Information Warfare: The Secret War Rooms of Iraq


July 16, 2008: One of those unreported victories in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the triumph over micromanagement. This has not been easy, and is little talked about, because letting the enemy know how U.S. commanders make decisions in combat is not considered a wise move. However, without much fanfare, UAVs, targeting pods and Internet like communications have led to the use of "war rooms" on the battlefield for infantry commanders, using setups that were seen as science fiction a decade ago.

Micromanagement, first seen during the Vietnam war when advances in communications allowed someone in the Washington to communicate directly with commanders in combat, has been a curse for troops commanders ever since. Most often, it was a brigade or divisional commander up there in a helicopter, second guessing lieutenants and sergeants on the ground. This "micromanagement" was much disliked by the guys being second-guessed, while trying to run a battle they were right in the middle of.

After Vietnam, it got worse, as the mass media created a 24 hour news cycle, and the ability to get stories reported in real time. Just as military communications had improved, so had the ability of the media to get the story back to their audience (of voters, pundits and unfriendly politicians) quickly. In the past, the commander on the spot might do things that did not look good in the media, but it took so long to get the story back, that the operation was over by the time the media found out, and it was no longer big news. If the battle was won, many sins would be forgiven. That no longer works.

Communications now allow reporters to deliver color commentary while a battle is going on. The president, the ultimate (by law and in fact) commander in chief, is held responsible for whatever the troops do. It is often not possible, politically, to wait for the combat commanders to finish their job before the president issues new orders in reaction to media criticism (often erroneous). But in Iraq and Afghanistan, compromises were worked out, between the commanders and politicians, so the troops could get on with their work without too much second guessing and new orders from back home. Not much is said about that either, because no one wants this to become a story.

Then there's the new generation of war rooms. The military now has several (often dozens) of video cameras on most battles. The most valuable ones are in UAVs, or other aircraft (including balloon or tower mounted ones for base security). Ground combat commanders have had to learn how to cope with all this information, without it all turning into a micromanagement nightmare.

The solution has been TOCs (Tactical Operations Centers, milspeak for "war room") for everyone, from company commanders, on up. Each of these TOCs have lots of laptops, showing either real-time video, or other data useful to the mission, and people answering queries from the commander (who usually has his own laptop). There are lots of large screen displays (the 30-40 inchers are a big favorite). Company commanders have the more modest set-ups, often just the company commander and one of his NCOs, and a couple of laptops. But the brigade commander is usually the one with the most elaborate and active TOC, at least for large scale operations.

The big breakthroughs have been in figuring out which video feeds to send to who, and developing procedures for acting on information that shows up on one of these feeds. The problem now is information overload, with commanders being buried in more data than they can comprehend and absorb. A lot of improvisation has led to clever uses of multiple video feeds.

The new procedures have eliminated a lot of the micromanagement nightmares of the past. Lower ranking officers, especially company commanders and platoon leaders, are largely left to get on with the battle (or raid, or whatever). Meanwhile, the battalion, brigade and division TOCs are handling support chores, especially keeping an eye on video feeds of areas around where the company commanders and platoon leaders are doing the actual fighting. If someone at battalion or brigade TOC spots more bad guys approaching, the new procedures insure that the soldiers on the ground, and perhaps under fire, get the word quickly and accurately. The TOC also makes the most of the new generation of highly accurate bombs, artillery and missiles.

Interrogations of prisoners indicate that the enemy is in awe of what they are up against, often attributing the seeming omnipresence of the Americans, and accuracy of their weapons, to some kind of magic. But there are many ways these new drills and procedures could be exploited by an enemy who knew what they were. So details remain secret. That secrecy is further enhanced by the rapid evolution of the TOC, both in terms of equipment and procedures. All this is very important stuff you just never hear about. But at least now you know why.





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