Iraq's Destroyer Can Now Be Its Savior

America's technological prowess in battle proved decisive. Now, Rumsfeld & Co. should use that knowhow to rebuild the country and save lives

By Alex Salkever

Two U.S. soldiers in Iraq are missing for 48 hours before they're found slain. Yet back in the States, retail giant Wal-Mart (WMT ) announces that it has deployed a global system to track the location of most of its inventory using radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags.

Something is very wrong with this picture. Think about it. The world's most powerful retailer can track household goods around the globe. But the world's most powerful military can't find its most vital assets in a confined geographic area?

Sure, it's easy to criticize the Pentagon right now. With insurgencies in Iraq gathering steam and more American and British soldiers coming under attack, the occupation and rebuilding looks like a haphazard afterthought to the execution of the war.

TAGGING TROOPS.

  View the effort through the lens of technosecurity, however, and the picture is even more disturbing. Nuclear materials have gone missing because the coalition forces failed to secure known nuclear sites. Power stations and transformers are being blown up, in part because no one is guarding them. And the Iraqi national phone system is in shambles. Calling anywhere around the country requires a satellite phone. Then there's the heat, the summer inferno that seems all the more intolerable when no power is available to turn even ceiling fans.

Add it all up, and these glaring weaknesses illuminate the U.S. strategy to right Iraq and simultaneously create a more secure environment for U.S. troops. If American technological might was so useful in ousting Saddam Hussein and ripping Iraq apart, then it should be equally useful in putting the country back together and making the occupation a safer prospect for troops still in the country.

Case in point: Tags that would allow satellite tracking of troops might cost $100 or less per soldier. So why not do for GIs what Wal-Mart does its merchandise? The question might sound flippant, but I'm quite serious. In the U.S. military, a system that allows your commander to know your location at all times in hostile country hardly seems an unreasonable conceit. And I bet such a system would prove immensely helpful in cases where soldiers are kidnapped.

P.R. COUP.

  Using simple radio tags would be just the start. Verizon (VZ ) and other big telecoms were able to bring New York City's phone system back to speed in lower Manhattan within days after September 11. The attack on the Twin Towers obliterated a huge chunk of the telecom infrastructure that wires Manhattan to the rest of the island, the city, and the world. The phone companies leaped into the breach, quickly deploying mobile towers for microwave communications that could help keep New Yorkers connected.

Such swiftness and effectiveness were testament to American technology. And you know what? A similarly rebuilding strategy would work wonders in Iraq, where the lack of communication and information plays on the fears of the Iraqi people and into the hands of the rogue elements still shooting at Americans and Brits. Some telecom company must be willing to tackle this challenge. The public relations value would be immeasurable. Having committed to an occupation of Iraq for five years -- maybe longer -- isn't anyone at the White House or the Pentagon considering cost-efficient ways of rebuilding this country?

If the U.S. military wants a more secure temporary telecom system, it could try out a growing number of platforms that function as phone switches in the sky. Motorola (MOT ), SkyTower, and a handful of other companies have tested these systems in planes and even solar-powered gliders. They would fly well out of range of soldier-launched anti-aircraft missiles. These airborne telecom towers would significantly reduce the number of big switches and long-distance cables needed to reconnect Iraq.

MIDEAST MODEL.

  Or take the case of power and water infrastructure. The U.S. military has long deployed highly advanced remote-sensing systems to secure base perimeters in the desert and other hostile locales. Troops on the ground regularly use laser sensors to set up virtual tripwires around the edges of their encampments to warn them if intruders approach. The U.S. Navy is testing an automated video system that can pick up a small boat more than a mile away.

So why can't these same technologies be applied to key infrastructure points in Iraq? Granted, you can't blanket a country the size of California with video cameras or laser-detection systems. But U.S. engineers could realistically expect to better secure key power and water plants in Baghdad. These are known, defined locations. Why aren't U.S. officials thinking about using America's advanced capabilities to protect the linchpins of modern existence in Iraq?

Taking something apart in war will always seem easier than putting it back together. But Rumsfeld & Co. so much enjoyed talking about the transformative power of technology in fighting wars. They proved that concept in the rapid victory in Gulf War II. Yet I haven't once heard them, or anyone in the Bush Administration for that matter, speak of the transformative power of technology in building peace.

REAL COST.

  Make no mistake -- technology would have an equally transformative effect at this juncture. Using tech to help rebuild Iraq quickly would have a huge impact on the region. Not only would Iraqis benefit from restoration and enhancements of civility and society but Iraq would become a model for the rest of the Middle East, a shining example of how Western technology can transform a nation overnight. America's neoconservatives who blustered so loudly for invading Iraq as a way to set up a model state in the Middle East should be ashamed. They should be pushing more forcefully for use of Yankee knowhow and technology when it's really needed.

After all, swords and ploughshares can come from the same piece of metal, and silicon wafers work wonders in laser-guided bombs and laptop computers alike. Sure, such a large tech deployment could cost big bucks -- well into the billions, perhaps. But policing a country descending into violence and mayhem will cost that much at least, not to mention the untold numbers of precious lives lost. In that light, technology could prove a real bargain and become a new model for a modern, modem-driven Marshall Plan.

Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online and covers computer security issues weekly in his Security Net column

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht