Army Lite

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“How Technology Failed in Iraq” by David Talbot, in Technology Review  (Nov. 2004), 1 Main St., 7th fl., Cambridge, Mass. 02142.

In April 2003, an armored battalion of the Third Infantry Division was at the tip of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Racing toward a key bridge near Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Marcone, the battalion commander, had one problem: He knew very little about the strength of the Iraqi opposition. After seizing the bridge on April 2, Marcone received intelligence that a single Iraqi brigade was moving toward his position. His unit would actually confront three brigades, including 5,000 to 10,000 troops and dozens of armored vehicles, in the largest Iraqi counterattack of the war. Although Marcone’s unit won the battle, its experience, according to Talbot, a senior editor of Technology Review, reveals a much larger problem for the American military: The Pentagon’s high-tech “force transformation” has serious shortcomings.

The U.S. military has been investing heavily in force transformation for a decade. At a cost of more than $100 billion, 25 partner companies are building a suite of manned and unmanned machines, loaded with the latest sensors and communications technology, that will be linked together in a “system of systems” reaching all the way down to troops in the field. Planners hope that these technologies will support a lightly armored and more mobile American military. If, for example, the army can replace heavily armored tanks with light Stryker troop carriers that use digital information to evade enemy fire, it could fly—rather than sail—to war.

The Pentagon points to force transformation’s many successes in Iraq, from the ability to bomb enemy positions through blinding sandstorms to the lack of friendly-fire incidents. Earlier achievements in Afghan­istan, where U.S. Special Forces coordinated precision attacks against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters using digital information networks, also indicate that force transformation is working.

But many frontline commanders in Iraq repeated Marcone’s experience: digital images of the battlefield and other crucial information never reached them, sensors failed to detect the enemy, software froze, and downloads took hours. The army’s microwave-based communications system, designed for a European campaign, required vehicles to come to a halt in order to download information, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

“It was a universal comment: ‘We had terrible situational awareness,’” says a RAND Corporation researcher who is working on a study of the Iraq campaign. He sees evidence of a “digital divide” between the battlefield and headquarters units, which sometimes received so much information that they had to pull the plug on the influx.

The Pentagon is committed to building a lightly armored, highly mobile U.S. military, with the expectation that “information armor” will compensate for reduced physical protection. But, as Talbot concludes, “what protected Marcone’s men wasn’t information armor, but armor itself.”

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