Computers in Combat: Double-Edged Swords
Amidst dunes and dried shrubs, tanks are humming the sound of war at rest. The sunset, over dusty mountains, is bringing a brief respite to the soldiers, scurrying around the tanks. Once night falls, they will have to brace for another fight.
But now, it’s time for chow and a taste of last night’s victory.
These American soldiers are fighting for Armagosa, a country that wants to save its province of Sanesia, rich in precious metals. In February, neighboring Corona decided to annex Sanesia and create “Greater Corona.” With the help of Sanesian-Coronan rebels, Corona occupied Sanesia and nationalized the mines, thus increasing ethnic and political violence in Sanesia.
The UN has authorized the United States to help defend Armagosa against further Coronan aggression. On April 2, the U.S. troops managed to cut off an attack coming from the north and one on the east.
The conflict is a simulation designed by top Army officials to train soldiers in the ways of warfare in the 21st century. The battleground is the Mojave Desert at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, Calif. The trainees are 4th Infantry Division armor, artillery, aviation and support units.
The purpose of this year’s exercise is to demonstrate the combat capability of soldiers armed to the teeth with computers. The Blue Force (U.S. and allies) have an advanced version of the Abrams tank, called the M1A2 Special Enhancement Program. Their vehicles have computers equipped with the Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) software, which displays the location of friends and foes on the battlefield. Other advanced systems used by the Blue Force include Apache Longbow attack helicopters, upgraded Bradley infantry vehicles, Wolverine assault bridges and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.
The resident Fort Irwin units, whose role is to be the enemy—the much-feared “Op For”—are fighting the traditional way, with no digital enhancements.
The officer in charge, Maj. Gen B.B. Bell, said the DCX (Division Capstone Exercise) is “real training” for war, not just a chance to play with new technology.
“This is the closest thing to combat that these soldiers, hopefully, will ever see,” said Capt. Salazar, of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Merchandized Infantry (2-8). “But if something is to break out in the future, this division is going to be prime and ready to go.” Charlie 2-8 played a major role in out-flanking the Op For on the second night of the exercise.
In this two-week exercise, the soldiers fight 24-hour operations, with maximum three hours of sleep.
The new M1A2 Abrams tanks have a powerful computer, running the embedded battle-command software and digitized color maps. The data is stored in removable cartridges. This allows soldiers to quickly and easily transport battlefield information. A generator provides electrical power during silent watch and recharges the batteries, while the main engine is shut down.
With a second-generation forward-looking infrared sensor, the tank commander can detect and identify targets at extended ranges.
The FBCB2 software, installed on almost every vehicle, tipped the balance in favor of the Blue Force at the onset of the war. All units are connected via a tactical internet—a wireless network that links computers and radios.
At any given time, soldiers receive real-time information about the location of the red and blue forces. Red icons indicate the enemy forces, their supplies and mine fields. Soldiers can use electronic mail to transmit information. They can also follow the enemy’s moves almost at the time they occur.
“It gives us situational awareness,” said Antoine Haddar, first sergeant at Charlie 2-8. “Before, you had to listen to the radio carefully, and you couldn’t get all the information. Now, you can basically see everything, the whole brigade can see the same thing. All that information used to be privileged, and you got surprised. Now, you get surprised less, actually a lot less, and that is an advantage,” he said.
In the first battle, Haddar’s battalion had to block the enemy from attacking the flank of the brigade, and then push the Op For to the middle of the brigade, where the Blue Force could defeat them.
If a battleground boundary changes, the brigade tactical operations center (TOC) can update it on the computer screen. The data flow down to the battalion and up to the division.
The ability to transmit information instantly is one benefit of digital warfare, said Maj. Gen. Steven Boutelle, program executive officer for command, control and communications systems.
“Sometimes that takes five minutes, sometimes it takes an hour, but let me tell you ... to draw all that on an overlay with a grease pen, then roll it up for somebody to drive it, sometimes took three to six hours. When the overlay was hung on the wall [on] a nail and when the hole becomes bigger and bigger, the accuracy of [the overlay] left a lot to be desired,” he told reporters in Fort Irwin. “And that’s the way you do business today.”
The FBCB2, meanwhile, “gives you line of sight, it allows you to see the difference in elevation from where you are to where you want to go, or where you want to shoot,” said Salazar. “You just click two points on a touch screen map, as opposed to having to look at the map, determine and judge contour intervals.”
Like any overworked computer system, the FBCB2 slows down considerably at times, and often crashes, soldiers said. “There are systems here that are going down constantly and ... we’re working hard to keep them going,” said Col. John Antal, chief of staff for the DCX. “If only 10 percent of it works and we win a fight, that is amazing.”
The “weak link” in the technology is the ability to update logistics-related information, said Boutelle. “We’re trying to feed off the FBCB2 all the maintenance reports coming in every day, and we still are not doing that well.” Boutelle explained the Army would like for the combat service support station to automatically update the status of all logistics, but that is still a “big challenge.”
According to Boutelle, the Army switched its networks to the Internet protocol in order to have interoperability with other organizations. “One of the powers of adopting commercial technology—which is the Internet protocol—is that it will allow messages to find their way across battlefields or the civilian world,” Boutelle said. Communication needs to be redundant and find its way around the battlefield, he added.
