As the tanks and artillery of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division converge on Baghdad to confront the troops and armor of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, they're following the metaphorical footsteps of legendary Chinese tactician Sun Tzu. "Know the enemy and know yourself," he advised in the 6th century B.C. If that is done, "In a hundred battles, you will never know peril." Modern warriors haven't yet figured out how to read the enemy's mind. But on the shifting sands of Iraq, the powerful U.S.-led force is attempting to do the next best thing: harness America's edge in information technology, sophisticated networking, and precision weapons to give the U.S. military an unprecedented view of the battlefield -- and a decisive edge.
This strategy is achieving some remarkable successes, such as the surgical destruction of government buildings in Baghdad. But strains are already evident, including tragic glitches in the technology used to distinguish friend from foe and the problems posed by a persistent enemy whose low-tech ruses have unexpectedly disrupted the coalition's long, vulnerable supply chain. It goes to show that all the high-tech gear in the world is no guarantee of an easy victory.
The problems haven't yet dimmed the Pentagon's faith in the new digital war strategy, though. And glimpses of the new face of technology are everywhere on the battlefield. Inside the tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles of the 3ID are computers linked to a sophisticated network. As the units maneuver across the desert, commanders and their troops see blue dots on the computer screens that representing U.S. units. Red dots show the positions of Iraqi troops. A yellow diamond would mark fallout zones in the case of a chemical or biological attack. Planes, helicopters, and circling Predator drones spot Iraqi troops and vehicles -- providing intelligence that is relayed almost instantly to commanders so that satellite-guided bombs can be dropped swiftly, while the information is still current.
The result: precision targeting on a scale unknown in modern warfare. On Mar. 25, in a blinding sandstorm, units of the 3ID fought a pitched battle with Iraqi defenses for control of crossings over the Euphrates River near Najaf. The sophisticated networks enabled U.S. troops to "see" each other in the poor visibility -- as well as to call in precision airstrikes to beat back Iraqi attacks.
The fight was more than just a convincing display of firepower under harsh conditions, though. It was a small example of how the new type of network-driven warfare championed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is supposed to work. The 1991 Gulf War spotlighted high-tech weaponry. What's different now is that the military's sensors, weapons, communications systems, commanders, and soldiers are linked into a giant computing grid that gives U.S. troops the clearest picture of the battlefield warriors have ever known -- an attempt to lift the fog of war. In theory, this could be a profound leap, comparable to past advances such as the longbow at Agincourt in 1415 or the repeating rifle in the Civil War. Both forever altered how conflicts are waged. "Long-term, more and more warfare is about pushing photons around on the battlefield rather than men and machines," says Loren B. Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank.
Yet even as the high-tech legions lay siege to Baghdad, disturbing questions are emerging about the wisdom of relying so heavily on technology to do the work of war. Machines make mistakes. Already, there have been several friendly-fire incidents that should not have happened. While seven Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles have been knocked down by U.S. Patriot missiles, a technical glitch may have been responsible for the accidental downing of a British Tornado jet by one of the Patriot batteries -- and a subsequent attack by an F-16 on another Patriot installation. And on Mar. 25, Iraqi officials claim bombs struck a Baghdad market, killing 15 civilians. "As you've seen just recently, technology doesn't always work perfectly," sighs Air Commodore Andy Warnes, Britain's commander for communications systems in Doha, Qatar.
Moreover, as coalition forces enter a second phase of fighting in Iraq's cities, high-tech gear will no longer give them such an overwhelming edge. The best sensors and precision weapons don't help as much against an elusive foe that fights from building to building and blends in with the civilian population. And weapons of mass destruction remain a giant wild card. Technology should allow U.S. soldiers to react more quickly if chemical or biological weapons are unleashed, but it can't stop those attacks from being carried out.
While the Pentagon plays up the new technology, a fully networked military is still a distant dream. Many U.S. troops have not yet been outfitted with the latest high-tech gear, sometimes with tragic consequences. One example so far: the tragedy of the lost maintenance convoy. On Mar. 23, a group of U.S. soldiers made a wrong turn into an Iraqi ambush. The route was changed at the last minute, but these troops didn't have the advanced technology that would have alerted them to the change, according to sources in the 3ID.
