Calculating costs, cautions from war

The high-tech information systems that U.S. and NATO forces employed against Yugoslavia this year ended up contributing confusion, according to a top-level draft briefing prepared for the commander of U.S. forces in Operation Allied Force.

Draft briefing slides prepared for Adm. James Ellis in an after-action report on the operation issued a strong warning about information technology and data overload. According to the slides, "information saturation...[is an] additive to the fog of war.''

The slides prepared for Ellis, who also serves as the commander in chief of U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, warned that "uncontrolled [IT]...will control you and your staffs...and lengthen your decision time cycles.''

The draft briefing, a copy of which was sent to FCW by e-mail, also cautions commanders and staffs from over-reliance on posting information on the Defense Department's classified, global intranet.

The briefing slides also said commands "still need to 'push' critical information vs. 'posting it' on a Web page.'' The IT used by DOD, the brief said, provides U.S. forces with "great technology, [but it] needs controls.''

The slides also raised concerns about the quality of information provided by video teleconferences - a method of communication embraced by commanders in all four military services and used daily during Operation Allied Force.

While the Ellis brief described VTCs as a "most powerful tool" capable of shortening "decision cycles dramatically," it also called them "a voracious consumer of leadership and key staff working hours'' that provided "no substitute for campaign planning and written orders.'' This dovetails with comments prepared for Ellis saying that while commanders can use a desktop PC to manage, they "cannot lead from it."

Ellis' staff prepared the briefing, called "A View From the Top" and presented as "a senior commander's unique perspective," but has yet to present it to Ellis, according to a Navy spokesman in London.

Defense experts, including retired top commanders, viewed the briefing as an accurate assessment of the problems forces encountered in using IT during the air war. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Doyle Larson, chairman of the board of the Air Force Association, strongly agreed with the report's take on VTCs, calling them "a terrible way to run a war.... You just end up involving too many players,'' Larson said.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, now head of Business Executives for National Security, said, "I would not disagree with anything [in the brief].'' McInerney said that in the command and control and information systems arenas, Ellis and his staff may have suffered from the ad hoc nature of Joint Task Force Noble Anvil, which controlled U.S. forces in the campaign.

Phil Irish, a professor of information systems at the DOD-operated and -funded National Defense University, said commanders in Operation Allied Force encountered what he described as "the paradox of information.... Sometimes you just end up bouncing around digits that end up doing more harm than good.''

"We can increase the bandwidth and...[manage] information with technologies...but there is so much that can be lost without context," Irish said.

Deriving the contextual nature of information requires "uniquely human'' insight, Irish said, and insights may only be gained by reading every word of not just one message or Web posting but many related messages and documents.

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