IT at Heart of ‘Shock and Awe’

Military officials and experts are characterising Operation Iraqi Freedom as the most IT-intensive military campaign in history. The campaign, officials said, puts to the test a “network-centric warfare” strategy that has been under development since the first Persian Gulf War 12 years ago.

“There are more computers on the battlefield than ever before,” said Colonel Mark Bowman, operations officer for the US Army’s 11th Signal Brigade. In fact, there are so many computers involved in managing the modern battlefield that digital data networks have become more important to senior commanders than traditional voice networks, he said.

The deployable headquarters facility of the US Central Command in Doha, Qatar, was designed by Raytheon prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. However, as military tensions with Iraq began to rise, CENTCOM commander in chief General Tommy Franks put the project into high gear.

Although Raytheon has been asked by the military not to divulge the specific IT systems in use, Computerworld has confirmed that the mobile headquarters facility includes a high-speed fibre-optic network backbone that can deliver video over IP to the desktop, as well as direct links to the hundreds of intelligence and surveillance systems and deployed forces in and around the Persian Gulf.

Video on the Battlefield

Cololnel Dan Gerstein, commander of the Army’s 93rd Signal Brigade in Fort Gordon, Georgia, said the integration of real-time video into the military’s command and control operations marks a significant departure from the first Persian Gulf War. Although there was limited use of videoconferencing during Operation Desert Storm, ground forces today are making use of battlefield videoconferencing systems as they advance on Baghdad, said Gerstein.

What’s enabling that is the US Department of Defense’s Global Broadcast Service (GBS), which provides massive amounts of bandwidth to allow tactical commanders to receive imagery and other data from CENTCOM headquarters or unmanned aerial vehicles, said Gerstein.

The US$500 million GBS is based on commercial direct broadcast satellite technology and provides high-speed data connections of more than 24M bit/sec. to tactical computers equipped with antennas as small as 50cm in diameter.

The use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies is also being touted as a major improvement since Operation Desert Storm. Gerstein said some units are deploying GPS for “real-time situational awareness,” allowing for the direct exchange of information among soldiers on the front lines, rather than requiring information to be routed through headquarters.

“The Gulf War was an analog conflict,” said Gerstein. “Today, there are digital formations at much lower levels of command.”

One such command is the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, which has yet to arrive in Iraq. Based at Fort Hood, Texas, the 4th Infantry Division is the Army’s first fully IT-equipped division. It will arrive in Iraq armed with software called Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below, which is designed to provide soldiers with vital battlefield information, especially the location of friendly and enemy forces.

Meanwhile, the US Navy’s missile-guided cruiser USS Shiloh is for the first time using a system called Area Air Defense Commander (AADC). Designed by General Dynamics, and powered by a suite of supercomputers and high-performance servers from Silicon Graphics, AADC tracks hundreds of planes and missiles simultaneously. The system then displays the data on a 9-by-9 metre “reality” screen that enables rapid transfer of digital information to end users.

“The average commander has 30 to 50 gigabytes of data to interpret at any given time,” said John Burwell, SGI’s senior director of government industry. By using a screen with a wide field of vision, the system enables users to interpret a lot of data in real time, he said.

John Hillen, senior vice president of American Management Systems and a veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, said the pace and scale of the current conflict is nearly seven times that of Operation Desert Storm, though approximately one-third the number of troops are participating. “This is where transformation has paid off,” said Hillen. “The real IT story of this war is that it is the birth of network-centric warfare and the ability to make decisions rapidly. We’re changing air sorties in flight. That was unheard of 10 years ago.”

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