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Tech support goes to war

Think you have problems when your computer crashes? Imagine being in the middle of a war zone. As the military’s reliance on high-tech equipment increases, so does its reliance on tech-support specialists.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When radioman Colum Keating had equipment problems on his nuclear fast-attack submarine in the 1970s, he fixed them himself or suffered the consequences. But that self-help approach is becoming more difficult as gear grows more technologically complex.

“THE TECHNOLOGY HAS gone triple, quadruple what it was,” said Keating, a former Navy petty officer, second class, who is now retired from the military.

So soldiers now turn to tech-support specialists, who go out on the battlefield, monitor and follow the missiles or electronics aboard ships or answer questions by telephone from across the globe.

Lockheed Martin Corp. sends technical representatives, or “tech reps,” to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, or other bases to help with the defense contractor’s TADS night-vision sensor used in U.S. Apache attack helicopters. When the choppers move out, so do the tech reps, who follow the equipment wherever it goes.

“You need someone there to ensure the readiness of the system, to ensure that it’s ready to fight and perform,” said Lockheed spokesman Tom Jurkowsky.

Raytheon Co., the prime system contractor for the Patriot PAC-3 missiles, said it has a contractor with every PAC-3 unit that is fielded. PAC-3 missiles use hit-to-kill technology to destroy their targets.

CONTROL, ALT, DELETE Of course, there’s the ever-present computer help desk.

Itronix, a maker of rugged wireless computers and handheld devices for tracking troop and enemy movements, staffs a 24-hour help desk at Spokane, Washington, for its military and civilian customers.

The five-person military help desk receives about two calls a week from its customers in the United States and abroad, said Roger Cresswell, director of services market for Itronix.

The company, with locations in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Asia, also trains at least one person from every military unit that carries its GoBook Max or GoBook II wireless computers in basic repairs, such as swapping hard drives or antenna replacement.

If field technicians can’t fix the problem, they swap the computers, which use a Windows-based operating system, for new ones at a restocking location.

Common office tech support, which helps with recalcitrant computers, is much maligned in the United States, sometimes criticized for being slow or using too many technical terms. But military personnel say they greet their tech reps with relief and gratitude.

“It’s a very arduous job,” said Jack “Tiny” McLaughlin, a former lieutenant commander for the U.S. Navy, who flew United Technologies Corp. Seahawk helicopters and relied on tech reps for component repairs. “They had to work with the enlisted guys who did the work as well as the officers who oversaw it. They worked 12-hour days and were out for six months continuously.”

MOST HAVE MILITARY BACKGROUNDS While some tech reps are civilians who volunteer to follow the products to a variety of locations, most have military backgrounds and are accustomed to spending months away from home.

Tech reps generally are accepted by the enlisted personnel, but those who order and supply replacements for broken equipment often attract the ire of soldiers on the battlefield.

“The supply system might not have it stock, or they’d only keep one part in supply and we break two,” McLaughlin said.

Others concurred.

“If we had problems with something that was stuck or jammed, we’d kick it or hit it and then take it back,” said a former soldier who declined to be identified. “But then they’d say they didn’t have a replacement and you’d have to spend several days without the equipment you needed, or carrying broken equipment around.”

And sometimes, there are things that even the most experienced tech reps can’t help.

Once out on patrol, Keating and his crew heard a persistent rattling on board their submarine. No one could locate the source or the cause, so the boat returned to Guam for repairs.

The problem: a plastic coffee cup bouncing around in one of its control devices.

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