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Saturday, October 23, 2004this article from the MIT Technology Review describes a "digital divide" in the battlefield:
Once the invasion began, breakdowns quickly became the norm. For the movement of lots of data — such as satellite or spy-plane images — between high-level commanders and units in the field, the military employed a microwave-based communications system originally envisioned for war in Europe. This system relied on antenna relays carried by certain units in the advancing convoy. Critically, these relays — sometimes called "Ma Bell for the army" — needed to be stationary to function. Units had to be within a line of sight to pass information to one another. But in practice, the convoys were moving too fast, and too far, for the system to work. Perversely, in three cases, U.S. vehicles were actually attacked while they stopped to receive intelligence data on enemy positions. "A lot of the guys said, 'Enough of this shit,' and turned it off," says Perry, flicking his wrist as if clicking off a radio. "'We can’t afford to wait for this.'"
Fortunately for the U.S. troops, superior training and traditional equipment still provide the critical edge. The newest revolution is known to Pentagon planners as “force transformation.” The idea is that robotic planes and ground vehicles, empowered by an ever expanding range of sensing, targeting, imaging, and communications capabilities (new technologies), would support teams of networked soldiers (a new doctrine). According to its most expansive definition, force transformation is intended to solve the problem of “asymmetric warfare” in the 21st century, where U.S. forces are not directly confronted by conventional militaries but rather must quell insurgencies, destroy terrorist cells, or mitigate regional instability. Among other things, more nimble, networked forces could employ tactics like “swarming”—precise, coordinated strikes from many directions at once.
The technologies driving force transformation are incredibly complicated. It will take at least 31 million lines of computer code to run something called Future Combat Systems, the centerpiece of the Pentagon’s transformation effort. An army-run program expected to cost more than $100 billion, it consists of a suite of new manned and unmanned machines, all loaded with the latest sensors, roaming the air and ground. Software will process sensor data, identify friend and foe, set targets, issue alerts, coordinate actions, and guide decisions. New kinds of wireless communications devices—controlled by yet more software and relaying communications via satellites—will allow seamless links between units. Currently, 23 partner companies, many with their own platoons of subcontractors, are building the systems; Boeing of Chicago and Science Applications International of San Diego are charged with tying them all together and crafting a “system of systems” by 2014.
In this grand vision, information isn’t merely power. It’s armor, too. Tanks weighing 64 metric tons could be largely phased out, giving way to lightly armored vehicles—at first, the new 17-metric-ton Stryker troop carrier—that can avoid heavy enemy fire if need be. These lighter vehicles could ride to war inside cargo planes; today, transporting large numbers of the heaviest tanks requires weeks of transport via land and sea. “The basic notion behind military transformation is that information technologies allow you to substitute information for mass. If you buy into that, the whole force structure changes,” says Stuart Johnson, a research professor at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University in Washington, DC. “But the vision of all this is totally dependent on information technologies and the network. If that part of the equation breaks down, what you have are small, less capable battle platforms that are more vulnerable.” |
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