Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, 0800 hours. Inside the perimeter of the ultra-secure compound on the NATO base, Stéphane makes his way to the meeting room, where he’s greeted by the smell of hot coffee. Personnel from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are here to brief him on the day’s missions.
Today, a French unit is due to move out to Kandahar in the south of the country, where Canadian forces are stationed. As usual, it’s a risky operation and keeping the channels of communication open will be vital.
No less than 42 nations operate in Afghanistan under NATO command. Each has its own communication network, but needs to be able to stay in touch seamlessly with everyone else, anywhere in the country, at any time. These forces need communication capabilities that are capable, secure and always available.
That’s where Stéphane and the other experts on the CISAF project come in. They’re not soldiers — they’re specialists in IT network security. CISAF (Communication and Infrastructure System for ISAF) is a turnkey solution developed by Thales to guarantee that all these communication networks operate and interact as they should, with no disruption to services. And thanks to the know-how of these engineers, network availability is an impressive 99.98%, or just 6 minutes of downtime per access point per month.
Over the last 11 years, Thales has built up valuable know-how and progressively scaled up its solution to meet the expanding requirements of coalition forces in the field. The Thales logistics hub is an integral part of the solution and it’s plays a crucial role in guaranteeing service continuity. The logistics hub in Kabul holds an inventory of some 500,000 service parts. The French Army, which has its own logistics base, has signed a contract with Thales to provide an equivalent service for seven months to meet a sudden increase in hardware requirements.
But the local logistics hub is only part of the story. In Kabul, all networks are managed from the Afghanistan Mission Network Operations Centre (AMNOC), where the Thales teams supervise the overall communication infrastructure to ensure service availability across all coalition access points. To anticipate potential issues and make data backups, which would be vital in the event of a major problem at the Kabul centre, Thales has built an exact replica of the AMNOC centre in Lambersart, near Lille in France. This is where software updates are tested, for example, before they’re installed at Kabul.
It’s where Stéphane trained for the assignment before shipping out to Afghanistan and where he'll return once his assignment is complete. The Thales teams rotate between locations: six weeks in Afghanistan, then six weeks back in France. In Kabul, two teams do alternate shifts to ensure 24/7 continuity of service, and a third team operates in France.
The meeting at the Thales compound is short and to the point. Stéphane is tasked with setting up a Thales portable manpack telecommunication solution for the French soldiers. He configures the kit with meticulous attention to detail. The soldiers need to be able to make voice calls and send messages, imagery and video to each other and the AMNOC centre at any time, especially when critical decisions have to be made, all with the highest levels of security. He’ll also be responsible for ‘wiping’ the system when they get back so there’s no trace of any communication left on the system.
Stéphane is due to fly back to France tomorrow. What he’ll remember most is the bond that forms in the theatre of operations and the sense of shared commitment and solidarity between these men and women on the other side of the world, whose lives depend on each other — and sometimes also on the know-how of a telecoms engineer.