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Information as weapon: Military IT

By Daintry Duffy

(IDG) -- Whether armed conflicts occur in a once-bucolic countryside, mountainous terrain or urban cityscape, battlefields are confusing places filled with noise, uncertainty and never enough reliable information.

From the rear command positions to the forwardmost points of engagement, decision support suffers from data corruption, knowledge gaps and a crippling lack of timeliness under dangerous, rapidly changing circumstances.

What a modern military wants and needs is dependable real-time intelligence, shared among networked devices that can help dispel the fog that warfare's inevitable chaos generates. To that end, the United States armed forces are now jointly developing a battlefield strategy and sets of systems and mobile equipment that will turn every soldier into both a gatherer and a consumer of up-to-the-instant information about the developing environment.

Welcome to the new world of network-centric warfare, where technology pushes power up to the command level, and information that would normally be received via a radio and plotted on a map can be readily seen with the click of a mouse. This same technology also pushes power down to the battlefield, to the young Marine who can "let slip the dogs of war," Mr. Shakespeare, with the tap of a stylus. INFOCENTER
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In the not-too-distant future, soldiers in combat may use handhelds and minicomputers to connect to a wireless communications network that tracks other units on the ground and military assets in the air and at sea.

This real-time tracking capability could replace not only repetitive and sometimes frantic radio calls to establish a soldier's location but could also turn infantry soldiers into military strategists.

With so much information at their fingertips, soldiers in combat might be able to make field-level decisions about how, where and when to move their troops. For a commander sitting miles away in the high-tech war room of a naval vessel offshore, the wall-size, broad-scale version of a soldier's handheld map will provide a complete tactical picture of the military operation. This eagle-eyed view of the battlefield will give operation commanders highly detailed, real-time situational information to make decisions faster and target their troops and firepower with greater accuracy.

Of course, such a new approach to technology raises a number of technical and cultural questions for the military. What happens when the network that supports these technologies goes down or is hacked? What happens if the technology falls into enemy hands?

Given the power that information has to break down hierarchies, how will the notoriously tradition-bound ranks of the military adapt? Will the brass jealously guard information and the status it provides, or radically change their training methods to build a different kind of soldier? What happens when every squad leader in the field has the same information in front of him that his commander has? Will squad leaders continue to follow orders without question? Or will they demand more input in the decision-making process?

As corporations have discovered, engaging technology to empower employees, disperse control of information and flatten the hierarchy can often bring unexpected -- sometimes even unwelcome -- ripples of change. In testing out these new technologies, the Marines and other armed services are focusing pragmatically on the technology's usability and the challenges of building a strong, secure network. But to their credit, they also are starting to explore the domino effect that these technologies may have on long-standing roles, the new kinds of training that may be required and how the technology will fit into -- and perhaps disrupt -- military culture.


If Navy and Marine honchos' expectations are right, the military's approach to technology is about to change dramatically. In June, some 5,000 military personnel from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps converged on Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base near San Diego, for Kernel Blitz -- two weeks of high-tech war games. The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate that America's armed forces are on the verge of taking a quantum leap in their use of technology and to explore its impact on military missions.

Technologies give ground troops not only a better sense of where they are but also a more accurate perspective on the battle landscape -- something that until now even many commanders have been without. Military leaders think the technology will make the United States' forces faster, fiercer, safer and more responsive to the enemy's movements. But insiders predict that the technology will also transform the military in other ways -- making it more democratic and entrepreneurial, and less chained to the command and control ethos that has historically governed every aspect of military life.

One of the central goals of network-centric warfare is to extend the reach of military forces inland, while keeping warships -- such as the U.S.S. Coronado, used in the recent Kernel Blitz exercises -- well off the coast and out of harm's way. The Navy's wide-area-relay network (WARnet) is among the tools the military is using to extend its reach.

WARnet is a wireless digital communications network that provides ship-to-shore and unit-to-unit connectivity in a 100-by-200-mile area of operations. WARnet connections are made through a series of sea- and land-based mobile nodes and airborne radio relays. These links allow the same operational picture to be displayed in command centers aboard the Coronado offshore, in mobile command centers onshore and on computers carried by Marines engaged in combat.

Unlike an office network in which a user has to plug a laptop into a network connection, WARnet is a wireless network, transparent to its users. It dynamically reconfigures itself as the nodes -- think miniature cell-phone towers -- move around the battle area.

Planes, helicopters, ground vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carry the nodes, or "packages" in military jargon. The Dragon Eye, a UAV that was tested at Kernel Blitz, is a 4.5-pound aircraft with a 4-foot wingspan that can be dispatched to provide real-time pictures and data on enemy movement and targets in over-the-hill areas that a Marine ground unit can't see.


Information flows into the WARnet from a variety of sources: from a unit commander calling for fire on a handheld, to a battalion commander sending intelligence information via an instant message on his minicomputer, to enemy location information transmitted by a UAV. The epicenter of that data flow is an offshore headquarters (referred to as the ECOC, for experimental combat operations center) aboard the Coronado.

