Soldier has seen analog wars turn digital

The new IT arsenal

As the United States builds up for war with Iraq, defense experts say that information technology is much different than it was during the Gulf War. This article is part of a series that examines changes in military IT during the past 12 years and culminates with in-depth coverage in the Feb. 24 issue of Federal Computer Week.

Col. Dan Gerstein, commander of the 93rd Signal Brigade, Fort Gordon, Ga., has served in Operation Desert Storm, in Bosnia, and now his brigade most likely will be involved in homeland defense missions.

He is a front-line warrior who has firsthand experience with the evolution of the military's information technology capabilities since the Persian Gulf War. "In Desert Storm, there was heavy reliance on voice communications, but very limited data capability," Gerstein wrote in an e-mail. "In fact, in the 3rd Armored Division, we had a dedicated multichannel tactical satellite, which remained with the division's main [command post], to provide the only data connectivity.

"In contrast, today, our data networks are really more important to the senior commanders than our voice networks. So while for the close battle, single-channel voice (VHF/FM) radios remain essential, at higher levels, classified and unclassified data networks are key."

Gerstein said another major transition in the dozen years since Desert Storm concluded is the importance of video in battle operations.

"In the Gulf War, there was only limited use of video and only at higher levels in the theater," he said. "In Bosnia, we began to use live video feeds from intelligence, surveillance and [reconnaissance] assets to assist in conducting operations and gathering intelligence. These feeds were really only available at the division level. This trend to pushing information to lower levels continues today as battlefield [video teleconferencing] is in use down to brigade and in some cases battalion level...and unmanned aerial vehicles are proliferated throughout the battle space."

Another example of the use of video and the infusion of data into the operational scheme of maneuvers is the Global Broadcast System, which provides massive amounts of data, including imagery, directly to the tactical command level, he said.

Situational awareness capabilities also have experienced an evolution since the Gulf War with the proliferation of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. "In Desert Storm, there were only limited numbers of GPS systems," Gerstein said. "There was no linkage between systems, so while awareness to determine one's own position was increased, there was no interface with other units or elements within a formation."

But today, infantry divisions deploy with the capability of real-time situational awareness that offers an advanced friend-or-foe picture of the battlefield as well as improved data exchange and collaborative planning capabilities.

All of these technological advances have resulted in the military services gleaning myriad lessons learned and being able to apply those to the conflict, wherever that may be, he said.

"The Gulf War was an analog conflict with little, if any, digital input," Gerstein said. "The limited digital capability was only at the highest levels," such as Central Command's forward headquarters. "In contrast, today there are digital formations at much lower levels — down to system level in some cases — although this is not uniform throughout the force. The biggest advantage this IT capability will provide is the capability to command and control on the move, and in the ability to make rapid decisions."

And he is confident that IT will help the United States dominate in any future conflicts in Iraq. "In short, the IT integration of the force that has been enhanced since the Gulf War and which was honed in Bosnia and most recently Afghanistan, has made the U.S./Iraq balance even more one-sided in favor of our capabilities," he said.

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