TCS Daily

Listen Up, General!

By Melana Zyla Vickers - April 16, 2002 12:00 AM

In recent days, soldiers who fought in Afghanistan have vented their spleen publicly against the unmanned aerial vehicles that have received so much praise stateside, from the president on down. Operation Anaconda's grunts have suggested the pilotless planes that fed video back to headquarters were nothing short of exasperating nanny cameras - hovering but offering no help, reporting action imprecisely, and inviting counterproductive meddling from higher-ups.

The chafe is not surprising: Warriors have for centuries had a love-hate relationship with the technological advances that have come their way. The good news, though, is that their feedback can - and should - motivate military planners to integrate these newfangled UAVs in a way that better suits the warfighters' needs.

The history of taking two technological steps forward, one step back, is perhaps best illustrated by Abraham Lincoln, an "early adopter" of technology if ever there was one. On Lincoln's watch, the North strung 15,000 miles of telegraph wire over the four years of the war, allowing the commander-in-chief to receive up-to-date information from far-flung generals. Every telegraph operator in battle had a portable wire device with which to inform superiors of advances or retreat, and was instructed to destroy it if he was captured. Some 4,500 messages were transmitted daily in the course of the war.

But there were flaws. When the South's Gen. Stonewall Jackson outsmarted the North in the 1862 Shenandoah campaign, Lincoln, who from headquarters had been trying to make tactical decisions about where to place armies in the field, recognized that receiving up-to-date information from the war front was not the same as being there. He decided to back off - subsequently sticking to strategy and policy and leaving the tactical decisions to officers in the field - all the while receiving more telegraphed information than ever.

More recently, the global reach of satellite communications risked causing a life-threatening struggle between Washington and commandos in the Iranian hostage-rescue attempt by Delta Force in 1980. After three of eight helicopters crashed or broke down, the rescue mission's ground commander, Col. Charlie Beckwith, informed Washington over his satellite phone that he was aborting the mission.

He wasn't second-guessed at that moment. But Beckwith says in his memoirs that there were administration officials on the other end of the phone who wanted him to proceed, and that some time after the rescue attempt he was asked the hypothetical question "what if you had been told to proceed anyway?" Beckwith said with aplomb that he would have pretended he couldn't hear Washington's instructions over the satellite phone, and stuck to his own judgement call.

Using that method to fend off headquarters' meddling in tactics might be a little harder to pull off when a 27-foot flying video camera was doing the communicating. But Beckwith's method demonstrates that adaptation to new technology clearly takes all forms. And despite the growing pains, both the telegraph and satellite communications were eventually integrated smoothly and became indispensable.

UAVs will surely follow the earlier technologies in becoming integrated and indispensable. That's not least because UAVs cost a fraction of a piloted aircraft, offer essential battlefield information at no risk to human life, can loiter over the battlefield for days, and perform other missions such as attacking enemy targets or providing fire support for front-line troops in combat.

For the UAV to reach its full usefulness to ground soldiers, though, the following changes need to take place:

UAVs must be directly linked to the soldier on the ground. The Predator UAVs used in Afghanistan served primarily the higher levels of command, inviting questions from headquarters to lower-level commanders, and assisting soldiers on the ground only partially, with some time lag, when information was relayed back to them on the location of particular caves or adversaries. Future UAVs should be able to relay what they see to the soldiers, in much the same way as the Predators in Afghanistan communicated directly with AC-130 gunships to identify targets for attack from the air. Other UAVs should be able to respond to soldiers' direct demands for fire support.

Some UAVs must be at least in part under the soldier's control. The Predator UAV is a hulking 27 feet long, a complicated craft that had to be controlled by specialized, remote pilots. Some future UAVs promise to be much smaller, even micro-sized and portable in a soldier's rucksack. Such micro-UAVs could scout out surroundings on a soldier's behalf, providing him with valuable information and protecting him.

UAVs must function within a military whose capabilities and personnel are more closely integrated, or "joint." The UAVs used in Afghanistan were controlled by the Air Force (others were controlled by the CIA), and their information was relayed to the point in the military organization where the Air Force and Army integrate - at the joint task forces some distance from the battle. The front-line Army soldiers were thus several steps removed from the UAV data. The Air Force and the Army need to work together at much lower levels of personnel and capabilities, to make the loop of information smaller, faster, and more useful. The beginnings of such micro joint-task forces were evident in the cooperation between the Green Berets and bomber pilots in Afghanistan.

To be sure, some technological advances are of the "better mousetrap" variety and are quickly discarded. But the UAV appears to have more staying power than that. As long as Pentagon planners listen hard to the feedback they're getting from soldiers, the pilotless combatant promises to give soldiers a real, reliable helping hand.

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