Royal Air Force (RAF) engineer Sue Gray was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal in February, making her a three-star commander and the most senior female military officer in the British Armed Forces. Berenice Baker talks to Gray about her career in the RAF and the importance of inspiring girls and young women into engineering careers.
// Harry Lye:
What’s your experience in defence, and what led you to the communications business?
// Neil Fraser:
I spent 26 years in the British Army, from 87 to about 2013. I've led organisations in defence of various sizes, of about 600 strong, but particularly relevant to my role in NSSLGlobal is my satellite communications delivery experience, and my time as a customer and deliverer of satcom.
Primarily the most relevant experience is my three Afghan tours, ranging from 2001 to 2008 and 2009, so quite a lot of time seeing the growth of satcom on operations, and then I was lucky enough to go and run the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) Skynet team.
Skynet is the delivery of UK Satcom for the MOD and it's a combination of both military capability and commercial Satcom, the bulk of the latter delivered by NSSLGlobal. I ran the MOD team for three years through to mid-2012 which was a critical period for defence with operations in Libya, and changes to the Afghan lay down. I left the military in late 2013, and spent six years with Viasat and grew their UK presence before joining NSSLGlobal.
How have advancements in space and communications technologies changed the way the armed forces work?
Fundamentally communications have always been critically important to the military and there are two main areas.
One is in demand, and by that I mean the actual demand for growth of bandwidth. And that's in two ways. One is the number of people and places needing access to a satellite communications network. And the second is the growth in that access. If you take the Afghan experience, for example, my three tours actually illustrate that quite nicely.
I was on the first aircraft to land at Kabul airfield after 9-11, with 16 Air Assault Brigade, and the UK was a framework nation for setting up in Kabul. So in 2001-2 we had links back to the UK, at maybe 2 megabits per second (Mbps). So, what does that mean? We had a few terminals that could do what I would call “proper computing” and then down to the battlegroups, we were delivering 512 kilobits per second (Kbps) that was very, very basic email and attachments.
By the time we got to 2008-9, seven or eight years later, and had established a firm presence across Helmand province, every major UK base, every Forward Operating Base, and that's probably groups of 100 people or so commanded by a Major, was being delivered broadband communications with maybe 4-8 Mbps.
So that's enabling proper computing to be delivered to a company in a base, allowing them to access full-motion video, live intelligence products or other operational information and for the coalition that is fundamentally important. Multiple nations operating on a federated network but allowing a common single IT infrastructure being able to pass that data around right to the very front edge has been really important. For the tactical edge and mobile users, most forces would also utilise UHF satcom which was fundamentally important to augment combat radio networks.
So that appetite for proper communications, and by that I mean broadband right at the forward edge including for welfare communications, was something that characterised the Afghan experience, and delivering it was not without challenges.
The second change is in the new generation of UK warfighting platforms. So, if you take Carrier Strike, the F-35 going aboard the Queen Elizabeth class that platform requires a lot more bandwidth. That's demand growth.
The second word I would use is 'expectation'. I think people are so used to now being connected at work and when they're travelling around with network connectivity, they expect it. Senior people expect that, and junior people expect that. That expectation might not translate into formal funded requirements, but it's certainly an expectation that people can be connected wherever they are, and for defence users and many others operating away from a rich fixed network, satellite plays a fundamental role.
How important is maintaining quick communications to gaining ‘information advantage’?
Whether it's trying to find a hilltop to use a telescope to go to view the battlefield in front of you and see who are in red coats and people in blue coats, or putting people in aircraft and having space-based sensors, trying to have some kind of advantage in terms of the way you gather and process information is a fundamental military requirement.
I think 'information advantage' is more than a buzzword. It's a recognition that people now understand the way the information has changed and the scale and speed of that information. Think the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, machine learning; people throw these words out, but it's about the scale. And the way information is now embedded into every single bit of the infrastructure means that to take it seriously is now far more than just getting on a hilltop or applying a bit of technology – it requires a cultural shift.
The exponential growth in capability and computing capability, therefore, needs a network that can sustain that. The other recognition, and people talk about this ‘at the top of the shop’ and there are various forums discussing this, is that the military are spending taxpayers’ money, and they are an arm of government.
Defence acquisition processes have to make sure things are secure and correctly funded and supported through life. Our adversaries aren't necessarily constrained by that. You'll see these issues where the state and non-state actors will use social media or they'll use applications, or they'll use commercial technology, and they actually get potentially ahead of the military in that OODA [observe–orient–decide–act] loop or decision cycle.
I think there's a recognition that the military has to do a little bit of thinking about how they're going to keep pace with the latest trends, but also make sure that we're not taking on technology that is not going to be sustainable.
What does NSSLGlobal do in relation to these developments?
NSSLGlobal has been doing communications for defence for many, many years. In the UK we started in 1982, doing communications for the Royal Navy as they chugged down to the Falklands, that was the first use of INMARSAT for the Royal Navy delivered by NSSL.
In the mid-90s, much of my generation spent a lot of time in the Balkans and NSSL were delivering satellite solutions there. We have a fairly significant contract as part of the Skynet 5 private finance initiative. We are tucked into that programme as the commercial satellite services provider to defence. That ranges from narrow-band type solutions to VSAT solutions.
Every navy ship has got something from NSSLGlobal on it delivering communications on everything, from Queen Elizabeth carrier to the new offshore patrol vessels.
Increasingly we deliver hybrid solutions, so some of the smaller newer vessels have got solutions that are not just satellite, but are LTE as well and they can switch between networks easily. We do the ship alongside service so as a naval ship comes into port it connects into the networks and we provide that to access their services without using satcom bandwidth
For the land domain, we do some deployable systems that are used now to enable computing and secure telephony in small, easily deployable form factors for the army and also used by the RAF and Royal Marines.
We're very much woven into the delivery model now in the UK and we do a significant amount for several defence organisations across Europe where, again, we have both long-standing and new business relationships. We recently won a major satellite services contract with the German Armed Forces, which includes a significant number of land vehicles.
Alongside that, we are one of the major maritime communications providers, with around 4,000 vessels globally using our broadband communications. Everything from crew communications, welfare communications, TV content, all those things.
We have a really broad portfolio and increasingly are working with defence to see how that portfolio can be best applied. We have been doing that as part of the response to Covid-19, to meet some short-notice defence requirements, which our engineers have worked rapidly on to deliver solutions. NSSLGlobal prides itself in really understanding the customer and what they are trying to achieve.