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Spinning network centric warfare in the peace

Smart weapons getting better at detecting big budgets

By John Lettice, 28 Apr 2003

Do we detect the beginnings of a spin campaign to 'prove' that network-centric warfare (ETA 2010, according to Pentagon documentation) won its spurs in the Iraq war? Sadly, we fear we do. The US Department of Defense was probably even more disappointed than we were that the 'first digitized division,' the 4th Infantry, was pretty much still unloading tanks when Saddam's fanatical hordes mysteriously legged it, but never mind, they can always just go with the stuff they had on the ground instead.

An early sighting is to be had here, at AP, which is often very good, but alas, sometimes no better than it should be. The piece does not contain incorrect data as such, but from the title 'Networked information decisive in Iraq war' onwards it conveys an impression that is misleading, but exceedingly helpful to those who wish to get over the message that spending billions on battlefield automation will be money well-spent.

Says the author: "networked information was perhaps the Pentagon's most striking asset in Iraq, where variations of signature Internet tools and tactics donned military fatigues. Think Napster, instant-messaging and eBay in battlefield khaki." Did they, indeed?

"Their three-week victory was spurred by internetworked tanks on the ground, satellite-linked robot eyes in the sky and personal intercoms that converted urban fighters into nodes on a footsoldier network."

All of these are explained a little further down page, and in large part turn out to be maybe not quite as revolutionary and exciting as you might think at first impression. Napster? "nearly every combat leader's vehicle was wired into a network like the revolutionary music file-swapping service, said John Garstka, an assistant director in the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation." But this is not Napster as we know it; we suspect it is largely an Office of Force Transformation soundbite.

Note that, whereas the intention as regards the 4th, the digitized division, is for all of the vehicles in the command unit to be networked together then networked back through the command structure, here we're only talking about 'combat leaders' vehicles,' and the import of that kind of depends on how wide you cast the combat leader net. It doesn't take much in the way of bandwidth to pass an ID and GPS coordinates via wireless, which is as well considering the military currently doesn't have much wireless bandwidth, so presumably what we're being told here is that individual vehicles are not being tracked, but that the general position of the formation can now be inferred from the position of the command vehicle. This is possibly not rocket science, and for a few hundred dollars these days you can keep track of your children this way.

Next, the deft slide into the bit that's currently easy. "Each of those vehicles glowed as a 'friendly' blue blip on the computer battle maps of commanders, bomber dispatchers and fighter pilots overhead." All of these will already have good communications, and the situation we therefore have is that yes, the command structure does probably have a better grasp of where all of the units are, but the combat leaders themselves don't have this yet.

"Click on one of those blue blips and you can send an AOL-style instant message to the vehicle's crew - in real time." If it's also going to get there in real time, then presumably this is no ordinary battlewagon, where data still has to fight its way through voice over a pretty narrow wireless pipe, but one of the conventional, more comms-heavy command vehicles. And maybe it can even - although Mr Garstka doesn't say - IM back. But why not just pick up the phone? And we don't think the fighter pilots will be tapping IMs on keyboards. At least, we hope not - we fear we spot our second Pentagon soundbite.

But: "Text messaging speeds battle decision-making, written orders being clearer than garbled ones on a radio." Yes, that makes sense, but it sounds more like a mechanism for delivering written orders than instant messaging to us, given that Centcom surely isn't going to be sending out IMs to individual unit commanders saying 'kill the T72 1.5km off at 2 o'clock' - that's his job, even when network-centric warfare really does happen.

As regards this one, we wonder what kind of pix they pass around the chatrooms when they're not bombing anybody:

"Officers directing the lethal ballet spent a lot of time in computer chats, relaying intelligence. One was Air Force Maj. Bill Cahill, who at the Combined Air Operations Center in Saudi Arabia passed pictures from spy planes to bomber dispatchers."

Seriously though, this points us to one of the more important uses of technology in Iraq, but it's one that's been proven for some years now. Smart weapons mean that if you know where a target is you can hit it with near certainty, and spyplanes and UAVs (the big success of the 4th's first experiments) give you a much better chance of knowing that. So getting pictures ought to make it a lot easier for the bombers to get to a plausible distance from the target and flip the switch. But this is all existing stuff that's being honed, it's arguably pretty much a standalone (albeit connected in its own way) system, and does not as yet fit obviously into the network-centric warfare picture.

Last soundbite, eBay. "A frenzy of bidding typically occurs in the minutes before an eBay online auction ends. It's called swarming. U.S. forces did it time and again in Iraq. Their communications gear let them gather quickly and strike in small units. Even knots of commandos, because they were networked, didn't fight in isolation. That explains U.S. commanders' confidence in ordering armored raids into Baghdad on April 6. They quickly seized a bridgehead in the center of the city, even though the territory held was physically more like an island."

We fear this communications gear may really have been voice, and furthermore we fear the voice gear used by the "knots of commandos" is likely to have been (shush...) French (the comms gear of choice for's cheese-eating spearhead, the Rangers, Marines and Special Forces). But if we said, 'We were passing this palace and we noticed it didn't seem very heavily defended, so we called down a few airstrikes and called up lots more tanks that were fairly close,' although you might be impressed by our initiative, we wouldn't have sold you network-centric warfare, would we?

Similarly (well, we presume 'similarly'), voice was a hit with the British forces: "Every British ground soldier toted a Personal Role Radio, a walkie-talkie system the U.K. debuted in Afghanistan in 2001. The kit consists of a lightweight headset linked to a compact radio normally fixed to the breast. The radio lets soldiers converse at distances of 500 meters, keying their microphones with wirelessly-linked buttons on their guns."

The kit's presence in the article is however of some significance, because the Bowman Personal Role Radio (which this is, began shipping last year as the first part of the Bowman system, which will ultimately do battlefield data, but doesn't yet, because it hasn't yet. Shipped, that is. So right now the squaddies have simply got nice, light, walkie-talkies. Which is nice.

So not much meat, but much spin, here then. However, there's a worrisome sting in the tail. John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, is cited: "Because the United States is now unbeatable in conventional war, Arquilla predicts a future of netwars where ill-defined foes 'might not fight as open armies or nation-states. Those foes, like al-Qaida, can be expected to network and swarm.'"

So spot the next big budgetary request. The Men in the Shadows will have as yet uninvented lightweight voice and data communications technologies that can operate where there are no land or mobile networks, and will operate as a kind of Napster (or even more evil, Usenet) with AK47s, RPGs and Stingers. Not figuring that out the need for lethal hardware early enough may of course be where Napster went wrong, but clearly we're going to have to be ready for this threat. We'll need to be able to tag individual people red and blue, because the punks don't have airplanes and don't sit around in nice, detectable tanks, and it'll be even harder because we're already proposing to do it with robots rather than real people soldiers, RSN. So it'll cost - but hell, how much do you value freedom? ®

Related links:

The US M1A2 Abrams, and war as a video game
The Pentagon's tactical Internet - a war too early?

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