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Brigadier Alan Hill enabling frontline intelligence

Mark Chillingworth | Nov. 8, 2013
British Army deputy CIO Alan Hill talks about the transformational challenges of recruiting and leading a digital army that deploys information as a weapon on the battlefield

"Sections need to know that the information is up to date," Hill says, "so we can't have latency."

Dress rehearsal
The Helmand Information and Communication Systems Signal Squadron I'm with on Salisbury Plain are part of the Royal Corps of Signals, They are training for the "daily battle rhythm of life" when they deploy to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. Strong information is key to the training, with all maps and information they use on the plain exactly replicating what they will experience in Helmand. The training is a dress rehearsal rather than a hypothetical training exercise.

"We are exercising the equipment locally before deployment," explains Hill. "Behind all of this is putting information at the heart of the Army and there is an appreciation for that since Afghanistan. The counter-insurgency in Afghanistan demanded a different approach to technology and we had an operational driver in Afghanistan."

The Army vehicles leaving Camp Bastion on patrols now bristle with beacons and aerials. The communications and jamming technology is even more cutting-edge than the weaponry and is all part of the protective armoury.

Putting technology on the frontline is challenging not only because of the remote and troubled locations involved, but also because Army operations are structured very differently from a retailer's or manufacturer's supply chain.

Hill's signal corps is responsible for networks, infrastructure and applications through a chain from brigade headquarters to battlegroup headquarters, then down to the companies and lastly on to the sections out on patrol. That means a "big fat broadband pipe all the way to the battlegroup headquarters" and then reliable wireless communications for the companies and sections.

"We must remain focused on our services. If JChat goes down there is no command and control application. A 30-second outage is big for a bank, but it can be life-threatening for us," Hill says.

A new digital army is rising through the ranks as a result of these demands. All signallers are multiskilled and able to act as infantry. Cross-training is a core belief in the Army's strategy. One of the female signallers I met was also an electrician.

"Everyone has special skills, but everyone has the ability to help everyone," Hill says. "Part of my job is taking people with no IT experience and making them effective." The Army has always set out to skill and shape soldiers with a hierarchical promotion structure and Hill says training raw recruits and then retaining them is still the most effective way to beat a skills shortage.

"Training is positive and it pulls people through the Army," Hill says as he introduces me to a signals foreman (a senior NCO) with a degree in information systems management. "Investing in people is important as they will stay."


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