TCS Daily

Web Wide War

By Noah Shachtman - March 26, 2003 12:00 AM

For years, military strategists' idea of nirvana has been "network-centric warfare" - the notion that infantrymen, pilots, drones, and generals will all share just about everything they see and hear over a new Internet for combat.

In Iraq, U.S. forces have come closer than they've ever been to reaching this goal. And it's not an entirely positive development.

Since Rommel, generals have wanted to attack ever-faster. The hope with network-centric warfare is to put the battle on hyperspeed, on - pardon the cliché - "Internet time." By sharing all this information, U.S. forces will be able to make decisions quicker. And this will, in turn, make them more agile, more speedy. U.S. troops will be able to take out foes with precise, nimble strikes, not crush opponents with leaden feet. Think Allen "The Answer" Iverson, instead of Shaquille O'Neal. Think 2003's quicksilver rush to Baghdad, instead of 1944's march through Europe.

"The point is to move so quickly that it's hard for your enemies to figure out what they're going to do next," said William Martel, a national security affairs professor at the Naval War College. "They react to us instead of us reacting to them."

The ultimate application of network-centric fighting - giving every soldier a headset, which transmits all that they see - is a long, long way off. But a number of new technologies are helped to give American forces some Answer-esque moves right now in Iraq. Drones that fit in backpacks are now giving battalion leaders their very own set of eyes in the sky. Tanks and armored vehicles are now equipped with GPS transmitters - and, in some cases, computer workstations - that can help give a much more precise fix on the locations of friend and foe. It sure beats use a pencil and a paper map.

"It takes the management burden off of commanders, who used to spend a lot of time figuring out where their guys were," Jim Lewis, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

But speed has its drawbacks, too - as we're now seeing. In a rush to avoid adversaries, U.S. troops are allowing enemies to remain behind, and create trauma.

"Agility doesn't translate into control," Lewis noted.

And the advantages of fast decision-making aren't as great when opponents' regular military forces become urban, guerilla fighters.

"This whole net-centric strategy doesn't seemed to have worked as well when the soldiers breakup into small groups, put on civilian clothes, and continue to resist," Lewis said.

Retired Army General William Nash, a former Gulf War I commander now with the Council on Foreign Relations, thinks the strategy of shooting straight to Baghdad is just fine. But he does believe that more troops are needed for following-up that speedy strike.

"If we had even a relatively modest force cleaning up everything else, I'd have no problem (with how the war is proceeding)," said Nash.

Ironically, one of the forces left out of the current fighting is the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division, the most "wired" of all of the American military's heavy units. This is the only division in the Army that's fully equipped with the FBCB2 ("Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below") workstations, which gives a detailed picture of the battlefield, including the locations of friendly and hostile forces.

The 4th Infantry was supposed to attack Iraq from the north, launching from Turkish bases. Ships carrying the 4th's equipment sat for weeks off of the Turkish coast, waiting to unload. Now, the gear won't begin arriving until at least the first week of April.

By then, American military planners hope that this "Internet time" war will be just about over.

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