There, in a dimly lit, high-tech work center in the belly of the ship, the combat commander can gather information from across the battle theater -- air, land and sea -- and make decisions based on the constantly changing elements of the operation.

During Kernel Blitz the GPS receivers carried by each Marine allowed Lt. Gen. Michael Hagee, commanding general of the I Marine Expeditionary Force, to watch a simulated attack from the ECOC in incredible detail. "We could see the helicopters move and folks coming out of them and moving on to the objective," he says. "Based on enemy intelligence, reporting and UAVs, we could see where the bad guys were as we watched the whole thing unfolding on the ground."

While Marines on land have to make on-the-fly decisions about how to move and where to fire, the officers in the ECOC might be able to see the enemy approaching before the ground unit does. Not only may they be able to share that information with the ground by entering it into the WARnet, but they might also anticipate the unit's needs by sending backup or aerial firepower before it's requested.

New military technologies have always outpaced advances in military tactics. In the Civil War, the interior grooves of a new rifled musket caused bullets to spiral when fired, making them more accurate at longer ranges. But soldiers were accustomed to gathering en masse and charging their opponents, waiting to fire until they were in close range. Because they were never trained to change their tactics along with their weaponry, they couldn't take advantage of the new rifle's capabilities.

Similarly, technologies including WARnet and the gadgetry of Kernel Blitz could be wasted unless the tactics they support are also examined.


While experiments like Kernel Blitz are helpful, some experts say the armed forces will need more than the occasional large-scale experiment to fully understand the forces of change at work within this technology. They will need to fundamentally rethink the structure of their reporting relationships from command and control to something more flexible, less hierarchical.

It's a concept that retired Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper of the Marine Corps refers to as being "in command but out of control." He likens the military of the future to a society of ants or termites that gathers food and builds structures with no apparent hierarchy. The key is for the whole organization to understand the intent of the operation and organize itself to accomplish that task.

Thus, if you have Marines who understand their mission and purpose, they will organize themselves to accomplish it, and the commander's role is to give feedback as to how well they're accomplishing the task rather than to control every step of the operation. The real fear in employing network-centric warfare is not that troops will do too much with the information that is given to them -- dropping missiles at a soldier's whim -- but that they might do too little, still waiting for orders rather than taking the initiative themselves.

The burden of making this new technology reach its full potential will not be felt in the labs where next-generation technologies are being developed every day, but in the classrooms and on the training fields where an advanced version of the prototypical U.S. soldier will have to be built. "They're going to have to have longer service [with the military], and be more professional in terms of their education and experience," says Van Riper.

Instead of a young sergeant armed with a handheld, the military may want a more seasoned military strategist -- perhaps even someone with an advanced degree who can think about what he's seeing in the field within a larger context and keep the technology in perspective. As Van Riper, a self-proclaimed technology skeptic, says, "I'd rather have an expert with a pencil and paper than an idiot with a computer."

The military's approach to testing offers hope that the armed forces can bend the technology to its will rather than be led by it. The strength of network-centric warfare, as Adm. Dennis Cutler Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith in Hawaii, conceives it, is that it's driven from the bottom up. The individuals who have the greatest influence on choosing the most effective technologies to pursue are not the white-coats in the labs but the soldiers in the field who give a great deal of feedback about their needs, how the technology fares and the glitches they encounter.

While WARnet is still prone to spotty network outages, the bigger concern is the potential for deliberate outages caused by enemy hackers. Most of the network has been NSA Type 1 certified, which means that it meets the highest government standard of encryption. But the Navy isn't taking any chances and has put the network through a series of penetration tests where internal expert hackers try to bust in. So far none has been successful.

Maintaining the security of the handhelds and minicomputers will be more challenging. In the confusion of combat, they will undoubtedly fall into enemy hands, and without adequate security, it would be easy to send out false data or reports.

The various problems created by technology are going to introduce a new set of needs and roles within the military. For example, instead of soldiers with mechanical experience, units will need individuals trained as electrical engineers who can fix handhelds and computers that have gone on the fritz.

One of the pitfalls of relying too heavily on technology is that it can give the user a false sense of superiority. During the conflict in Somalia, U.S. troops had all the advantages of technology and weaponry on their side but were still unprepared for the tactics of the tribespeople because they didn't understand their culture.

"There's a certain arrogance about the advantages that technology gives you," Van Riper says. What was needed in that situation was not more advanced technology but fighting forces that could think like cultural anthropologists.

The understanding that most senior officers currently have of what this technology will mean to the armed forces is limited to sound bites and bumper sticker slogans, according to Van Riper. They say "'If you see the battlefield, you win the war.' That's like me saying, 'If I see the chessboard, I win the game.' When, of course, a master would still beat me."

While the battle between the technology and the culture of the armed services is far from over, there is some hope -- particularly in the Marine Corps, where there's a lot of thought being given to technology and the future of the armed forces.

It's a future, says Col. Russell C. Woody, operations officer for I Marine Expeditionary Force, for which the Corps' values of honor, courage and commitment has prepared them. "Even though we live by traditions, the Marine Corps is accustomed to change," he says.


• United States Marine Corps
• United States Department of Defense

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