Winning—and Losing—the First Wired War
May 20, 2006 3:18 AM   Subscribe

"Every war becomes a proving ground for new tactics and new technologies."... "...The Pentagon began this war believing its new, networked technologies would help make U.S. ground forces practically unstoppable in Iraq. ... But now, more than three years into sectarian conflict and a violent insurgency that has cost nearly 2,400 American lives, an investigation of the current state of network-centric warfare reveals that frontline troops have a critical need for networked gear—gear that hasn’t come yet. " [more inside]
posted by paulsc (26 comments total)
"...Charlie Company takes off, racing toward the fight at Ad Duluiyah. Careening around traffic circles, blowing past checkpoints, the company is primed for combat: weapons loaded, 120-millimeter cannon shells rammed into breaches. Radio-frequency jammers form a protective bubble around the convoy, keeping remote-controlled roadside bombs from detonating. “They better have that shit wrapped up by the time we get there,” Feldmayer shouts, “or we’re going to blow some shit up!”

Then, suddenly, the lead tank lurches to a halt. Through roiling clouds of dust, illuminated by the tank’s headlights, Feldmayer sees a pile of concrete and earth. The lead tank’s fancy navigation system has just led them into a roadblock, too tall for the vehicles to climb. A dozen soldiers curse in unison. ..."
posted by paulsc at 3:19 AM on May 20, 2006

Technology will never make up for gross incompetence. If you use sat nav without knowing how to navigate, you are going to get lost.
posted by Acey at 4:23 AM on May 20, 2006

Funny, I spent hours reading based on finding the same article on /.. I was gonna start working up some links this morning. (You stole my FPP!!!)

I found myself at two sites in particular, one of which centers on technology, the other on tactics and philosophies on why groups like al Qaeda (and the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq) have been so successful. Really interesting stuff: (First article there is a synopsis of the one linked above)


global guerrillas

And to answer Acey's point, the article talks about how the Army's cartographers are sometimes up to a year behind. Not to mention the temporary nature of roadblocks in wartime. I hate this war, but I was actually pretty impressed with the level of training and integration, even though it sounds like the military has a long way to go before it's flawless.

That being said, it seems that each level of technology also gives guerrillas a myriad of new ways to hamstring them as well.
posted by nevercalm at 5:12 AM on May 20, 2006

“They better have that shit wrapped up by the time we get there,” Feldmayer shouts, “or we’re going to blow some shit up!”

so. why didn't they just blow that shit up?
posted by quonsar at 5:26 AM on May 20, 2006

Bullshit all they need is stop the atrocity and kick those ASSHOLES in the white house
posted by zouhair at 6:45 AM on May 20, 2006

One of the fundamental problems with Iraq is this idea of holding a remote control war. Technology is wonderful and yes, it clearly has saved, probably thousands of lives. But, at the same time, it has helped to create this quagmire that is Iraq.

Massive ground forces would resolve the insurgency problem - or, at least, put a major dent in it. But there isn't a politician willing to hear that several hundred servicemen died on a particular day - that would be the end of any support in this country (well, mostly). America hasn't been willing to sustain substantial death tolls since before the Cold War. We've lost 2,455 troops now over the last 4 years. To me, that's about 2,455 too many but to the military, and to republicans, these numbers don't seem to bother them. Fucks. So long as we're only losing handfuls of brave soldiers each day, the lazy Americans won't notice...right?

The insurgents are smart. They don't need to know what our technology can do, only what it can't do - and they seem to have figured that out fairly well. Overwhelming numbers of ground troops could answer this problem, but that will never happen.

A couple years back someone was saying something about this turning into a Vietnam situation and I laughed at them. I'm not laughing anymore.
posted by j.p. Hung at 6:51 AM on May 20, 2006

General Patton of the Army and Colonel Boyd of the Air Force were two brilliant field commanders who knew two things:

1) Men fight and win battles, not machines;
2) Technology needs to be embraced, yet applied APPROPRIATELY.

Patton is famous for embracing armored vehicle technology and using it to update the cavalry from horses; Boyd became famous for the intelligent application of air power.

With the pace at which our armed forces move and evolve, and the complexity of this technology in a true 'fog of war' atmosphere where technology is far more prone to break down, the idea of the wired army is going to take many many many years to evolve completely.

