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Ready! Aim! Reboot!: The U.S. Army In The Information Revolution

Digital soldiers will make the Army smarter and deadlier--if the computers will just stop crashing

By Mark Thompson/Fort Irwin

(TIME, March 31) -- Comets have long been associated with war, upheaval and disaster, and as the light from Hale-Bopp faded in the California sky early last Tuesday, U.S. Army Major Russ Oaks got a taste of all three. Oaks was participating in one of the Pentagon's most ambitious and elaborate war games ever, a laser-gun battle pitting a 2,000-soldier "experimental force" against the toughest men in the war-game business, Fort Irwin's vaunted 2,000-man "opposing force." OPFOR had the home-turf advantage, with a 90% win record in this 20-sq.-mi. stretch of the Mojave Desert. But Oaks' EXFOR had a secret weapon: humvees and M-1 tanks crammed with enough computers and state-of-the-art communications gear to put every soldier inside the military equivalent of an America Online chat room, with instant access to grunts and commanders alike.

But when the fighting started and the fog of war rolled in, Oaks' private computer network proved as difficult to reach as the real America Online. Early in the action, his first humvee was taken out by an armored personnel carrier hiding behind a ridge. (The direct hit was indicated by a flashing yellow roof light and a humiliating siren crying Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!) When Oaks transferred operations to a second vehicle, electronic disaster struck. "Every computer I've got has crashed!" he shouted three hours into the battle, and reached for the paper maps, acetate overlays and colored markers that have been the battle-planning tools of U.S. commanders for nearly half a century.

The Navy and the Air Force have regularly rewritten their tactical manuals to keep up with the rapid technological advances of the past 25 years, but the Army has been slower to adapt. Now it is trying to make up for lost time. The two-week Mojave war game, which is testing an elaborate new command-and-control system and 72 new pieces of hardware, is the Army's biggest push yet to boot up, log on and march in the information revolution.

It is a $4 billion gamble. The Army is betting that by trading silicon for lead, it will get a more lethal fighting force that can destroy much larger armies with few or no casualties--much as the allied forces did so effectively against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War six years ago. The risk is that the fancy new systems will fail under field conditions, leaving American troops more vulnerable than they were before.

When the new systems work, they give soldiers far more information about where they are--and where the enemy is--than any fighting force in history has ever enjoyed. Data gathered by satellites, video-equipped drones and scouts sporting minicams are funneled to a command system and displayed as moving dots (blue ones for friendly forces, red for the enemy) on laptop computers in every vehicle as well as on giant TV screens at division headquarters beyond a nearby mountain range. "This gives us greater survivability and flexibility," explained Lieut. Colonel Mark French, who led the troops from the hatch of an M-1 known as the "eunuch" tank because of its fake gun barrel. "I can see who's where and who's going where."

In the Mojave last week, however, nothing went quite according to plan. The desert's talcum-powder-like dust played havoc with the computers' fans and trackballs. The sky was so full of electronic communications that conventional radio messages couldn't get through. And even though the rules of engagement barred OPFOR from trying to jam EXFOR's electronics, time-consuming glitches bedeviled the high-tech team. "There's so much information coming through that the computers are locking up and we have to reboot," said Oaks. He also complained about the 30 minutes he had to spend offline every time he moved battalion headquarters. "That half-hour we're down could be the half-hour when the battalion dies."

That is an intolerable loss of time, especially given the high prices the Army pays for its computer gear. The laptops range from $93,000 for a "hardened" military version to $11,000 for a supposedly off-the-shelf model. One of the systems used last week, the Hunter drone powered by a $53,000 motorcycle engine, has already been killed by the Pentagon for poor performance. In all, the Army spent $258 million outfitting EXFOR, the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division of Fort Hood, Texas.

Adapting humans to the new equipment is also difficult, especially in a hidebound bureaucracy like the U.S. Army. "Armies are by nature conservative institutions, generally resistant to change," says Gordon Sullivan, the retired Army Chief of Staff whose 1994 commitment to the information revolution led to last week's exercise. In fact, soldiers tend to be such traditionalists that the Army is having trouble getting them to believe what appears on their computer screens. "Trust the icon" is a new slogan the Army is trying to promote.

Still, the Pentagon has high hopes for the new technology. Finding the enemy more quickly and firing more accurately mean fewer bullets, fewer guns and fewer troops. Knowing precisely where U.S. units are should cut down on friendly-fire incidents. There are logistical benefits as well. EXFOR is using the just-in-time inventory controls now favored by industry, abandoning the military's traditional but inefficient just-in-case approach, which often resulted in too much of everything being shipped to the battlefield.

Congress is paying close attention to the Army's efforts. If they succeed, some lawmakers say, the Army might be able to do a lot more with far less. Richard Perle, a top Pentagon strategist in the Reagan Administration, says the Army's trade of "manpower for technology" could ultimately cut in half the service's force of 495,000 soldiers.

Back on the battlefield, Oaks calmed down somewhat as the smoke cleared. "The system's good," he conceded, "when it works." And apparently it was working well enough to make a difference. When, after nearly seven hours, Army referees declared the battle over last Tuesday--with EXFOR's attack stalled at OPFOR's main defensive line of tanks and minefields--they called it a draw. EXFOR, as the attacking force, went into the battle with more tanks. At the end, OPFOR had 18 and EXFOR 22. "It went better than we had a right to expect," said General William Hartzog, a four-star officer and EXFOR's chief architect. "I've never won a game of Nintendo with my son in my life."

Even the notoriously cocky OPFOR was impressed. "We didn't even see them when they shot us," said Staff Sergeant David Kuusela, who commanded an armored personnel carrier during the battle. "We took a lot of losses today that we normally don't." But Kuusela added that EXFOR's yearlong preoccupation with mastering the new gear had allowed some of its combat skills to rust. "If their battlefield technique was a little better," he said, "they might have rolled us up."

For all EXFOR's high-tech gloss, some aspects of warfare will apparently not change. Soldiers still spent hours building sand tables, miniature re-creations of the battlefield built in the dirt. EXFOR leaders still carried plenty of thumbtacks and acetate overlay maps to use as back-ups during the inevitable computer snafus. And commanders still insisted that once the "knife fight" of close-in combat began, soldiers must revert to traditional hand signals and radio commands.

"We're twice as good as anyone in the Army at getting where we're supposed to be when we're supposed to be there," said Staff Sergeant Dennis Clarke, who commands Lieut. Colonel French's faux M-1. "But when the bullets start flying, all the technology in the world counts for naught." His commanding general endorsed that view wholeheartedly. "The best computer out here," said Major General Paul Kern, "is still between our soldiers' ears."


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