AV Answers The Call Of Duty
Systems integrator provides a three-star response to a high level command & control challenge.
The 20-foot-long command & control facility, designed especially for use in Iraq, relies on Altinex gear for video switching and RGB Spectrum Dual View XL and QuadView XL video processors for windowing and other effects. AMX control systems are driven by one 7-inch and one 12-inch touchscreen control panel.
CHALLENGE: Support vital decision-making for an entire Army Corps in a single small, mobile facility.
SOLUTION: Design a special, truck- transportable command & control shelter incorporating flexible data processing and display capabilities — and send personnel overseas to staff it.
A TEAM OF TECHNICIANS from Azbell Electronics, based in Fort Hood, TX, is on active duty in Iraq this year, providing command & control support to the United States Army’s 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), a major subordinate command of the Army’s III Corps.
It was Azbell’s fourth deployment overseas and once again the team is making use of a mobile command & control shelter the company has developed especially for combat support applications.
For Azbell Vice President of Business Development Barry Crum, sending company people to a combat zone for a year is a costly and inconvenient proposition, but sends an important message.
“One of the things we tell our government customers is that we’re not only going to be here to support them in peacetime, but when they’re deployed in harm’s way, we’re willing to stand on the battlefield with them,” Crum says.
“In harm’s way” is turning out to be much more than a common expression for civilian contractor personnel in Iraq. Reuters has recently reported that official U.S. government data indicate some 650 contractor personnel had been killed in Iraq as of the end of September.
Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the region, also conducted a census recently that revealed some 100,000 contractor personnel are working in Iraq, alongside a military force numbering about 140,000. These contractor personnel range from security specialists to cooks and mechanics. Although a precise breakdown isn’t available, IT experts and technicians make up a significant component of the non-uniformed force.
Seven Azbell employees are working in Iraq this time around. They share quarters, mess halls, and other working conditions with their military colleagues.
“They sign up for a year,” Crum says. “They remain on our payroll, but are subject to the rules and regulations pertaining to contractors on the battlefield.”
A Portable Solution
Azbell also developed the 20-foot-long command & control facility especially for use in Iraq. Transported on a truck bed, it contains permanently rack-mounted gear for audio, video, teleconferencing, and communications, along with its own power, lighting, and environmental controls.
Given an electrical power supply and adequate network connectivity, the shelter can be assembled and operational in as little as 30 minutes, Azbell says. It’s all designed to provide communications support for a multinational force at the “three star” command level, Crum says.
The shelter itself, along with three server stacks, network routers and switches, and an environmental control system, were furnished by the government. Azbell spent an additional $1.3 million to plan, design, engineer, fabricate, modify, and equip the shelter.
“Although we’ve built similar kinds of systems before, this was by far our most challenging,” Crum says.
The project presented two major challenges, Crum added. First was the sheer size of the integration. “There’s a great deal of equipment tied together here,” Crum says. “The center had to offer interoperability with everything we thought might exist in any area where the unit might deploy.”
That includes not only video, audio, and conferencing according to standard U.S. Army practices, but also as these techniques are applied in other service branches and in allied armed forces.
“Not all command & control gear is standardized within the U.S. Army, much less across services,” Crum says. “We designed to meet the certain needs of known requirements in the Army, as well as to anticipate future needs and needs of allies and other services.”
The second challenge was the confined space. “Normally, we can go in and rack the gear, and then make adjustments as we go along,” he adds. “In this case, we had to engineer it all upfront.”
Among the critical information inputs the center must receive, route, analyze, and display are data streams from satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, line-of-sight radio links, fiber optic networks, tactical radio, and commercial radio communications.
Putting It All Together
Keys to the system’s functionality include a new version of the Altinex V-Matrix series switchers “co-designed” by Azbell, Crum says.
The system relies on Altinex gear for video switching and RGB Spectrum Dual View XL and QuadView XL video processors for windowing and other effects. A ClearOne PSR1212 audio switcher/mixer is used to handle digital audio signal processing. AMX control systems are driven by one 7-inch and one 12-inch touchscreen control panel.