Granted, this will give our forces an absolutely tremendous advantage on the battlefield, but we must keep in mind that at the end of the day, it will be the men on the ground who win the battle. The technology can only give them the information to do it.
posted by tgrundke at 7:14 AM on May 20, 2006

"Someday this war's gonna end"
--Killgore, Apocolypse Now
posted by stbalbach at 8:01 AM on May 20, 2006

posted by airguitar at 8:11 AM on May 20, 2006

screw war.
posted by zenzizi at 8:55 AM on May 20, 2006

if you want to make an omlette, you have to break some eggs. AMIRITE or AMIRITE?
posted by obeygiant at 10:11 AM on May 20, 2006

Bearing in mind Rumsfeld's remark that "... you go to war with the Army you have. ..." and contrasting that with this article's story about the way units have been thinned to a quarter of their original strength in order to cover larger areas of occupied territory with existing force levels, on the premise that improved communications and battlefield intelligence will make up the difference, well...

More and more, it looks like we went to war with the Army we would like to have in a few years.

Also, to come back to Acey's remark, what's bad about this is that the article doesn't point to training failures as being the cause of systems problems. The gear in the field isn't working as needed, and isn't being supported with accurate cartography. God help the poor Iraqi army we're "standing up" if we're trying to train them to depend on Garmin for navigation...
posted by paulsc at 10:32 AM on May 20, 2006

From B.H. Liddell Hart's Strategy, discussing guerilla war during the Peninsular campaign:

"The French had beaten, and continued to beat any regular Spanish forces, but the thoroughness of these defeats was of the greatest benefit to the defeated. For it ensured that the main effort of the Spanish was thrown into guerilla warfare. An intangible web of guerilla bands replaced a vulnerable military target, while enterprising and unconventional guerilla leaders, instead of hidebound Spanish generals, conducted operations."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
posted by SaintCynr at 10:51 AM on May 20, 2006

It's funny complex highly engineered systems always seem to break when taken out of the lab and into the field. Very much in the same way bullet proof applications are quicky broken when put in the hands of real users.

I think the tech industry probably could have told them that replacing people with better commnuication would stall right iout of the gate. Of course, they probably weren't willing to listen to any opinions that required spending more money anyway.

Given the curent trends, maybe they can ship the war to India where it can be fought for one third the cost in man power and with sustantial reduction in American casualities.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:02 AM on May 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I am wont to quote this wrt Iraq war threads:
One of Vann's most famous maxims, often quoted down the years, came from those first lessons: "This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worse is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle--you know who you're killing."
-- Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, p. 317
Reading Sheehan's book in the late 90s gave me all the prep I needed to understand how this war was going to go. Wars are won or lost at the streetcorner, eg. the ability to secure that new school you just painted, and the lives of the teachers you wish to teach there, and the throats of any leaders you wish to see govern.

Nintendo war that is not 99% intelligence collection is basically doomed to be counter-productive; each innocent we kill just cranks up resistance (or apathy at best) in a vicious circle of violence.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:27 AM on May 20, 2006

Modern technology, given the current state of software design and production, and the way that developers are trained (or more accurately, not trained) to think and work, is not ready for real world live-or-die problems.

I was hoping that the military software and hardware they deployed was up to the task, but apparently not.

It seemed to work very well in Afghanistan, though. I guess they just haven't worked out how to integrate this with not having enough equipment or people.

I'm convinced software needs a revolution.
posted by blacklite at 1:15 PM on May 20, 2006

Of course, they probably weren't willing to listen to any opinions that required spending more money anyway.

Quite the contrary, I suspect they weren't interested in solutions that didn't put more money into defense contractors' pockets.
posted by aaronetc at 1:23 PM on May 20, 2006

Okay, that sounded dismissive. Let me try that again.

When word first came out of Afghanistan that the most effective combat teams were made up of small units incorporating ad-hoc interunit organization, massive mobile networking, and the very best positioning and tracking technologies, I was very impressed. This is exactly what the state of the art can empower people to do, not just in warfare, but in everything. Metafilter itself is an excellent example of how largely disorganized groups of people can come together to create very efficient, self-regulating, highly productive systems.

I was under the impression that Afghanistan was a test of the networked ad-hoc army, and Iraq was a test of the top-down old model with the best modern technolgy. Both highly able and highly trained, but done with different organizational models. It now sounds, though, like they are trying the bottom-up Afghanistan approach to various parts of combat in Iraq now, and coming up short.

