Network-centric warfare: Will IT save lives?

Since the last Gulf War, the Defense Department has significantly retooled how it fights wars, relying on information technology as the foundation for building a more mobile and lethal force. Today's war, waged using computer networks more than ever, will test whether DOD military planners and their contractors are right — or not.

The idea of network-centric warfare, as DOD calls it, is to feed information as quickly as possible to commanders and soldiers in the battle theater so they can make better decisions about what, when and how to attack. Network-centric warfare also has important implications for support efforts — for instance, logistical issues such as ensuring troops get the right equipment at the right time, and treating the wounded by being able to reach back to the United States to access a wounded service person's digital medical file.

Many defense strategists argue that the services, given better access to information, can travel lighter on their feet, requiring fewer troops and carrying fewer supplies. However, a little more than a week into the war, some military experts question this strategy. Ralph Peters, a retired military officer and author, wrote this month in the Washington Post that some soldiers taken prisoner last week may have been spared if DOD had fielded a larger force.

The second goal is not so evident, but just as crucial for political and humane reasons. Network-centric warfare, because it can help deliver weapons precisely to military targets, should reduce the number of casualties among Iraqi citizens, a clear goal of the Bush administration. "In the event of conflict, America also accepts our responsibility to protect innocent lives in every way possible," Bush said before the war started. In the 1991 Gulf War, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. In this war, a compilation of media reports estimates Iraqi civilian deaths at about 300 as of March 27 — the war's ninth day.

It is difficult to conclude this early in the war if DOD's reliance on IT is meeting the administration's objectives. Sure, mistakes and miscalculations will occur. But how DOD adjusts its reliance on IT will be key to whether it can keep the promise of the technology realistic. n

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