Rachel Scammell spent two years working in Support to Operations (S2O) at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) where she was involved in the recruitment, training, deployment and support of Scientific Advisors in Afghanistan. This included undertaking the role of Reachback Manager. Rachel has now completed her secondment with S2O and has returned to work as a scientist within a different department of Dstl.
Dstl scientists and analysts are deployed alongside their military colleagues to provide rapid advice and support to headquarters in Afghanistan. Questions they get asked can vary from “how well are our troops protected against a new threat?” to “how do we stop vehicles trying to drive the wrong way into Camp Bastion?” and even “what is the optimal way to arrange desks in the headquarters for effective working?”
Each member of Dstl staff in Afghanistan takes with them a level of specialist technical knowledge and training, depending on their background. However, none are experts in everything and they are often asked questions that they cannot answer themselves.
As Reachback Manager, my job was to provide Dstl’s deployed scientists and analysts with support in just this instance. Far from being a fountain of all knowledge myself, I made links between our staff in Afghanistan and those with the knowledge or data to help them: a process called reachback. Experts can come from within Dstl, MOD, wider Government, industry or academia, in the UK and sometimes internationally.
On a normal day, I would coordinate responses to around eighteen reachback questions. However, this number could sometimes exceed thirty concurrent requests. As all reachback tasks are given the highest priority because they directly support operations, a lot of multi-tasking was required!
No two days were the same and my role involved pulling information together from experts across Dstl (and more widely) and sending the responses to our staff in Afghanistan by their specified deadline. Deadlines generally range from only an hour or two up to a month.
I took the opportunity to visit Afghanistan in August last year as part of a review of the scientific support that Dstl provide on operations. This involved meeting many of the military personnel who benefitted from Dstl’s advice through the reachback process. This was a fantastic opportunity to see the true impact of our work.
My job in Support to Operations was incredibly rewarding, as I played a part in all of the brilliant, vitally important work that Dstl deployees do in Afghanistan to support current operations. However it is the dedication and responsiveness of the experts in the UK, providing their specialist advice that is at the heart of making reachback a success and having a true impact on operations.