I have to think that it's not just a lack of hardware, but a lack of familiarity. Soldiers are getting dumped into Iraq thousands at a time, and if even the troops in 4ID (4th Infantry, the "digital division" mentioned) are having problems getting what they need out of their equipment, obviously the rest of the force is going to be having serious problems, too.

I absolutely don't blame the soldiers, though. Software and hardware engineering is not really at the point where I am comfortable with the term "engineering" for it yet. Engineers have strict guidelines, regulating authorities, codes of ethics, solid practices, and a sense of ultimate responsibility for what they create. Software engineering doesn't seem to carry the same weight, and I can count on one hand the times that I've seen software that's really what I feel software can be. Designers, programmers, writers, administration, everyone involved in the creation of modern technology, needs to have a sense of the big picture of the final product. So few technology projects have anything like a 'creative director', but I am absolutely convinced that it's necessary, to have an ultimate arbiter of a vision so that all the disparate pieces that need to come together do so in a way that makes sense and creates the most usable product.

Technology is not an end in itself, and so many people who work on it seem to forget that. It's a means to enable people to do more, better, faster, more enjoyably, to connect people's creative visions with a finished product more easily, to let people interact and communicate more naturally, to give them the knowledge they need where and when they need it as quickly as possible.

Things don't need to suck as much as we're used to. We can do a lot better. We can give more power to every single person by giving them the best that the world's technology can give them, and when we empower people (to communicate, to create) we even out the disparities that cause so many of the problems that we are always trying to solve in modern societies. Powerful, usable, understandable technology can help everyone; powerful, expensive, hard-to-use, badly designed technology locks out entire sections of humanity from what the technologically-inclined people come to take for granted. We just have to get our shit together and we can get rid of this "digital divide" thing.

I know it seems like I'm wildly off-topic, but I am convinced that the problems in Iraq are just a particular example of the wider phenomenon of badly designed and executed technology and badly conceived plans for the distribution of that technology. It causes problems when you have people in an HQ empowered one way with technology and thinking they have all the data and can do anything with it, when they really don't. The guys on the ground get screwed, and everyone's got unknowable blind spots.

I imagine there's going to be a much deeper study in the future on how the Iraq and Afghanistan resistance groups worked, and how to adapt that for the future, and I hope everyone pays attention, not just the military.

Ad-hoc decentralized organization and good design beats top-down crap every time.
posted by blacklite at 1:46 PM on May 20, 2006

Judging from what I've heard, the Pentagon is learning all the wrong lessons from the conflict.

The one thing they absolutely want to change in the future is to apply the doctrine of total spectrum dominance to the information war. This isn't just what I'm hearing from a few reporter friends of mine, but also from a few people I know who serve/have served in psyops / public information officers.

In other words, the moment there even begins to be a rumble somewhere about the facts on the grounds not being what the military wants people to believe they are, they want to proactively and agressively disable, diffuse, and otherwise try to debunk that truth.

Frankly, the level of technology that they are applying to this sort of thing should scare the bejeezus out of anyone who values free speech, because they are starting to monitor the internet bigtime, tracking the growth of memes they don't like, those they do, and conducting some very questionable psyops/public (dis)information efforts, in some cases having Public Information Officers impersonating "soldiers on the scene" to give firsthand accounts / debunk / spin the truth, etc. They are also using this organized/automated monitoring to muzzle the messages being sent back home from their own soldiers, interpreting OPSEC violations to mean, basically, anything that they want.

In other words, they want to use taxpayer dollars to more aggressively shape a lie for us, in a more agressive (and frightening) manner. That is the lesson being learned in Iraq, and it is, by its very nature, a totalitarian and undemocratic one.
posted by insomnia_lj at 6:00 PM on May 20, 2006

Wow. And my little remark to Acey about my laptop/GPS rig getting me in trouble pales in comparison...
posted by Samizdata at 9:01 PM on May 20, 2006

I second Robb's Global Guerrillas site. He's going to have a new book out later this year. Also check out his web log that covers similar info on a daily basis.

