The communications and computer gurus at the Pentagon didn't win any medals in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. An Army lieutenant who tried to transmit bombing coordinates from a portable computer to Air Force fighters overhead gave up in frustration. He resorted to using a pay phone to call Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which relayed the message. At the same time, Army Rangers and Navy commandos were hampered by incompatible radios.
After Grenada, the Pentagon launched an all-out attack on its computer woes. Now, the gulf war presents the critical test of those efforts. Coordinating the often squabbling U. S. military services is tough enough, let alone integrating forces from 28 other nations that are battling by air, sea, and land. While the Pentagon's smart bombs and Top Gun fighters have grabbed the limelight, a huge array of computer and communications systems may ultimately prove to be the Pentagon's decisive weapon.
BATTLE HARDENED. "One of the unique things about this war is how many computers we have gone to battle with," says Michael W. Evans, president of Codar Technology Inc., a Longmont (Colo.) company that "ruggedizes" computers for the military. "There are thousands and thousands of computers in Saudi Arabia now." Equally significant are advances in the way those computers can work together to speed vital logistical and tactical data across vast networks. "The linkage of many small computers, passing data from machine to machine, is the breakthrough," says Fred L. Frostic, a retired Air Force pilot and now a defense analyst for RAND Corp.
It's far too early to judge whether the military's computer mavens have won. Much information about the systems is classified, and neither the Pentagon nor such large contractors as IBM will discuss performance. A spokesman for Digital Equipment Corp., which has supplied dozens of minicomputers to U. S. forces, declined to talk about DEC's role, saying its security department "doesn't want terrorists to target us."
The Pentagon line is predictably ebullient. Colonel William C. Pulver, deputy program executive officer for Standard Army Management Information Systems at Fort Belvoir, Va., says one Unisys service technician based in Dhahran "is sort of like the Maytag repairman--he doesn't have anything to do."
That would indicate enormous progress. As recently as Grenada, the Pentagon still relied on 1960s-vintage mainframes. Its soldiers used paper, not PCs, to plan their missions. Coordinating a joint effort by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines was nearly impossible because each had unique computer systems and communications protocols and could not readily exchange battlefield messages. Realizing the gravity of the problem, the Defense Dept. set up a special group known as the Joint Tactical Command, Control & Communications Agency with the mission of making the computers of the four services and NATO allies more compatible.
Standardization has helped. These days, buyers of government and military computers usually specify so-called open systems--computers based on standards such as the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Unix operating system. That makes it far easier for different types of computers to work together.
Another big change has been the move to use off-the-shelf hardware and software whenever possible. Some "mission-critical" jobs, such as weapons guidance, may always require exotic, custom-built computers. But for such tasks as keeping an army fed, housed and organized, the Pentagon has found that it can do nicely with the same types of computers that civilians use. "If you're dealing with airplanes or Kellogg's cereal, the applications are very similar," says Alan Lefkof, president of Tandy Corp.'s Grid Systems Corp. subsidiary, a maker of laptop PCs. By buying commercially, instead of paying a huge premium for "militarized" gear for every job, the Pentagon saves millions. And it can adopt new technology faster.
Microcomputers by the thousands, particularly laptops, are playing a huge role in the war. Laptops help pilots plan missions and will go right to the front lines in a land war. Grid's magnesium-encased portables, for example, may be used to plot trajectories for artillery. "I doubt if we would be where we are now without the battlefield computers," says Robert Dornan, vice-president of research for Federal Sources Inc., a McLean (Va.) consulting firm. Behind the lines, officers are using PCs to tap into the Pentagon's huge mainframe data banks--under strict security precautions, of course. And PCs are doing dozens of other jobs, from keeping track of casualties to calculating how much fuel a helicopter will need to carry a certain number of wounded soldiers.
Larger computers are still running the overall show. Perhaps the biggest job is scheduling and tracking the massive movement of people and materiel (table). Computer Sciences Corp. has developed the Joint Deployment System to help the Pentagon's Transportation Command "get everything there on the right plane, at the right time and place," says Milton E. Cooper, CSC's group vice-president for program development.
CSC also has created a mainframe-based system for General H. Norman Schwarzkopf's Central Command in Riyadh. It pulls together a variety of existing computer models that permit top brass to run simulations of battle scenarios. In the gulf, the Navy relies on a system called Aegis to protect its ships. Radars feed data about enemy aircraft directly to onboard computers, which then aim missiles and antiaircraft guns in the right direction.
'PILE OF DUST.' As with other aspects of the conflict, the Pentagon is not providing much information about how its systems are faring. But some snafus have been reported. In August, when the temperature topped 120F, the military was restricted to running many computers at night, to keep them from overheating. And desert sand, as fine as talcum powder, is a bane. To keep sand out of keyboards, soldiers wrap them in clear plastic bags. "Anytime we open a machine," says one Army computer official, "we literally find a little pile of dust."
So-called militarized computers are better adapted to the hostile climate. Rugged Digital Systems Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., for instance, mounts circuit boards in a special metal chassis that acts as a shock absorber, shielding microchips from excessive vibrations. Special air filters keep sand and debris out. That should keep its systems running at or near the front. "The objective is to provide data to the people who are at as low a level in the command as possible," says Richard M. McCloskey, RDS president and chief executive.
The real challenge for the Pentagon's panoply of computers is yet to come. The military had five peaceful months to plan its bombing campaign and deploy troops and supplies. Computers helped that go smoothly. But, says Army Brigadier General Richard J. Mallion, director of the Joint Tactical Command, Control & Communciations Agency, "I'm not ready to declare victory yet." The big test will be an all-out ground war.
COMPUTERS GO TO WAR WORLDWIDE MILITARY COMMAND & CONTROL SYSTEM (WWMCCS) The Pentagon's main, global network. Contractors: IBM, GTE, Honeywell MODERN AGE PLANNING PROGRAM (MAPP) Simulates battle scenarios for General Schwarzkopf's Central Command. Prime contractor: Computer Sciences JOINT DEPLOYMENT SYSTEM Manages movement of materiel for all U.S. armed services. Prime contractor: Computer Sciences STOCK CONTROL & DISTRIBUTION PROGRAM Helps Air Force send parts where they're needed. Prime contractor: Computer Sciences TACTICAL ARMY COMBAT SERVICE SUPPORT COMPUTER SYSTEMS (TACCS) Maintains up-to-date records of personnel and medical supplies. Prime contractor: Unisys MILITARY AIRLIFT COMMAND INFORMATION PROCESSING SYSTEM (MACIPS) Keeps track of transport planes and cargoes. Prime contractor: Computer Sciences AIRBORNE BATTLEFIELD COMMAND CONTROL CENTER (ABCCC III) Coordinates air, land, and sea operations based on electronically gathered battlefield information. Prime contractor: Unisys DATA: BW