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Army's £114m battle-comms net not up to Afghan demands

Israeli off-the-shelf replacements rushed in

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Updated British forces deployed in Afghanistan have been forced to beef up a hundred-million-pound military communications network using commercial equipment ordered from Israel.

The Cormorant system, ordered to replace the various legacy and ad-hoc off the shelf comms systems formerly used by the UK's rapid-deployment forces, was built by EADS Wales at a cost of £114m. It uses Asynchronous Transfer Mode over radio to handle both voice and data communications, and is intended to provide links between fixed bases and headquarters in a theatre of operations. Cormorant was supposed to come into service from 2002, but delays hit the project and in fact it was not declared operational until December 2004.

At the time, the government defence-procurement minister hailed the new kit as a triumph of Welsh technology, saying: "Cormorant will see the introduction of a state-of-the-art communications system that is light, flexible and secure. I am also delighted that the Cormorant project is excellent news for British industry, creating or sustaining over 330 jobs in the UK, many in South Wales."

Cormorant is in service now in Afghanistan, linking up various British bases on the ground in Helmand province. However its reputation in service has not lived up to its glowing billing, and it seems that UK commanders in Afghanistan have been forced to supplement it.

Last week, Israeli communications firm RADWIN was pleased to announce that the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) had selected it to provide its RADWIN 2000 wireless voice-and-data equipment to link up British bases in Afghanistan, at an undisclosed cost. The deal was delivered in cooperation with UK partner Horsebridge Network Systems.

“The MoD had a vital need for an efficient, robust solution," said Geoff Smith of Horsebridge. "We knew that RADWIN’s links were ideal for this project. Extremely fast, compact, robust and simple to deploy, the RADWIN 2000 systems are up and running in less than an hour."

“We are glad to have teamed with Horsebridge to provide the MoD with a carrier-grade affordable solution that significantly improves the capacity and capability of their existing network whilst significantly expanding the previously limited bandwidth," added Roni Weinberg of RADWIN.

"We are proud that our solutions met the rigorous performance and quality demands.”

"RADWIN’s systems meet our requirements, without additional modification or equipment," stated Major Lee Hawkes of the British Army.

The Reg asked the MoD why it had been necessary to buy new equipment to provide the necessary links between fixed bases in a combat theatre - the very task for which Cormorant was expensively procured only a few years ago (and Cormorant is expected to remain in service until 2022 at least). A ministry spokesperson supplied us with this statement:

There was an operational requirement to increase the capacity of the Cormorant radio links between major UK bases in Afghanistan. We are using some additional RADWIN systems as well as providing upgrades to the systems that have already been deployed. It is part of a coherent solution currently deployed by MOD in theatre. It complements that equipment and does not overlap or duplicate it.

In other words Cormorant is functioning, but it just isn't able to carry the amount of information that British commanders in Afghanistan require in order to fight the war.

It seems hard to imagine any war which would require less comms than Afghanistan, and one could plausibly suggest scenarios which would be a lot more demanding. Thus it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that the £114m Cormorant system is simply not up to the job for which it was designed. ®

Update

Two days after we filed this story, the BBC jumped in, saying "MoD withdraws £114m comms system" - rather implying that Cormorant is actually being taken out of service, and that we'd been lied to.

In fact, what's happening according to MoD spokespeople is that much of Cormorant is coming home from Afghanistan but remaining in service as the JRRF's deployment kit for any future contingency. Meanwhile Radwin and other gear will provide the backbone in Afghanistan. The Beeb actually kind of admit this by saying that Cormorant "has been withdrawn by the Ministry of Defence from front-line service" - though the MoD argue that in fact it is still in front-line service and will remain so. Conveniently, however, it will now serve away from Afghanistan and the much better-performing and much cheaper Radwin gear will do the job there.

We're sure the Beeb tech guys noticed the Radwin announcement (and understood its implications) on their own, without benefit of our report two days earlier. That'll be why they didn't mention us or even say thanks.

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