Boutelle said he is confident the Army is not making its systems easier for hackers to penetrate, by using off-the-shelf technology. “On a tactical battlefield, we are a closed system so we are not nearly as vulnerable in some things,” Boutelle said. “We are not part of the commercial Internet, we really are an intranet—a three-level closed internet. If we could do it all over again, we would call it a tactical intranet.”
The Army’s intranet has multiple layers of security,” he noted. “We have embedded software programs that check for viruses, look for different anomalies.”
During a raging sandstorm on the first day of battle, when no airplanes could fly, the Blue Force had to rely solely on the FBCB2 for tactical information. Even the sophisticated AH-64D Apache Longbow couldn’t take off.
Using the data on the intranet and its tactical knowledge, the Blue Force managed to destroy 60 percent of the enemy’s troops, while losing about 40 percent of its own.
For an exercise such as DCX, tanks and tactical vehicles are not destroyed physically , but are instrumented to record if they have been hit. They flash a light, for example, to show they have been defeated. All soldiers hold casualty cards, indicating different types of injuries. They have to hand over those cards to the medical teams sent to their rescue.
When they talk about their new equipment, some soldiers’ eyes spark with fascination and confidence. “Even the lowest guy in the rank can continue the battle in case something happens, “ said Cpl. Rollin Singer. “And most of all, it reduces fratricide.”
Salazar agreed. “For a lot of young soldiers, it’s a great thing, because everybody in their generation is into video games.” But commanders say they have taught soldiers not to over-rely on computers. “It’s been very tough, but we have been very successful in making the crews aware that this is not a catch-on, this is nice when you have it,” Haddar said. “The first time it breaks down, they need to know what to do. We’ve been pushing very hard that this is not the only thing you rely on, you still have to do the same things as before: the maps, the overlays. ... We will still be able to accomplish a mission, just like we did before.”
Maj. Rocky Kmiecik explained that navigation and reading maps are still a big part of the soldiers’ training. They are a vital back-up to the computerized systems.
“Should the soldier be a computer geek now that we have digitization? I say No!” Maj. David Daigle retorted. “We need the same soldiers that we have been blessed with for centuries.” Many of the soldiers at DCX had been away, training for more than two months, “and they still maintain great attitudes,” Daigle said. “Those are the soldiers we’ve always needed and will require for the future, whatever the equipment.”
Although several soldiers confessed that they missed the comforts of having running water, fresh clothes and regular meals, they said that the anxiety and nervousness about the battles ahead keep them going.
At 2 a.m., the next day, Humvee engines are purring, waiting to be ignited. This is the time when A Company, 3rd Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment (3-67) planned to help another battalion make a breach in the northern part of the desert. But the tanks are mum, none of them has moved yet, and the TOC is in tense expectation. Soldiers intently follow the FBCB2 screens, to see the battle unfold.
The Blue Force is having trouble making the breach. The Op For is attacking fiercely. It’s the enemy’s revenge. They laid wires, mines and ditches that the Blue Force has to overcome in order to grab more terrain and push back the enemy. A Wolverine armored assault bridge is going to their rescue.
At 5 a.m., infantry is sent forward, followed by the tanks. Still no move at the 3-67 TOC. All they can say is that the Blue Force has had some problems, and they’re delaying their support. The FBCB2 screens are flashing red and the radio operators are frantic. Outside the TOC tents, Humvees and tanks continue to slumber.
By 9 a.m., maps are being tossed around, soldiers huddle up around the hood of Maj. Mike Frantz’ Humvee, cigarette in mouth and grease pen in hand. The air fills with urgency. They are constructing a whole new battle plan on the fly; they have about half an hour. They are going to try and go around the breach and tackle it from the north. For breaches like this, some of the Blue Force is equipped with the Grizzly—a burly vehicle that can defeat complex obstacles, such as minefields, wire entanglements and ditches.
It’s 9:30 a.m. The tanks are lined up and ready to go. In the distance, clouds of dust are rising as a horde of tanks is moving along. Troops from 3-67 follow. “It’s the old hurry up and wait,” said Daigle. An enemy helicopter breaks up the monotony. Bradley guns are fired and the chopper tries to get out of the way, losing direction, and eventually disappears behind the sand hills.
During the exercise, the Army is using the Bradley Linebacker for air defense. It is equipped with Stinger missiles and an advanced fire-control and digital cueing system. The artillery platform is the M109A6 Paladin—a self-propelled howitzer that fires out to 30 km.
The procession of tanks is going up north on the Siberia Highway. The only signs of battle are a couple of shot-down tanks flashing their lights. There’s no sign of the enemy.
At the end of the day, the official result is that the Blue Force has “reached its training objectives.” The 3-67 got two companies through a tough obstacle belt that the Op For built. Two other companies made it around the obstacle belt, but had trouble maintaining communication. The action was stopped soon after this, which meant a victory for the Op For, said an Army source who requested anonymity.
The Op For is the “hardest team we fight,” said Antal. “A lot of people say the Gulf War was easier to fight than the NTC.”
At Fort Irwin, the enemy generally has an advantage, because it’s “his backyard,” said Salazar. Army officials describe the Op For as unpredictable, lethal, a force that fights continuously.