The Wired War Has Arrived

Unproven technology is seeing its first action

In early March, Pentagon analyst Franklin C. Spinney received a troubling e-mail from a U.S. Army captain in Kuwait. In the missive, which Spinney published on a Web site devoted to defense issues, the captain expressed fears about a "logistics nightmare" in a war with Iraq.

At issue: new communications and computer technology that, for the first time ever, the infantry has installed in many of its tanks and armored vehicles. The captain, who requested anonymity, wrote that some of the technology was buggy. Worse, in some cases it was incompatible. "I cannot overstate the seriousness of the problem," he wrote. "This will slow down and confuse...decision-making."

That could be problematic for the Army's Third Infantry Division, or 3ID, which is spearheading the drive to Baghdad. By outfitting many of its tanks and personnel carriers with communications and computer gear, the Army hoped to provide the 3ID's commanders with a real-time picture of the unfolding war -- something the Air Force has been able to do in the skies for some time. Army commanders are counting on the technology to fine-tune tactics on the go, as well as to minimize the chance of friendly fire casualties. That's crucial for a division that can cover a swath of desert 100 miles long and 60 miles wide when it's rolling.

But with much of the new technology -- routers, servers, laptops, satellite location gear -- installed recently, no one knows how well it will work in the heat of battle, not to mention under desert conditions. The 3ID has spent much of the last 10 weeks in Kuwait working out the kinks.

"They gave us a lot of equipment at the last minute," says Captain Kathy Cage, a signals officer in the 3ID's logistical support unit. "We haven't had a chance to put it to the test."

But ready or not, the 3ID is heading into battle with the system in place. How is it intended to work? Officers will ride in armored vehicles equipped with laptops that should provide real-time mapping of the entire battlefield. U.S. vehicles, equipped with global positioning satellite (GPS) units, should show up onscreen as blue icons. Iraqi vehicles, their locations provided by aerial surveillance, should show up in red. By differentiating between enemy and friendly vehicles, the Army hopes to avoid the experience of the first Gulf War, in which 30% of casualties were the result of friendly fire.

If all goes well, unit commanders will also be able to communicate with one another by e-mail over a secure intranet. That should allow them to finesse attack plans, provide updates of enemy movements, and even warn of chemical or biological attacks. Brigadier General Louis W. Weber, who is responsible for the logistics of the entire 20,000-man division, says the technology clearly beats the previous method: moving pins and flags around on an acetate map. He adds: "We've made huge strides to be able to command and communicate."

But the technology is vulnerable. Some worry that the Iraqis could disrupt the electronic communications. Moreover, the entire system depends on a pair of Compaq servers that will be carried across the battlefield in two air-conditioned vans. The van carrying the main server will travel about 60 miles from the front. If that server goes down, either through malfunction or as a result of an attack, a second one -- well away from the action -- will take over. If both fail, the troops will have to fall back on traditional FM radio communications.

And even as the 3ID geared up to roll into Iraq, its soldiers fought a constant battle to keep servers protected from the elements. Outside temperatures were already pushing 90F. Because the vans aren't airtight, Major Bradley K. Bragg, division automation officer, worried that rising temperatures could doom the servers. "Sand is my enemy, heat is my enemy," he frets. "We just don't know how it will hold up in this terrain."

Then there is the question of system compatibility. Like most companies, the Army is using off-the-shelf technologies that don't always work smoothly together.

Ditto for some existing military equipment. In his e-mail, the captain in Kuwait wrote that the 3rd and 4th infantry divisions are using several types of tanks, which feature different communications systems. Thanks to such discrepancies, he says, the onscreen digital map of the battlefield is a "temperamental piece of equipment at best." When the technology isn't working properly, he says, units can't automatically update their maps. In some cases, he concludes, soldiers will have to manually input data into the computers.

Moreover, the 3ID suffers from the fact that its digital systems have not been fully implemented. That honor goes to the Fourth Infantry Division, which was chosen as the prototype for the new system. The 4ID features many more wired-up vehicles, and its troops are better trained on the new equipment. But because the 4ID was stranded for several weeks off the shore of Turkey, 3ID will be the "first division to use digitized warfare systems in a combat environment," says Bragg.

Of course, the 3ID can always fall back on FM radio and maps with pins and flags. But given the risks of friendly fire and the threat of chemical warfare, Bragg and his troops hope it won't come to that.

By Frederik Balfour in Camp New York, Kuwait, with Spencer E. Ante in New York

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