DOD deploys high-tech arsenal

It's the difference between sending unreliable satellite receivers into the field with a limited number of special forces and fielding enough troops with high-grade equipment to paint a complete digital view of the battlefield.

It's the difference between risking pilots' lives during dangerous reconnaissance missions and sending out small, unmanned aircraft to gather intelligence and relay images back to camp.

It's the difference between sorting through pallet after pallet of unlabeled containers to catalog supplies and tapping into an online system to see when and where supplies should arrive.

The technology that has evolved since the United States sent troops to the Persian Gulf more than a decade ago could mean the difference between life and death for a new generation of soldiers preparing for a possible war. Those soldiers are armed with better and more accurate data provided by the latest information systems, according to defense experts.

During the current military buildup in the Middle East, much is being made of improvements to precision guided weapons and other arms since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. But information technologies, though less showy, could play a vital role as well, supplying warfighters on land, at sea and in the air with a constant flow of information that can be used to better target weapons and plan attacks.

The radio was the main line of military communication during Desert Storm, which commenced just when the Defense Department was beginning to test computers on the battlefield. Most computer systems were installed in vehicles, planes or camps behind the front lines.

Today, technology is less expensive and more reliable than what Desert Storm-era soldiers could have imagined. These days, IT has worked its way into the field. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, for example, is now ubiquitous among the rank and file, while network technology has begun to change how commanders plan and direct battles.

New technology often means new problems, as DOD officials readily acknowledge. But there's no doubt that 10 years of technology evolution has provided a generational leap in how IT supports war.

Col. Dan Gerstein, commander of the 93rd Signal Brigade, Fort Gordon, Ga., served in Desert Storm and Bosnia, and will most likely be involved in homeland defense missions. "The Gulf War was an analog conflict with little, if any, digital input," he said.

Information in Motion

As the leader of a reconnaissance unit involved in an offensive against the Iraqi Republican Guard, retired Army Capt. John Hillen was a front-end user of IT solutions during Desert Storm. Being at the "tip of the spear" required Hillen and his team to use whatever technology they had available to gain an advantage. And when technology failed, which it often did, they would adapt.

"I went to war with the tactical communications systems of [the] Vietnam" era, said Hillen, who received a Bronze Star for his actions in the Gulf War. His armored vehicle sported five antennas, which were "essentially a big 'shoot me' sign for the enemy...[but] we needed all those systems for redundancy."

Hillen, now senior vice president of American Management Systems Inc.'s defense and intelligence practice, said DOD was just beginning to use digital IT systems during the Gulf War. The Internet was not yet ready for the battlefield.

Two systems, though still in their infancy, made a tremendous difference to Hillen and his team in the desert: the satellite-based GPS and the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS).

Those systems have matured, dramatically increasing the quantity and quality of information available on the battlefield (see "GPS: Changing the landscape" and "Joint STARS: Ready for action"), while other technologies have emerged to keep troops better connected than ever before. E-mail, videoconferencing and high-speed networks, for example, have improved communications across the battlefield.

Military commanders can now combine GPS-based information about their troops' locations with intelligence gathered on the whereabouts of enemy forces — what's known as "situational awareness." That awareness makes it easier to devise battle strategies and, ideally, avoid incidents of friendly fire.

In the past, troops would head into battle with a reasonable picture of the battlefield, but they would have limited access to information as events progressed and troops and weapons moved. That is no longer the case. DOD officials believe that by using technology to track troop locations on the battlefield, forces can avoid mistakenly firing on their comrades and allies.

Constant access to information also gives commanders much more flexibility in devising and revising their plans. They can now send aircraft or ships in a general direction and then provide them with a specific target and battle plan, all of which can be updated and modified on the fly, said Vice Adm. Richard Mayo, commander of the Naval Network Warfare Command, Norfolk, Va.

This approach gives commanders a jump on an attack, while also making it easier to change tactics if the target moves after forces are already on their way.

"During the first phases of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 80 percent of Navy strike sorties attacked targets that were unknown to the air crews when they left the carrier," Mayo said. "The networked sensors and joint communications enabled them to decisively respond to active targets."

