Jungle warriors go urban
- By Dan Verton
- May 16, 1999
MONTEREY, Calif. - The Marines are no strangers to innovation. Throughout its 224-year history, the Corps has prided itself on the uncanny ability of its junior and senior leaders to "do more with less" and to overcome difficult odds by making use of whatever tools were available to them at the time.
Today's Corps is taking that same mindset as it helps launch the Defense Department into a new era of high-tech command and control (C2) that focuses on what has proven to be the most vicious and costly form of conflict: urban warfare.
Tapped by DOD to provide the overall joint-service strategy for fighting in the world's cities and urban areas, the Corps in March launched its aptly named Urban Warrior experiment here throughout the streets of Monterey and Oakland.
The results of the week-long experiment, which focused on using cutting-edge information technologies to provide a common picture of the battlefield from colonel to corporal, will lay the foundation for how the Marines and DOD as a whole will plan and carry out urban warfare in the 21st century.
"The whole reason for doing this is to gather data to develop lessons learned [and] look at how technology worked and how it didn't work and then refine our tactics and procedures," said Lt. Gen. Carl Knutsen, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "We're going to fail a lot of these experiments, but out of failure comes progress. We'll know what works and what doesn't work."
DOD officials believe the stakes in these experiments are high. The urban environment is emerging as a critical battlefield for DOD as the world's population continues to concentrate in cities located near coastlines.
Urban warfare is deadly because buildings and other structures form a maze of concrete and gravel that can easily confuse and disorient a Marine trying to fight his way from building to building while trying to pick out the good guys from the bad.
The Marines' challenge also stems from the inability of standard C4I systems to overcome interference caused by concrete walls, phone lines, electronic devices and urban structures.
To meet these challenges, the Marines used Urban Warrior to experiment with such technologies as wireless communications devices, high-bandwidth satellite links, remotely piloted reconnaissance aircraft, visualization applications and Global Positioning System links.
The goal was to see to what extent the Corps can adapt these tools to help it carry out a staged mission in the Bay area around San Francisco. One of the key issues was whether the technology solutions being tested might come with their own problems.
While two squads of 13 Marines from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Ma-rines, fought their way through the streets of the Presidio in search of a weapon of mass destruction, some officials were concerned that commanders aboard the USS Coronado command ship floating off the shore of Monterey Bay might overload the squads with information, thereby clouding the picture of the battlefield instead of clarifying it.
"I'm very concerned that we have to find a line with the technology whereby we can get the right information down to the [lowest levels] without the squad leader becoming a general," Knutsen said. Today's technology is pushing that line by providing squad leaders with the big picture on a situation map, Knutsen said. "Hell, [the squad leader] doesn't need all of that information."
It will take a while for the Marines to sort out the larger issues of C2. But the immediate results of the operation did show some of the new problems that come with introducing information technologies to the battlefield.
Lance Cpl. David Dowidat, a rifleman and one of the end-user terminal operators with Alpha company, spent the first few moments of rest after the hour-long operation had ended looking for new batteries to replace the ones that had died in his Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. Libretto CT handheld computer before the exercise was finished.
"I was a little slow getting it set up, but once it was set up it worked fine," Dowidat said. "All I have to do is open it up and look at the screen," he said. "Although I didn't look at it very often, it showed me where I was and where everyone else was."
Still, the technology proved it could have an impact, according to the Marines.
Dowidat's handheld computer gave him a map depicting the area of operations. The map moved on the screen as Dowidat moved in real time, showing him and commanders aboard the Coronado his exact location as well as the locations of friendly and enemy units.
With the addition of tactical radios and individual cell phone communications devices, Dowidat and his fellow Marines blazed a trail that may have a profound impact on the way the Corps fights in the future.
"This is something we've been asking for for 20 years," said Brig. Gen. Tim Dono-van, commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, which manages the Urban Warrior experimentation plan.
"This is the biggest thing the Marine Corps wants: individual communications," he said. "The squad radio is going to change the way we fight. It's going to allow us to work over more dispersed terrain and enable our Marines to maneuver against the enemy."
Behind the Scenes
But there is an entire patchwork of complex and sophisticated technologies - hardware and software - operating behind the scenes that also are playing an integral role in revolutionizing the urban tactics and techniques of the Marines.
For example, "smart agents" linked to an object-oriented database provide decision support to Marines operating in an environment racked by confusion. These software agents are specialized packages of code that essentially monitor every bit of data entered into each C2 system to make sure those commands do not conflict with established rules and procedures, and can automatically alert the user and all other decision-makers in the chain of command if they do.
For example, one software agent tracks "rules of engagement" and alerts Marines to restrictions placed on targeting, such as schools, hospitals and churches. This agent also can prevent the Marines from accidentally firing at friendly units.
Likewise, there are agents associated with logistics and supply, and a chemical warfare agent that would alert commanders and riflemen on the ground to the discovery of a chemical weapon or attack.
"We're programming these agents to have knowledge about the battlespace," said Lt. Col. John Allison, director of experimental operations for Urban Warrior. While the systems in use by the other military services only provide map icons that show where things are located but do not relate to one another, "we have a relationship established between agents that talk to one another," Allison said.
Other technologies also played a role:
* Global Positioning System links and wireless local-area network connections made it possible for commanders aboard the Coronado to track the location of their troops on shore in real time.
* Intrusion-detection systems remotely alerted commanders of the presence of enemy forces in areas that the Marines could not physically monitor.
* Handheld computers provided instant language translation to help Marines communicate with local civilians.
"I think we are starting to get our hands around the kinds of systems we need to be able to manage the volumes of information we now have coming into" the combat operations center (COC), said Col. Robert Schmidle, commander of the Experimental Marine Air-Ground Task Force aboard the Coronado.
"The Marines out in the field see the same picture that I do in the [Experimental] COC aboard the ship," he said.
Sifting the Data
The Marines now are sorting through the volumes of data that officials from the warfighting laboratory said they hope will offer concrete lessons learned for a new urban warfare strategy and that also will give them a solid understanding of the types of technologies it really takes to fight and win in a city.
While the Marines' tenacious devotion to core values and tradition "are as good as they've ever been," the Urban Warrior experimentation is helping the Corps take a critical step in dealing with these new tools, said former commandant Gen. Al Gray, who spearheaded many of the Corps' modern professional military education programs.
Gray's comments come at a time when some have expressed concern that putting sophisticated C2 systems in the hands of squad leaders and other junior Marines would tear apart the very fabric of the service best known for its discipline on the battlefield and dedication to duty. But Gray, considered one of the legendary commandants by many of today's Marines, said technology and the Corps' professional education goals go hand-in-hand.
"The training and education aspects of what the Marine Corps is doing [are] really made to order for information technology or any other frontier technology, for that matter," Gray said.