by CIO Staff

Col. Kenneth Allard on Technology’s Impact on the War in Iraq

Sep 22, 20036 mins
Business Intelligence

Because the American military does not believe in re-fighting the last war in Iraq, it is proceeding with after-action reviews and analyzing lessons learned. But it is not too soon to suggest that Gulf War II will be remembered as a conflict in which information fully took its place as a weapon of war.

Just as the railroad, the telegraph and more accurate battlefield weaponry made the American Civil War the harbinger of industrial age conflict, consider the only more pronounced effects of the information age weapons used during Operation Iraqi Freedom:

  • Clusters of unmanned aerial vehicles loitered over the battlefield for hours, providing continuous surveillance and occasionally serving as convenient launch platforms when attractive targets were spotted.
  • Complementary groups of aerial surveillance platforms, including aircraft and satellites, were able to pinpoint Iraqi forces in daylight and darkness—and in weather conditions that included sandstorms of biblical proportion.
  • Precise navigation allowed controllers to distinguish American troops, vehicles and logistics from those of the enemy. Armed with this information, pilots programmed an array of precision munitions that hit Iraqi targets with devastating accuracy while largely, though never completely, avoiding collateral damage to civilian facilities and minimizing the ever-present problem of “friendly fire.”
  • Networks of satellite communications and tactical data arrays enabled information-sharing quite literally from the foxhole to the Pentagon. Military services whose lack of interoperability had been proverbial (“We have only the same travel agent in common…” ) now found themselves linked to each other and coalition partners with a pervasive connectivity that allowed everything from the exchange of e-mail and graphics via battlefield laptops to interactive chat room discussions between widely separated command headquarters.

The tactical results of this information flow could be appreciated in several ways. Iraqi artillery batteries could barely fire before American ground and aerial surveillance spotted and fixed on their positions. The information was immediately passed either by voice or tactical data links to Army ground stations or fighters, setting the stage for devastatingly accurate return fire by rockets or artillery—a “sensor-to-shooter” sequence usually completed within seconds or minutes. Iraqi air defenders quickly learned that to radiate their fire control radars was to invite an immediate audience with the Almighty as U.S. Air Force high-speed antiradiation missiles almost invariably found their marks. Consequently, the Iraqis mostly fired “in the blind” while their American counterparts usually hit their targets with the first round.

The information differential could also be seen in planning the calculus of battle. The U.S. force assembling to overthrow the Baghdad regime (a far more exacting mission than kicking the Iraqis out of Kuwait) was less than half the size of its Desert Storm predecessor. The reason: During the 12 years between wars, the American military had come to realize that the enemy treated information in the same unimaginative, hierarchical way that characterized its whole approach to battle tactics. It could hardly have been otherwise, since Saddam Hussein constantly shuffled his military commanders—and periodically executed some of them—in order to ensure that none could threaten his regime.

If the Iraqi military operated in paranoid fashion, with information disseminated on a need-to-know basis (and only Saddam needed to know everything), the American force brought in to destroy it had chosen to use information as its lifeblood—achieving along the way a quantum leap in teamwork and military effectiveness. Much of modern military history consists of the endless quest for a more effective combination of arms—of organizing infantry, armor, artillery and airpower to produce the elusive synergy that is more than the sum of its parts. Problem was, every new capability seemed to square the difficulties of command and control rather than producing the desired synergy.

For the American military, this problem was compounded by the first waves of the information age. Although computers and information technology offered an array of innovative capabilities, each new system was conceived, developed and procured by the same military services—and in many of the same ways—that acquired ships, tanks and airplanes. The result was a problem that most CIOs will recognize. Far from being built in, interoperability was an afterthought, or even an additional expense to be jettisoned whenever funding cuts loomed. Thus, a paradox: Even as computers grew more sophisticated and information synergy more possible, the military services grew further apart. And yet, every time U.S. forces took the field, there was invariably a price to pay for the continuing “seam” of interoperability, such as the notorious “friendly fire” incident in April 1994, when two Air Force F-15 fighters mistakenly shot down two Army Blackhawk helicopters over northern Iraq, killing 26 people.

As most CIOs will also understand, progress in correcting this anomaly was uneven. But in the 1990s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commanders began to promote a vision of future warfare in which C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems would be forged into a new style of American warfare in which interoperability was the key to information dominance—and information dominance the key to victory.

It is difficult to see Operation Iraqi Freedom as anything less than a vindication of that ambitious vision. While some analysts—including this one—had worried that a wired battlefield inevitably meant more insidious micromanagement, Gen. Tommy Franks achieved something unique. Like his predecessors, he used information to gain a “God’s-eye view” of the battlefield, but he also insisted that what he knew and could see be shared with his subordinate commanders. Franks then insisted that they use this information to seize and keep the tactical initiative. Far from being a tool of micromanagement, information dominance was used to take risks but not gambles.

There are of course the usual caveats. The Iraqi opposition proved singularly unable to mount a serious challenge to the smooth functioning of American networks, either by hacking, jamming or concerted physical attacks against communications facilities. The next enemy may not be so inept.

Professional signal officers, reservists (normally found in places like Circuit City) and a legion of lower-ranking technicians were required to lash disparate systems together as well as to handle the inevitable challenges posed by heat, sand, dust and constant movement. So there is a subtle compliment to be found in the Army’s new Global Command and Control System, used in Iraq for the first time. Its acronym is GCCS—pronounced “geeks.” Exactly. Can’t live without ’em.

In fact, information dominance—either in business or war—proves the worth of whatever difficulties information managers must undergo to achieve it. For the American military, the verdict on the information weapon parallels the one reached during an earlier age about airpower: Now that we have it, there is simply no way we intend to go to war again without it.