U.S. Troops Loaded With Technology, But Can’t Harness the Power of the Network

By Sandra I. Erwin
A decade into the war in Afghanistan, Army officials continue to grapple with a baffling incongruity: U.S. soldiers have the most sophisticated weaponry and equipment in the world, and yet the enemy can outwit them simply because they have better means to receive and disseminate information.
Its Internet and cell phone savvy makes the Taliban the first true 21st Century foe that the U.S. military has confronted, says former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
The Taliban is “more network than army,” McChrystal writes in the March/April 2011 issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, in an article titled, “It Takes a Network.”
Despite U.S. deployments of hundreds of aerial sensors and other intelligence-gathering systems, the enemy’s “network” finds a way to counter what would seem like an insurmountable advantage, says McChrystal. “When the sky above became too thick with our drones, their leaders used cell phones and the Internet to issue orders and rally their fighters.”
During his years commanding forces both in Iraq and Afghanistan, says McChrystal, “It became clear to me and to many others that to defeat a networked enemy we had to become a network ourselves. We had to figure out a way to retain our traditional capabilities of professionalism, technology, and, when needed, overwhelming force, while achieving levels of knowledge, speed, precision, and unity of effort that only a network could provide.”
Afteryears of wavering on how to go about modernizing the U.S. Army’s information network, service officials now have a plan.
Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, is leading efforts to overhaul the way the service buys IT hardware and software. He has called for a network that would allow soldiers to tap their laptop or smart phone keyboards and obtain the information they need, as well as pass around critical data to fellow soldiers.
This sought-after network’s biggest obstacle, so far, has been the Army’s acquisition process.
Chiarelli notes that after years of failed attempts, the Army is learning from past mistakes and is embracing a network acquisition strategy that mimics how the commercial industry upgrades IT systems.
Key to this strategy is to sync up disparate programs that are important to the network, but so far have not been integrated. The Army’s acquisition bureaucracy is organized to manage stand-alone widgets and weapons, not an interconnected mesh of systems. Another hurdle is that the procurement process has been too slow to keep up with advances in the civilian world.
Deployed units have loads of sensors and computer networks, but they’re isolated “point-to-point” systems, which limits their usefulness, Chiarelli says in a speech last fall to industry contractors. Soldiers, he says, complain about living off the information grid. “You can’t blame the soldier for wanting the technology.”
Most recently, the Army’s top leadership has agreed to treat the network as a urgent modernization priority and to begin to consolidate technology stovepipes, such as new radios that today are being developed in isolation from each other.
"The problem has been the acquisition system that treats each radio as an individual program with an individual time line; but it is a system
that has had to learn from this experience,” Chiarelli says at a Feb. 22 Brookings Institution forum hosted by the 21st Century Defense Initiative.
“The network is now the Army’s highest modernization priority,” he says. Having every soldier plugged into the tactical network and giving them means to access and distribute information would give the Army a “tremendous advantage that we never had before,” Chiarelli adds.
Having commanded the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, he learned first-hand about the frustrations of U.S. soldiers who cannot easily communicate or share information across a war zone. By contrast, Iraqi insurgents have cheap, disposable cell phones that keep them abreast of the latest U.S. moves.
“The network has been a great equalizer for the enemy,” Chiarelli says. “They have a strong cell phone network they use to pass intelligence effectively around the battlefield.”
He believes the answer for the U.S. Army is to focus on mobile ad-hoc (known as manet) networks that would provide connectivity down to the individual soldier. “It’s taken us way too long to get the manet network out to our soldiers,” says Chiarelli. “That’s the focus of what we’re trying to do at Fort Bliss [Texas].”
Bliss is home of the Army’s Evaluation Task Force, which was created so combat-seasoned troops cantest new technologies and judge their worthiness. Over the coming months, a brigade of about 4,000 soldiers will be stationed there for the sole purpose of testing and evaluating systems.
There are still many details to be worked out. One of the most important ones is to determine what IT products small units — such as squads and teams — should be provided and what level of classification is needed for radios, Chiarelli says. The National Security Agency requires the highest level of encryption (Type 1) for military radios. That drives up the cost of devices and restricts how widely they can be made available. “NSA, and rightfully so, would never allow us to do what the enemy does with technology,” says Chiarelli.
It is not yet clear when the desired network will be ready for prime time. Nor are there any assurances that having the perfect network will lead to victory on the battlefield. Technology alone is not going to be enough to make U.S. forces, to paraphrase McChrystal, become “less army, more network.”
The Taliban’s cell phone edge is supplemented by other decidedly non-technological advantages, McChrystal writes. “As we studied, experimented, and adjusted, it became apparent that an effective network involves much more than relaying data. A true network starts with robust communications connectivity, but also leverages physical and cultural proximity, shared purpose, established decision-making processes, personal relationships, and trust. Ultimately, a network is defined by how well it allows its members to see, decide, and effectively act. But transforming a traditional military structure into a truly flexible, empowered network is a difficult process.”

Topics: Infotech, Netcentricity

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