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Britain's military techies honoured with new combat IT awards

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Military techies have been honoured for the first time in an awards ceremony for British soldiers that provide the IT infrastructure necessary to modern warfare and peacekeeping missions.

Three members of the Royal Corps of Signals were honoured at the event, hosted by London's Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, including Sergeant Lian Froggett, Corporal Martin Hempstock and another winner, understood to be working with Special Forces, who asked not to be named.

Soldiers from the Royal Signals have to drop into war zones and disaster-struck areas which are suffering from a lack of basic utilities, and set up working communications networks that let a British operation run smoothly.

Ex warrant-officer Crawford Samuel, who recently retired from the most senior non-commissioned IT job in the British Army (as Corps Foreman of Signals IS) said that their work was just the same as any IT professional, just under slightly different circumstances.

"Just like a back office staff supporting the front office staff, we're doing exactly that same sort of thing," he told The Register, "just in a more hostile environment!"

"In temperatures of 50 degrees with very little air-conditioning, very dusty and sandy, power that can fail at the drop of a hat even when you put in multiple generators, multiple UPSs and backup systems.

"No system is foolproof and you can test and test and test and it will be just one of things where it all goes wrong at the same time," he said.

He remembered a setup during a peacekeeping mission where his team deployed in a bombed out building to set up the network. Once all the equipment was set up, Samuel felt he had time for a run so set off for some strenuous downtime. He was only a half hour out when his pager went off and he had to turn around and head back.

When he got back, he went straight down to the servers in the basement - which were now waist-high in water. The engineers who had checked the building for safety had noticed holes in the foundations in the basement, which they understandably poured concrete into to make sure the building would stay up. Unfortunately, that caused pressure on the water pipes and they burst, flooding the basement where Samuel's team had carefully rigged up a network.

It took many hours of work with hairdryers to get the whole thing going again, since there were no spares.

Networking under fire

But that sort of thing pales in comparison to working in precarious positions in war zones, Samuel said.

"The young soldiers that they have nowadays in the Royal Signals, they are actually embedded with the patrols so they are going into patrol bases 200m from the enemy setting up LANs in that small dusty compound for the infantry staff to be able to do their job, and coming under enemy fire on a daily basis. They are really in the thick of it, these young guys," he said.

And Royal Signals soldiers in Afghanistan have to worry about a range of dangers from IEDs and mortars to suicide bombers.

That's why where the network sets up is so important, and that's decided at the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) where intelligence and planning pool their resources to analyse where there'll be power and real estate and where the threats are.

"If you look at Camp Bastion, that wasn't where we went into first of all in Afghanistan, but it's in the middle of the desert, there's nothing around it for 50km so nobody's going to attack. And because movement in Afghanistan is so dangerous with the IED threat, you're moving around by helicopter, all of that kind of planning is done by the staff," Samuel explained.

Samuel was in the Army for 24 years, from the age of 16, and went into the Royal Signals at the start, so he was working in military IT when it was bags of floppy discs and less-than-perfect giant satellite phones.

His first post was in Germany working on Wavell, a battlefield data processing system, before posting to Northern Ireland to work on the early days of vehicle number plate recognition systems. There they also had a team for PC repair, which Samuel switched into.

"[I] spent a year building computers with floppy discs - I think it was 27 floppy discs and a three hour build for Office - so doing a lot of things like that!"

He then moved to 30 Signal Regiment, which dealt with global disaster management, disaster relief and conflict zones.

"You'd be on a permanent six hour notice to move. If you were paged, you'd jump on a plane with all your equipment, your Land Rover, satellite communications and all your IT equipment and you'd deploy to that country and provide communications and IT for the staff," he said.

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