DOD chat use exploded in Iraq

The U.S. military, especially the Navy, relied heavily on chat rooms as a means of communication during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Although the technology performed admirably, it poses new challenges.

A Navy commander who recently returned from the Middle East said today that chat and secure telephones were the primary communications circuits Navy ships used at sea during the war.

However, chat quickly became overused in some situations, including one chat room at the Combined Air Operations Center that had 900 people participating at once, said Navy Cmdr. Tim Sorber, knowledge officer for Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group 8. He spoke today at the American Society of Naval Engineers' Human Systems Integration Symposium in Vienna, Va.

Such a large number of people in a chat room "is a nightmare," Sorber said. This is because it takes valuable time to determine who should and shouldn't be there.

Sorber said coalition forces found that the simplest knowledge management tools, such as chat, worked best during the war, but they also have built-in limitations. These include:

* They are unable to effectively handle large amounts of information.

* They lack automation tools that can turn information into knowledge.

* The procedural controls delay the automation tools' capabilities.

For example, some users were communicating privately with one another, or "whispering," during chats so that they didn't clog the main conversation. This became problematic because the whisperers were brokering important deals that cut other decision-makers out of the loop. This caused the commander to quickly outlaw the practice, Sorber said.

"We need to close those seams...and that comes with understanding how the system works [in a wartime environment]," he said.

In addition to chat rooms, joint and coalition forces used numerous other means to communicate, including the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET), the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network and the Combined Operations Wide-Area Network. "The SIPRNET and IP connectivity allowed us to win this war as fast as we did," Sorber said.

The secret network not only enables chats, but is agile, flexible and has dynamic bandwidth capabilities that were not hindered, as most other systems were, by the saturated satellite pipes that were used extensively throughout southwest Asia, he said.

The keys to future success include using the lessons learned from recent conflicts and adapting DOD's tactics, techniques and procedures to best serve the warfighter. Information technology tools must be flexible and adaptable, easy to use for information production and consumption, and able to process multiple levels of classification from the same machine across networks, Sorber said.

Army Col. William Johnson, Future Combat Systems program manager, agreed and added that the challenge in all of that is making sure warfighters, especially those in urban combat, are not overwhelmed by too much data.

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