By Alex Salkever You're leading a squad of U.S. Marines as they fight from street to street in a Mideast city in the not-too-distant future. From the cover of a battered storefront, you see that the machine-gun fire pinning you down is coming from a neighboring rooftop. Alas, a sunspot has temporarily knocked out your satellite data link, which you need to set the coordinates for a missile strike.
No worries, if the Defense Dept. has its way over the next few years. U.S. forces are looking at military versions of popular open-source software, such as AirSnort, that will locate and scan wireless broadband nodes. At least in theory, the Marine officer could link to a powerful wireless data transponder aboard an unmanned Predator aircraft circling the city, which would zip the message to an AWACS airborne command center, which would detail an F-15 fighter to launch a missile strike on the machine-gun nest.
And if the Predator connection were to fail, the Pentagon has another backup on the drawing board: U.S. Army Special Forces teams might have the capability in the not-so-distant future to deploy transmitters -- units perhaps no larger than toaster ovens -- onto combat-zone rooftops to establish a peer-to-peer network. The skyline canopy could be linked via portable lasers to an optical transmitter on a mountain 20 miles away. Result: instant wireless connectivity for any urban battlefield.
GLOBAL REACH. Sound farfetched? Not really. Most of these elements are still five years away and would be unavailable for any war with Iraq. But a handful are in final testing stages right now. Next month, the Air Force will began advanced testing on a new type of communications system that would be mounted on KC-135 Stratotanker midair refueling planes and Hunter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The system could be deployed in two years.
Dubbed the C4ISR Node (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), it's the harbinger of a future where every U.S. soldier and military vehicle becomes a node, able to receive and transmit data as part of a massive global matrix.
Derived from research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and built by defense contractor Raytheon (RTN), the C4ISR Node will be used first as an airborne radio link so that various branches of the military can talk to each other over otherwise incompatible radio systems. Later, C4ISR will create ad hoc broadband networks that not only transmit data but also spy on the enemy. The military can mount the boxes on planes, tanks, ships, trucks, or just about any other vehicle in its arsenal.
UNIVERSAL CONNECTIONS. Linked together, these nodes would create a mesh of broadband coverage that could dramatically expand high-speed data connectivity on the battlefield, in effect acting as a surrogate satellite. Notes George Duchak, a DARPA program director: "They can also provide some top cover to see if there's any enemy activity around."
C4ISR is just one of a handful of new technologies the military is rolling out to wire the battlefield of the future. Submarines can now make high-speed satellite data connections with buoy antennas so sophisticated that they eliminate transmission distortions even when waves slosh over them. Another breakthrough: specialized lasers that can broadcast and receive broadband fiber-optic communications over several miles, a technology also know as "free-space optics."
The ultimate goal? Ubiquitous connectivity. The Pentagon believes this will translate into a more lethal, more flexible fighting force. "We are getting to the point where the network itself is the weapon," says Duchak.
NONLINEAR CONFLICTS. The push for omnipresent broadband on the battlefield is part of "network-centric warfare." Shephered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, this approach could dramatically alter the way wars are fought and won, just as the Internet has altered the way the wired world shares and uses data.
Larry Rhue, a technology expert for Falls Church (Va.) defense contractor General Dynamics (GD), explains the transformation this way: "In the past, the military fought in a big, linear battle space. In the future, you have dispersed enclaves and smaller units of action. Conflicts are nonlinear. The Internet handles nonlinearity very well. People can be anywhere and use it to get vital information."
Such a doctrinal shift would turn the traditional, top-down military doctrine and command structures on their heads, much as the Internet has dramatically flattened corporate structures. "You have to think of every individual as having his own information requirement," explains Jerry Tuttle, a former director of space and electronic warfare for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and a principal at strategic-consulting firm JOT Enterprises.
"AIR TO ANYBODY." For this battlefield matrix, the military is turning to the proven digital syntaxes that power the Internet, namely IP (Internet protocol). "That changes the communications from point-to-point to point-to-multipoint," explains Susan Opp, a director who oversees broadband initiatives at New York City-based military contractor L3 Communications (LLL). "So instead of only having a restricted air-to-ground link, you would be able to have communication from the air to anybody." L3 built the communications systems for the Global Hawk and Predator pilotless aircraft.
Turning military command-and-communication protocols from an information pyramid into a network offers many potential benefits. Consider information as simple but crucial as knowing what the weather will be before going into battle. "In the Pentagon, there have traditionally been a whole boatload of captains that would go around and tell the flag officers in the field what the weather was. [Soon, you'll be able to] have the weather globally at your fingertips at any time," says Tuttle. It's another example of the way in which direct data connections permit far more effective delivery mechanisms.
Other benefits include the ability to disperse information rapidly, as field troops and others report into the network what they are actually seeing. Think of the nightmare battle scenario depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down. Such feedback would have been invaluable to the beleaguered Airborne Rangers who were unable to get decent directions as they drove in circles and under constant fire through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia.
MOVING TARGETS. The military is still a few years away from a truly wired force, according to defense contractors and DARPA. But much of the necessary technology is already in use in the civilian realm. For example, Nokia and Cisco make wireless routers that mesh networks in urban areas.
To make these systems battlefield-ready requires several additional steps, though. First, the technology would have to be compressed and integrated for military use. Second, ubiquitous broadband means connecting data streams to constantly moving military vehicles and soldiers in rough terrain. In the civilian world, connecting is easier because most of the networks are built in urban areas. In wartime, by contrast, nothing is fixed, and many of the network's nodes will be moving quickly through terrain far removed from the civilized world's communications grid.
Also, security bugs still need to be worked out. The military has to make sure that the enemy can't jack into the network after a plane, tank, or a soldier's handheld is captured. The entire network would have to be encrypted -- which is far more complicated in broadband systems, vs. the narrowband communication systems that prevail today.
Still, any conflict with Iraq could put the earliest versions of these networking technologies -- some of which weren't even completed during the Afghan conflict -- to the test. If the U.S. goes to war against Iraq, Baghdad may well become broadband's first battlefield -- and a preview of what a wired military can do. Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online and covers computer security issues weekly in his Security Net column