Networked Information Decisive in War
No one wins wars without skilled soldiers and firepower. But networked information was perhaps the Pentagon (news - web sites)'s most striking asset in Iraq (news - web sites), where variations of signature Internet tools and tactics donned military fatigues.
Think Napster (news - web sites), instant-messaging and eBay in battlefield khaki.
As Internet innovation sprouted in the 1990s, gearhead planners quietly worked to adapt Silicon Valley's best ideas for the world's dominant fighting force.
Just as in Afghanistan (news - web sites) a year ago, swiftly distributed digital data gave the networked Americans and their British allies the edge.
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.
Of course information technology, employed by foes, can bite back. As occupiers, U.S. forces in Iraq will be easy marks. They'll need to keep ahead of the information curve.
The U.S. military started using its digital smarts in Kosovo and Somalia ? after the 1991 Gulf War (news - web sites). Theorists at RAND and elsewhere pushed ideas like "cyberwar," "netwar" and "network-centric warfare" in which the all-seeing U.S. military fights ever more elusive enemies.
These theorists believed that ground tactics like the bold "left hook" flanking maneuver of the first Gulf War would become as irrelevant as the bayonet. Supremacy would cease to depend on sheer numbers of soldiers, planes or tanks ? or even space-age weapons.
Infowar's primacy crouches on a few basic tenets:
1) So much intelligence is now built into weapons systems ? be they satellite-guided missiles or cyber-targeted tank shells accurate from two miles away ? that it often takes just one shot to kill. To win you need to pull the trigger before your foe does.
2) Stealth and deception are critical. If you can't find the enemy, you can't kill him. Hiding doesn't necessarily mean making yourself invisible. It means jamming the enemy's eyes and ears.
3) "Front lines" are no longer relevant. Small forces armed with powerful, accurate weapons can devastate. Witness Sept. 11 and worries over weapons of mass destruction.
"Today the ability to collect, communicate, process, and protect information is the most important factor defining military power," writes Bruce Berkowitz, a Hoover Institution fellow, in his new book, "The New Face of War."
Winning the information war starts by spreading intelligence across your army and weapons. That's where Napster comes in.
During the first Gulf War, commanders had to pause the campaign occasionally to figure out where all their forces were. Not this time.
In Operation Iraqi Freedom 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.
Each of those vehicles glowed as a "friendly" blue blip on the computer battle maps of commanders, bomber dispatchers and fighter pilots overhead.
Click on one of those blue blips and you can send an AOL-style instant message to the vehicle's crew ? in real time.
Text messaging speeds battle decision-making, written orders being clearer than garbled ones on a radio.
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.
That networking brought astonishing capabilities.
A full 100 percent of carrier-based fighter pilots didn't get targeting orders until they'd reached the outskirts of Baghdad, said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. It was Arquilla who, with fellow Rand analyst David Ronfeldt, authored the cyberwar and netwar concepts.
On the wired battlefield, traditional front lines can become irrelevant. That's where eBay comes in.
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.
Wireless (news - web sites) was also hot in Iraq.
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.
Most of these technologies have cheap civilian equivalents, which makes them affordable for adversaries.
And that makes it crucial to stay a step ahead in the information struggle.
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.
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