Commanders, warfighters learn to adapt

Leaders impart technology lessons learned after combat experience in the Afghan theater

Commanders from the Afghan theater learned, above all, that adaptation is the warfighter's greatest friend, especially when it comes to technology tools.

Four leaders with battle experience in Operation Enduring Freedom addressed attendees at the AFCEA International West 2003 conference Jan. 14 and imparted to them lessons learned after months of combat experience in a unique environment.

"We had excellent command and control with all of the coalition force," said Capt. Phil Wisecup, the former commander of Destroyer Squadron 21, which operated in Afghanistan for many months. "We used liaison offices extensively. If we had a problem, we could usually work around it fairly easily. We used a variety of means, and some of it was pretty creative. [If] you put the tools in the hands of the commanders, they'll figure out how to use them."

And there were problems that had to be overcome. Some were so unexpected that officials considered them ludicrous when they arose, said Rear Adm. Thomas Zelibor, who on Sept. 11, 2001, was assigned responsibility for a three-carrier task force in the Arabian Sea.

"Being the first on the scene and then having a large coalition force was very frustrating," Zelibor said. "The ships from the West Coast fleet use [the Combined Wide Area Network]. That's how we talk to each other and our allies in the Pacific. The East Coast fleet and NATO use the [NATO Initial Data Transfer System], and the two didn't mix.

"And I found that, even though I was the [area commander], I had to give some of those responsibilities to another ship because the majority of those in the area were our NATO allies, and I couldn't talk to them," Zelibor said.

As a result of that frustration, Zelibor has been put in charge of developing a system that uses both protocols, called the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange.

When asked if any of the commanders suffered from information overload, each replied that, in battle, they don't believe such a thing exists.

"I don't think you can saturate a battlefield commander with too much information," Zelibor said. "The human brain has the marvelous capacity to sift out what you need and what you don't. I say the more information we can get, the better. We did our warfighting via the Web."

Each commander lauded the abilities of the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network and said that the number of options presented to the commanders in the field made the use of technology even easier.

"If we had problems with one way of communicating what we wanted to get across, we had a second or third option," Wisecup said. "We never had to use the Naval Messaging System. We were able to do it all."

But in the end, technology could not provide everything the commanders needed. Capt. Robert Harward, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Group One, said technology could give one perspective, but not the total battlefield awareness that commanders seek.

"The Predator [unmanned aerial vehicle] was a great piece of technology, but it was only able to provide us certain information," Harward said. "We could send it somewhere to look at something, but it was like looking through a straw. In the end, having my guy on the ground...is the only thing that gave the commanders the full perspective they needed."

Each commander learned in Afghanistan, they said, that the fighting forces today are better equipped and better trained than any force in history.

"If we can determine a commander's intent and then give the flexibility to the battlefield commander to do the job, they'll get it done," said Lt. Col. Clark Lethin, the deputy G-3 for the 1st Marine Division.

"For the first time, we're doing it right," Harward said. "We're getting what we need and doing it right. I saw no showstoppers in Afghanistan, and I'm happy with the support we're getting."

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