Brigadier Alan Hill enabling frontline intelligence

I’m stood in front of a bank of screens loaded with data as a team of professionals huddle around laptops and to my right a whiteboard depicts the storage area network in use. All of a sudden the sound of an explosion bursts around us, a man dives onto the floor, my sphincter clenches and I no doubt tremble a little; the CIO next to me doesn’t flinch. The screens we are looking at run footage from unmanned aircraft and display advanced 3D maps. The laptops are coated with a veneer of gritty dust while the professionals and the CIO are all in battle fatigues. This really is frontline information technology and Brigadier Alan Hill is the British Army’s deputy CIO.

Hill and I are deep inside Salisbury Plain, the Ministry of Defence training area in Wiltshire, at a replica of a forward operating base camp that the infantry and signallers I’m meeting are using to train for deployment in Afghanistan later this month. During the course of the day it becomes clear that today’s British Army marches not on its stomach, but on information. From Brigadier Hill down to the impressive 23-year-old section commanders, information is key to what they do and everyone has an interest in it. Hill and the Army have allowed me to speak freely to troops as they prepare for frontline operations.

“An incoming mortar is an information problem as well as a lethal threat,” Hill says as I gather my wits. Within seconds of one exploding, soldiers on the ground will be listening intently to the Bowman radio system they use to communicate with fellow soldiers and commanders, while others will be using JChat, the Army’s collaboration tool, and information may also be shared with other elements of the force using other bespoke incident-reporting applications.

High-end security cameras will look for the mortar firing point, while others will analyse patrol data to determine whether a patrol route has been overused, thereby creating a pattern that makes it easier for insurgents to attack.

An incoming mortar, it turns out, is not an opportunity for lots of shouting and the wild firing of machine guns; instead, as Hill explains, it is the trigger for a business process. In the Army, a ‘mission thread’ is a business process as everyone involved uses the information systems available to deliver an outcome – peace and safety.

Information accuracy is important for the section leaders, who are wearing between 35kg and 65kg of body armour and toting a Bergen backpack of essential gear, not to mention carrying a gun. The section leaders have two radios, one for soldier-to-soldier contact and another to communicate with their commanders. The levels of concentration, leadership and incisive decision-making that are required – perhaps literally under fire – make good information an equally essential piece of equipment.

“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.”

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