Leadership: November 4, 2003

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The U.S. Army continues to study the details of what went on during the recent Iraq campaign and has come to some interesting conclusions. First, the battlefield Internet works, and needs to be made more rugged and capable of moving more data faster. What made things work in Iraq was access to communications satellites. A lot of the extra communications capacity ("bandwidth" in geekspeak) was obtained by leasing commercial satellites. Just like the military has long made plans for taking over civilian shipping, railroad capacity, and airliners in wartime, so to must preparations be made to get more satellite bandwidth. The army is also ready to confront the fact that many troops take their personal laptop computers into battle, and use them. Of course, the army has thousands of special (more rugged and expensive, but slower) portable (not always laptop) computers for field use. So the plan is to meet the troops half way by developing ways to keep off-the-shelf laptops from getting beaten up (with the dust, heat and moisture) in the field, and making it easier to keep the laptops going (more generators built for recharging laptop batteries and more military software designed to work on any Windows laptop.) Up till now, the army has preferred to create special software to run on customized computers. But as Iraq operations demonstrated, the real world prefers an off-the-shelf laptop. Many troops are very familiar with this equipment when the join, so the army is saved a lot of technical training when commercial laptops are used. Moreover, using off the shelf technology makes it easier to make the battlefield Internet mobile, and keep it mobile. Iraq also showed the need for speed, and for American troops to move fast and keep moving. This means commanders of battalions and brigades will spend most of their time in a vehicle, and need communications gear, and computers, that can operate while traveling. This greater reliance on off-the-shelf computers and software also makes it easier to use fewer civilian contractor personnel in combat. Such civilians have been operating with combat troops for centuries. But the increasingly rapid changes in technology makes it necessary to bring in people familiar with the latest technology so it can be used right away. You can wait months, or over a year, for soldiers to be taught the new maintenance skills, but it's often a matter of life and death to use the new systems now. By using more off-the-shelf computer equipment, fewer civilian experts are needed. But that put the spotlight on another opportunity; keeping track of the computer skills of all troops. The army has always been lax in noting special skills (languages, technical abilities) of troops, even when these same skills are often desperately needed. Now the army is seriously considering identifying the geeks, so they can be gathered together for emergencies. This was actually done, in an informal and inefficient manner, for the Iraq campaign. But as soldiers have been saying for centuries; "we'll do it better next time."

 


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