Some of the 3ID's supply troops have been forced to communicate via ordinary off-the-shelf Motorola walkie-talkies, which have a range of a mere 5 miles. In fact, one supply convoy Humvee driver had to shout from the window to pass along an order to douse headlights, because he didn't know the frequencies for the radios being used by the drivers behind him. "We're not the digitized division," Colonel Steven Lyons of the supply brigade complains. "When it comes to reality, we're one of the more starved outfits in the army."
Pentagon leaders acknowledge that digitization of the military is a work in progress, but they insist it is already giving them crucial advantages. They're belatedly tapping into the latest Internet technology -- the way corporations did in 1990s -- to become nimbler and more efficient. It's an all-out effort to harness the power of the Web and other cutting-edge information technologies. That means tearing down virtual walls and building lightning-fast links between the armed services so that these onetime rivals can collaborate more. "We look to the business community for inspiration," says John Arquilla, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. "Networked organizational forms are highly efficient, and we like to emulate that."
Rumsfeld's bold vision represents a remarkable shift in attitude toward information technology, too. The basic idea: Since the private sector has already figured out how to manage, integrate, and analyze huge amounts of information on networks, why not tap into the same hardware, software, and expertise? In many cases, the same servers, satellites, and fiber-optic networks, as well as software that major corporations routinely use, can be pressed into service to link images from Global Hawk unmanned aircraft with commanders and shooters on the ground.
These new technologies have enabled fresh military tactics, some of which are already visible in tank tracks in the Iraqi sands. In the 1991 war, U.S. forces advanced in a largely unbroken line. Now, the allies swarm across the desert with far more widely dispersed units, counting on help from the air that's just an e-mail or satellite phone call away.
Experts believe that the tactics of urban warfare may undergo a shift, too. Because sensors and precision weapons don't help much against an elusive foe that blends in with the civilian population, General Tommy R. Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, is expected to try a new strategy -- a combination of siege and quick surgical strikes -- to take Baghdad. The idea is to send small teams in and out fast, taking out key targets, rather than laboriously storming the city street by street à la Stalingrad. The latest technology and communications gear should help. Soldiers equipped with night-vision goggles stay in touch with each other and commanders in real time while on missions. They can call in air strikes so precise that they can take out one building at a time -- although the ability to do so may be limited by Iraqi willingness to locate troops or targets in civilian structures. So, while the situation isn't ideal, having the technology edge is still better than not having it.
Ditto when it comes to chemical and biological warfare. Gear that protects against biological and chemical attacks has improved dramatically in the past few years. One significant new innovation is the Fox Nuclear-Biological-Chemical Reconnaissance System, an armored vehicle equipped with sensors that can detect contaminants and instantly transmit alert information to commanders. If such attacks occur, soldiers will don the latest protective garb, a full-body suit that soaks up chemicals with a layer of charcoal lining and lasts for up to 45 days.
While many of the technologies in use in Iraq have been available for years, it is only now that a critical mass of them have come together to create a truly networked battlefield. The glue that binds the system is the so-called tactical Internet. Deployed in Afghanistan for the first time, the tactical Net is the computer interface used by soldiers to communicate and share information. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan logged on to a Web page and could read battlefield reports and view video feeds downloaded from the surveillance cameras in Predator drones flying overhead.
Certainly, the scene at coalition Central Command in Doha, Qatar, represents a dramatic change from the command centers of wars past. Instead of relying on maps with pins to mark troop locations, Franks watches the battle unfold in real time on seven 60-inch plasma screens -- and he can react on the spot. "The Joint Operations Center is light years ahead of the way we used to process and manage information during the Gulf War," says a senior military official in Doha. "By sharing information across the board -- service to service, country to country -- we're a much more efficient and potent fighting force."
It helps that all four armed services are represented in the Joint Operations Center. Plus, all of the communications and data links between them happen automatically, so not collaborating isn't an option. Military people working at the JOC say that while the historic tensions and rivalries between the services still exist, they're less intense.
The first key to making the digital war vision pay off is an array of ever-more-sophisticated eyes in the sky and on the ground. Spy satellites can read a newspaper from their perches 200 miles to 400 miles high. In the joint surveillance target attach radar system (JSTARS), circling Boeing 707s are fitted with sophisticated radar that can keep track of traffic in the air and movement on the ground. Unmanned Predators and Global Hawks bristle with TV cameras and sensors capable of spotting heat rising from missiles, tank engines, or troops. In one of the apparent successes of the war so far, the Defense Dept. says Iraqi missile launches have been spotted quickly enough for improved Patriot III missiles to intercept and destroy seven of them so far. In addition, two landed harmlessly in the desert, and one landed in the gulf. That's a huge improvement over the largely ineffectual Gulf War Patriot. A General Accounting Office report later concluded the Patriot did its job only four out of 47 times in that conflict.
