Army exercise lifts fog with IT instruments

FORT IRWIN Calif. - A two-week battle exercise that the Army staged here in the Mojave Desert last month showed for the first time that computer technology may dissipate the "fog of war." But Army commanders realize the technology has its limits.

One of the central tenets of warfare fog of war describes the confusion that frequently occurs when soldiers lose their sense of what is happening on the battlefield leading to poor tactical decisions and sometimes death. In conducting the Force XXI Advanced Warfighting Experiment the Army used dozens of information technology initiatives to make soldiers more aware of battlefield maneuvers and positions.

Force XXI was the Army's first major exercise to test what it believes is the beginning of a military that will depend heavily on computers to fight wars. Force XXI "is a very significant change because it is moving the Army from the Cold War era to the Information Age " said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer.The Army believes the use of technology could do nothing less than improve "lethality the survivability and the tempo of this force we are modeling for the 21st century " said Gen. William Hartzog commanding general for the Training and Doctrine Command.

By and large Army commanders were impressed with the technology they saw and the capability for improving "situational awareness " which could help the Army reduce the occurrences of friendly fire and improve battle tactics by arming soldiers with accurate and up-to-date positioning information.But the Army commanders also recognized that IT creates new complexities. The Army not only must reshape its forces to make full use of the technology but the service also must determine the limits of IT on the battlefield.

"I am very impressed by this but at the same time I've got my eyes wide open " Hartzog said. "A lot of these things need to be improved before there is a discernible difference in the battle effectiveness."The Army will be studying the results of the exercise throughout this month with plans to issue a full report this summer.

`One Step Ahead'Like the Marines' Hunter Warrior warfighting experiment conducted last month the Force XXI exercise sent an experimental force armed with advanced technology against an opposing force that was highly trained but armed with standard equipment.

The Army was less interested in seeing who won or lost than in measuring the performance of assorted IT tools and how the experimental force used them. Altogether the Army tested 72 different weapons and IT initiatives including software for intelligence analysis mission planning weather analysis and communications.

The centerpiece of the exercise - and the core component of battlefield digitization - was the command and control software Applique which displays battlefield positioning information of friendly and enemy forces.More than 1 000 jeeps tanks helicopters and other vehicles were equipped with a digitization platform that included four components: a computer for processing and displaying Applique a satellite receiver for positioning information and a digital radio and router for transmitting that information. Applique is a fully distributed system with situational awareness servers throughout the battle theater that processed and broadcast Applique data to local clients.

While friendly forces automatically feed into Applique soldiers manually enter enemy positions into the Applique system. Besides traditional sightings the Army used unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with cameras that feed live video back to a base or to the central Command Information Center which is the Army's advanced command and control center.

Capt. John Atkins a battle captain working in the experimental forces information center said Applique relieved battle commanders of much of the labor-intensive work of drawing up and maintaining pictures of the battlefield. "It gives you more freedom to concentrate on the battle and stay one step ahead of the other guy."

The value of Applique multiplies as soldiers overlay the basic battlefield picture with other tactical data such as battle plans route information and engineer reports on minefields or other obstacles. For example a squad commander can lay out a route in Applique for his driver to follow said Staff Sgt. George Thompson a member of the experimental force. "I can literally program my driver [with Applique] I don't have to steer him from the turret anymore " Thompson said.

Measuring SuccessThe Army now is undertaking the difficult task of assessing the success of its various initiatives and the overarching concept of battlefield digitization. "April is going to be a lot tougher than March for us because that's when we have to plow through all this " Hartzog said.

Force XXI officials did have some preliminary if complex assessments by the end of the second week. For example compared with baseline results the experimental force resulted in a shorter battle planning cycle more effective use of air defense artillery and better awareness of the positioning of troops down at the platoon level.

In one engagement when its battle plan went awry after the opposing force brought in unexpected reinforcements the experimental force was able to regroup and issue new orders to its soldiers in less than 35 minutes which is a remarkably quick turnaround according to Army officials. In another case two troops managed a battlefield rendezvous with minimal reliance on radio.

But the Army also reported many cases in which the technology had no discernible impact on performance or did not meet expected standards. For example throughout the exercise the experimental force had problems with its logistics systems resulting in problems receiving and filling orders for supplies. Part of the problem may have been attributable to command and control communications where some messages were not reaching their destinations. Also despite soldiers' ability to identify friendly and enemy forces the experimental force accidentally fired on its own forces in a couple cases.

In part Army commanders said these results reflected that the experimental force still needed training with its new tools and that the opposing force is one of the best-trained forces in the world. Officials said performance would improve as troops continued training.

Realities of WarThe Army also is coming to terms with a more basic issue: that the role of technology in battle while increasingly important has its limits. While technology may infiltrate nearly every aspect of the fighting force that force must still deal with the dust the smoke and the noise of battle.

So Applique while critical to soldiers until they go into battle would have a limited role during an actual engagement several officials said. Gen. David Bramlett commanding general of the Army Forces Command said soldiers behind the front lines may continue working with Applique during the battle "but [for] the kids in the Bradley [fighting vehicles] they are fighting with all their senses at work."

In most cases soldiers likely will stop referring to their computers during battle and will update Applique only after the engagement is complete one soldier said. Soldiers in battle are more likely to communicate by "yelling into the radio than sending messages through Applique " Thompson said.

The technology also has shortcomings in reducing friendly fire which "is just not something that technology is going to solve " Reimer said.

Ultimately the Army will prove most effective with the new technology only after it initiates new training doctrines throughout the chain of command. At each level the soldiers must learn to make use of the technology and to trust it officials said.

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