In Afghanistan, satellite capacity provides a lifeline

As U.S. forces surged into Afghanistan in 2010, the spike in activity threatened to overwhelm available Army satellite communications. The increase also squeezed the Army’s supply lines as network preference was given to communications that directly supported combat operations over logistics. But an effort by several Army organizations has helped to dramatically improve satellite, voice and data communications to deployed units.

The largest Army satellite communications system in the region is the Combat Service Support Satellite (CSS SATCOM). The network consists of more than 3,600 very-small-aperture terminals — about 500 of which  provide direct support to forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — and some 40,000 CSS Automated Information System Interface wireless network modules. Despite its size, the network was quickly overwhelmed by the additional units streaming into the theater.


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To remedy the crunch, the Army launched a program to improve communications in the region. The effort involved an extended Ku-band project focused on VSATs as well as a plan to extend voice-over-IP and data capability over CAISI wireless networks, said Lt. Col. Anthony Sanchez, product manager with the Defense Wide Transmission System.  Over the course of several months in 2010, the CSS SATCOM team developed and deployed a solution to meet the Army’s need for additional satellite bandwidth in the region.

Improving satcom

To provide additional satellite connectivity, the project team chose an underused commercial satellite operating in the extended Ku commercial band known as W-6. “It aligned roughly with the surge,” Sanchez said. “You had a significant increase in forces, a significant increase in demand, and no more supply.” 

The team saw this as an opportunity to retrofit terminals in Afghanistan and tap into the extended Ku segment. To get started, it met to determine what services and equipment were commercially available. The team devised a package consisting of hardware, a satellite/space segment, teleports, and data run over commercial fiber lines monitored by commercial network operations. 

“Virtually everything we do is a commercial-based solution,” Sanchez said. “We have the advantage of being able to look at the marketplace, identify what we think is the best solution and then pursue that and deliver that capability to the Army,” Sanchez said. Going through commercial routes accelerated his office’s response time to the service’s needs.

To take advantage of extended Ku-band communications, which operate in the 13.75 to 14.5 gigahertz range, new frequency block-up converters had to be selected and acquired. The Army’s standard 4-watt BUCs operated in the 14.00 to 14.5 gigahertz range, which was overwhelmed. CSS SATCOM team engineers quickly developed and carried out a plan to procure, test and deploy 160 6-watt extended Ku-band BUCs to Afghanistan.

The CSS SATCOM team looked at a number of solutions capable of accessing the extended Ku-band frequency range. But costs had to be kept to a minimum and the equipment had to be simple to field and use. After considering a number of vendor products, an extended-range BUC manufactured by Actox was selected as part of a field retrofit kit, said Bill Liers, a senior team satcom engineer.

A key consideration in developing the system was to limit the impact on the warfighers using it. The engineers made sure that the new equipment would not interfere with solders’ main duties by making it highly automated and self-sufficient, which meant that no support personnel were required on-site.

To do so, the team worked with engineers to move communications to W-6 from SESAT 2, another satellite providing communications services for forces in the region. Their goal was to provide three VSATs on W-6 for every one VSAT on SESAT 2, said CSS SATCOM program support specialist Mycra Pinckney.

From there, the team worked at installing the upgraded BUCs and transitioning VSATs from SESAT to the W-6 network. Pinckney noted that about 15 percent of the forces still need to upgrade to the 6-watt BUC, but exactly when they receive the equipment will depend on unit availability.

The team also worked with the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Defense Information Technology Contracting Organization to acquire the new BUCs. Teamwork between the Army organizations, vendors and DOD were crucial to the effort. “We all worked together to make that happen,” said team satellite communications engineer Darrell Anderson.

Deploying the 6-watt BUCs increased CSS SATCOM’s Afghanistan network capacity from 4.75 megabits/sec. to 20.03 megabits/sec. — a 248 percent increase, Army officials said. The new equipment increased maximum upload speeds for individual CSS VSATs from 290 kilobits/sec. to 476 kilobits/sec. — a 64 percent increase per unit.

The extended Ku-band BUCs also allowed the CSS SATCOM team to purchase bandwidth in the extended Ku-band segment, which cost 25 percent less than standard Ku-band BUCs for the same capacity. The result was that soldiers operating in the most remote areas of Afghanistan now have enough bandwidth to perform their missions, Army officials said.

Logistics support 

The second part of the CSS SATCOM team’s work was to provide Army logistics units, including the 401st Army Field Support Brigade, with wireless voice and data connectivity over the CAISI network. Supporting this unit, which operated in an austere region of Afghanistan, required automated equipment that could be operated by soldiers with little required training.

The team picked the CAISI bridge module, a radio module access point designed for rapid field deployment. At the heart of the module is a Fortress ES530 secure wireless access bridge that allows networking in areas with no available infrastructure. The unit functions as a rugged access point, switch, wireless bridge and security gateway.

Certified to meet the Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 requirements, the CBMs are capable of point-to-point communications over distances up to 32 miles and local-area communications over 2 square miles and are able to support wireless mesh networking. Each CBM also provides connectivity for CSS systems in the network, passing data through the radios to its final destination.

Every unit in the 401st has an area of operation covered by a CBM serving as a root node controlling the local-area network and directing traffic between other radios in the network. Each CBM is connected, either directly or indirectly, back to the root node. The root nodes in turn link to a CSS VSAT or multimedia communications system.

Deployed units are also issued a kit containing equipment for mobile component configuration. This is redundant gear that can be used as stand-alone supplementary equipment, or to extend the capabilities of the CBM network. Team officials  noted that the wireless networking equipment provides both voice and data services to locations across Afghanistan that could not be serviced by other means of communication.

The CSS SATCOM team also has a Southwest Asia help desk located in Kuwait as well as 10 field support representatives in Afghanistan able to respond to and address problems. Although the program does not have key performance parameters, Sanchez said that one of the major challenges of the project has been to provide a solution that non-expert users can set up and operate.

A four-day training course is used to teach troops to set up and manage the wireless network, Sanchez said. After the training, the equipment is signed over to the unit. “It is owned and operated by soldiers whose primary responsibility is logistics," he said. "They are not trained as satcom engineers, they’re not trained as wireless network engineers — it becomes an additional duty for them."

Even so, the VSAT terminal equipment can be set up and ready in 20 minutes while the wireless nodes can be set up simultaneously. “Twenty minutes after the pallets hit the ground, the VSAT terminals can be up and conduct their initial handshake with the network,” Sanchez said.

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