One promising new system is the Joint En-route Mission Planning and Rehearsal System-Near Term, which was tested during last year's Millennium Challenge exercise. The application includes chat rooms, streaming video and voice applications, and electronic whiteboards, all of which enable commanders to access and discuss intelligence data as it comes in.

"It's a quantum leap over Desert Storm, where an airplane trip meant looking forward to little more than a long, easy ride," said John Osterholz, director of architecture and interoperability in DOD's chief information officer's office. Joint force commanders planning missions while en route and making changes based on last-minute intelligence are "worth their weight in gold." They can plan better attacks and possibly save lives.

The Army has fielded a limited number of helicopters with such command and control capabilities so commanders don't have to hand off control to their deputies while relocating, which was required during Desert Storm.

The momentum of battle and the speed of command are maintained at the joint task force and tactical levels, a tremendous advantage for the ground forces expected to play a more significant role in the Persian Gulf this time around, Osterholz said.

Bigger and Better Pipes

All that data would be useless, though, if it weren't for the dramatic increase in network bandwidth, former DOD officials say.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Cassity Jr., director of command, control and communications systems for the Joint Staff during the Gulf War, said network bandwidth is the greatest area of evolution since Desert Storm, when DOD's limited communications capabilities sometimes relied on old UHF satellites.

During that conflict, ships often had to prioritize messages as flash, immediate or priority, because there was not enough bandwidth to send everything at once.

In particular, air task orders, which relay information about upcoming missions, could not wait hours to be transmitted, said retired Navy Adm. Archie Clemins, who was commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet in the late 1990s and pushed the fleet to begin linking itself through computer networks on land, in the air and at sea.

"Sometimes it would be quicker to send the plans by messengers in a plane," said Clemins, currently vice chairman of Advanced Electron Beams Inc.'s board of directors. "Now people don't even think about networks. All communications are done in flash."

That speed, he said, will allow forces to get inside an enemy's "decision cycle" and enable allies to analyze all of an enemy's possible options and decide how to counter them before any action takes place.

But it's not just the technology that has changed. "The quantum leap is people," said Cassity, who retired from active duty in 1991 and is a vice president at Suss Consulting Inc. "In the Gulf War, we had a little bit of e-mail" and often relied on phone banks. "Now everyone, from the fighter pilots to the satellite technicians, understands computers and how to use them. All the people doing the fighting are very literate with IT."

Still a Battle

The promise of technology, however, should be tempered by the realities of war. Hillen said DOD officials must address information overload. So much information is available that the services need to determine the right level of data to send to front-line troops, and they need to teach them how to use it.

"There's still a long way to go in processing information so we don't have friendly fire incidents...but there will never be a 100 percent guarantee," Hillen said. "It's a key priority for the services."

Osterholz said the military services are better prepared to track forces in Iraq this time, which should minimize friendly fire casualties. But urban areas could be a problem, because a concentration of systems in close quarters could stress DOD's combat identification systems and reduce situational awareness.

Still, given the advances in planning and technology, "we'll do better this time," Osterholz said.

Coordinating military efforts with allies will be another challenge, because the systems used by different countries are not designed to exchange information, Osterholz said.

"Interoperability is key," said Retired Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, director of DOD's Force Transformation Office. "If you're not interoperable, it means you're not connected. If you're not interoperable, you're not benefiting from the Information Age, you're not contributing to the Information Age, and you're a liability."

Troops may also be forced to perform information- intensive operations in environments made unsafe by chemical or biological weapons. Setting up satellite antennas and other IT equipment, maintaining systems or even typing on PC keyboards hasn't often been done by troops wearing protective gear, and that will affect the speed of command and the overall battlefield advantage, Osterholz said.

But the 93rd Signal Brigade's Gerstein, for one, is not worried. "In short, the IT integration of the force, [which] 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.

***

How it works

A visible improvement

Commercial logistics technology gives Defense Department officials new insight into cargo shipments:

* A radio frequency identification tag stores information about the contents of the container to which it is attached.

* A scanner — either handheld or attached to a post or gate — reads the tag and sends the information to a database, recording when and where the data was captured. A container can be scanned at various checkpoints while in transit and at its final destination when it is opened and the contents distributed.

* The database, available through an intranet, makes it possible for Defense Department officials anywhere in the world to track the status of their supplies.

Featured

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.