doesn’t stand in the way of getting the job done, according to Staff Sgt. Sang Nguyen, a joint network node operator.

“Being in a war zone is dangerous,” he says. “But this is one of the few jobs that requires constant supervision, so we don’t really go out on combat missions since our job is highly skilled. But we still know that danger is present. We work every day knowing that we provide the communications needed to carry out combat and intelligence missions.”

Most of the fighting takes place in the mountains along the country’s border with Pakistan, about 200 miles from Jalalabad. The area, a reported base for Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents, is often cited as a likely hideout of Osama bin Laden.

Tech workers stay on or near the base and have yet to find themselves in life-threatening situations, Leong says. “The scariest thing that happened while I was running lines was when some local kids outside the perimeter were throwing rocks at us. We didn’t know if they were trying to get our attention or trying to hurt us, and we weren’t sure if the rocks were the only things they were going to throw.”

Eventually, Afghanistan National Security Force guards stepped in and shooed the kids away.

“This is one of the thankless jobs of the Army,” Leong says. “Don’t get me wrong; we get praised by our superiors and colleagues, but there are people out there who think that the Internet and phones work as soon as you plug them in. They are so used to having these capabilities that when it starts to slow down they want to know what’s wrong with it. Sometimes it’s just slow, just like at home.”