CIVILIAN CONTRACTORS: NOT QUITE A SOLDIER
Just where does a civilian contract employee fit into a war zone? With some 650 contractor personnel already on the list of war dead, the distinction would seem to be critical.
And indeed, the United States Defense of Department (DoD) has extensive policies that seek to define and maintain the differences.
“A contractor is neither a combatant nor a non-combatant,” says Barry Crum, vice president of business development at Azbell Electronics, a Fort Hood, TX-based AV systems integrator.
To succeed in this gray area, contractors must follow many rules, set forth in a number of DoD publications.
Among these rules:
- They must carry identification as civilians authorized to accompany the military force. As such, they’re different from the general civilian population, and if captured, they’re entitled to be treated as prisoners of war.
- They may NOT wear military uniforms, except for specific items required for safety or security, such as chemical defense equipment. Contractors must be “visibly distinct” from soldiers.
- They may NOT operate a weapon system or otherwise take an active part in hostile operations.
- Contractor personnel are NOT entitled to be issued a firearm. A contract employee can obtain a sidearm if the employee agrees to it, his or her corporate policy allows it, and the theater commander approves. When these three conditions are met, the employee must pass military sidearm training, and will be issued a weapon only for personal protection.
Contractor personnel, subject to the terms and conditions of their contract, can be positioned anywhere in the theater of operations by the commander. These assignments are governed by METT-TC, meaning they depend on the Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops, Time Available, and Civilian Considerations.
Video communications are monitored on a pair of 19-inch LCD monitors by General Digital, served by a JVC HRXVC18B DVD/VCR combo unit and a Panasonic DMR-EH50S DVD recorder, in addition to the numerous video inputs. Live video streaming is supported by two VBrick 9130–4300 encoders, supporting two video streams each.
Data can be organized on the displays according to the preference of each individual commander. The videowall can simultaneously display up to 64 windows and interact with any brand of video teleconference system. The shelter also offers options to add other types of displays as needed, including 60-inch foldable screen frames for use with projectors.
Audio processing provides noise and echo cancellation integrated with matrix switching so it can be used together with videoconferencing.
The command center also transports its own electric power, because “in a lot of the places we go to, the government power structure isn’t 100 percent functional or 100 percent clean,” Crum says. Diesel-powered generators produce 208-volt, three-phase power which is then “stepped down” and converted into the power supplies required by the electronics.
One of the complexities of designing a system to go into combat is simply that combat tends to happen in awkward places. Military planners hoped to achieve “shock and awe” in the early days of war in Iraq, but Crum says Azbell’s plans for its new mobile command center focused more on “shock and vibe.”
Even before reaching the battlefield, the mobile center was exposed to some potentially rough handling.
“Typically, it would be hauled by truck to a railhead, then go by rail to the docks, then by ship overseas, then to a container area, by truck to the deployment area, then by military truck, and maybe by helicopter,” Crum says. “When you start looking at all the possibilities of how this thing is going to be transported, you have to look at shock and vibe. Even a ship is under constant vibration.”
The command & control facility’s videowall can simultaneously display up to 64 windows and interact with any brand of video teleconference system. The shelter also offers options to add other types of displays as needed, including 60-inch foldable screen frames for use with projectors.
With that in mind, Azbell carefully “ruggedized” all of the delicate electronic gear in the shelter, and designed special “shock-mounted” rack configurations.
“It’s all designed for the unit to be transported over rough terrain without damage,” Crum says.
All of this capability reflects the realities of command & control at the corps level, typically a military unit headed by a three-star general.
“The higher the command level, the more assets have to be switched and the more inputs you have to accommodate,” Crum says.
In addition to the several deployments to Iraq, the Azbell team and its mobile command & control facility were also pressed into service in 2005 as part of the disaster recovery effort following Hurricane Katrina.
John McKeon is an independent consultant and writer based in the Washington D.C. area. He can be reached at [email protected]