Individual bits of data aren't of much use by themselves. The big advance since the Kosovo conflict is being able to merge information from multiple sources. By combining the radar image of a moving vehicle from JSTARS with video from a Predator and infrared data from a Global Hawk, analysts at the command center can quickly determine if a suspect blip on the ground is a tank rather than a civilian bus. That's helping to cut the "kill time" -- the time from spotting a potential target to taking it out -- from more than an hour to less than a minute. But that carries potential perils as well. If targeting errors occur, there is little time to correct them before bombs are launched.
The eyes in the sky perform another invaluable function as well. Whether it's Sun Tzu or Stonewall Jackson, battles have been won by knowing the terrain better than the enemy does. Now, U.S. troops in Iraq are using detailed maps to reveal where enemy troops may be hiding and to determine where best to put fuel dumps and resupply points. When fighting starts in Baghdad, the ability to chart the constantly changing urban landscape, as buildings fall and streets are blown up, will offer a valuable advantage.
But armies that live by technology can also be vulnerable to a curse of modern computing -- hack attacks by a determined enemy. Jamming communications or taking down wireless networks can paralyze a digital foe. Even when everyone is on the network, savvy enemies can still attack at numerous vulnerable points. Precision weapons and position sensors on tanks and troops depend on receiving signals from the satellites of the so-called global positioning system. Block those signals -- as the Iraqis attempted to do with inexpensive Russian GPS jammers -- and bombs miss their mark: The fog of war begins to return. Indeed, on Mar. 25, U.S. Air Force Major General Victor E. Renuart Jr. announced that his forces had found and destroyed six GPS jammers used by Iraqi units.
As with corporations, the effectiveness of high-tech military technology can be hobbled by incompatibility problems. From command and control all the way down to the grunts fighting on the field, lack of interoperability is slowing down decision-making. The 3ID, for instance, has several different tanks with varied communications and logistics systems that don't talk to one another. And only one person in the logistics arm of the division, Colonel Jim Hodge, is outfitted with the newest battlefield-communications system. Among the 70 other support vehicles, only three are even equipped with a more primitive communications and logistics system. Worse, during the long trek toward Baghdad on Mar. 24, those vehicles were in a part of the convoy that got split off, leaving the front section without any way of tracking them. When technologies aren't up to snuff for corporations -- which is often -- it's frustrating. But with the military, it can be a life-and-death matter.
Whatever the problems, however, the move to automate war has become an irreversible force. Plans are under way to network practically every piece of the military machine, from front line troops to logistics to the health-care system. The Army's Land Warrior project, for instance, encompasses everything worn, carried, or consumed by soldiers: It calls for a wearable computer, helmet-mounted information display, and wireless network system. Because so much computer smarts will be embedded in new weapons, personal-communications gear, and targeting systems that pinpoint locations for artillery and air strikes, power and weight are seen as limiting factors. On the Army's drawing board are such futuristic concepts as lightweight chameleon body armor that senses its surroundings and changes color to blend in -- and also reacts to outside temperature to keep the soldier comfortable.
As tempting as some of this high-tech gear sounds, planners and soldiers alike understand the limits of technology. Troops on the ground in Iraq have the latest chemical-weapons protection equipment, but they still carry pigeons as an early-warning system. You always need a fallback. Many Marines have personal digital assistants, "but we still have our little green notebook as well," says Lieutenant Colonel Steven H. Mattos, director of the technology division at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va. "If you put a hole in a paper map, you have a map with a hole in it. You put a bullet through a computer screen, what do you have? A piece of junk."
Still, the dream of reshaping the battlefield with technology burns bright. The initial step, which we're now witnessing in this first digital war, is knowing the positions of friend and foe. The coming next step is knowing that a particular enemy vehicle is a certain kind of tank with specific firepower. And ultimately, the U.S. military wants to know what the enemy has been trained to do, so that U.S. commanders can predict how foes will react as American forces approach. If the Pentagon succeeds in getting there, they will be as close as warriors can come to Sun Tzu's vision of fighting a hundred battles and never knowing peril.
By John Carey in Washington and Spencer E. Ante in New York, with Frederik Balfour with the 3ID, Laura Cohn in Doha, Qatar, Stan Crock in Washington, and bureau reports