Networks aren't limited to technology and while I agree that tactical level communication is important for anti-guerrilla activity, it almost seems impossible to scale. While junior officers may know what works and is happening at the tactical level, that information must be communicated and acted upon at the strategic level. Networked communication modes can get that info to the generals in Washington, but it is never going to influence the strategic policy which is a political function. One need only look at the experience of the Wehrmacht in the late 30s - 40s to see an early example.
posted by infowar at 9:15 PM on May 20, 2006

To use the example mentioned in the Popular Science article of a list of names of terrorists and information about their recent whereabouts, that would have greater value as both human intelligence and as operational and situational mission information, a few points occur to me:

1) It's probable that basic data organization and retrieval structures already exist commercially which can effectively be used to collect, summarize, and report information in near real time to various levels of military command. The whole field of Business Intelligence is commercially mature, and is the base of the Walmart operations model the article mentioned the military being so envious of, and eager to deploy.

2) Companies such as Walmart which successfully deploy BI systems do not develop them. Rather, they spend their resources configuring and deploying mature systems, with as large an installed base as possible, to minimize project risk, minimize deployment time, and maximize benefits. Walmart's efforts at installing and operating such systems have to do with mapping their own data collection and reporting structures into the system's data cube query views and reporting, and training operational personnel to use the tools on a daily, if not hourly basis.

Until they can demonstrate greater success than Walmart has achieved as a software deployment organization, we, as taxpayers and citizens, should insist that the U.S. military is only competent when it can at least duplicate Walmart's deployment success across all services and units, with a basic tactical network and communications system. Period. If Walmart can roll out RFID inventory management for 80% of its SKU's and suppliers in a 2 year time frame while making a profit, we should expect the U.S. military to be able to do something analogous on a similar schedule. The days of any military IT systems project schedule being measured in units longer than months should be over immediately.

3) Getting the names, roles and locations of persons of interest found in a war zone operation into an accurate and accessible data store is so key to being able to act in a militarily consistent and coordinated way, that no unit that is unable to do this, should be running around in war zone. If they are, they are a hazard to themselves and others, as this article and many other friendly fire studies have repeatedly shown.

4) The primary military operations problems discussed by the article are related to data entry, incompatible subnetwork designs, insufficiently capable communications gear, and insufficient support effort to get the data for navigational and command control systems updated in a timely way. FedEx and UPS apparently have better success controlling and reporting package progress, than our military has at directing and reporting troop locations, and situational readiness. That's a level of management incompetence within the U.S. military that is costing lives and treasure, and should result in command court martials. Until we fire the current military leadership, and insist on accountability for the situations their leadership has created, we don't have accountability.

In more general terms, some larger points, for me, come out of this article.

A) The U.S. military has a such a long, poor record as a systems development organization that it has prompted repeated high level warnings to the American public from personages as prominent as President Eisenhower. As he put it in his farewell speech to the American public in 1961:
"We must never let the weight of this combination [the military industrial complex to which he had previously referred] endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
B) The U.S. military is apparently incapable of understanding the information technology of the present era, or using it as effectively as most other large scale organizations. It continues to try to develop information systems as it has developed dangerous vehicles in which to move troops and conduct operations, and tremendously expensive "next generation" manned jet fighters whose missions will likely be better handled by cruise missiles and UAV's.

C) Because of institutional biases, the professional military establishment of the U.S. is accordingly fielding a less capable, far more expensive force than it should, and is failing in its primary mission of defending the interests of the United States as expressed by the civilian leadership, notwithstanding that the current leadership's goals may themselves be wrong for the country.

D) In the same speech quoted above, Eisenhower also said:
"Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions."
Clearly, and especially in the case of information technology, it is time to rethink that presumption. As the Popular Science article implies, operational agility is the key characteristic of modern communications and network technology. If al Qaeda can put together ad hoc communication and control networks that enable an effective insurgency to operate in Iraq, with essentially no development or IT resources, then perhaps we should insist that our own military stop all development of IT, and use what is commercially available, immediately. That woud require a determined, intense effort to re-direct military acquisition systems, by a Congress and civilian bureacracy that is itself mostly ineffective and politicized.

But the alternative is that we continue to lose conflicts, and spend ourselves silly doing so.

Sorry if this comment has approached rant status. But it's time the U.S. military became accountable and effective again. Until it does, it fails to deserve the support of the country and us as taxpayers, and it does deserve our criticism and suspicion.
posted by paulsc at 1:03 AM on May 21, 2006

Al Qaeda isn't controlling the insurgency in Iraq. The vast majority of insurgents are Iraqis.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:52 AM on May 21, 2006

Baghdad ER
posted by homunculus at 8:04 PM on May 21, 2006

You go to war with the lowest bidder for the best regional pork you have. The troops? Well, they’re fungible.

The military was refitted to be primarily a hit and run sort of proposition. The command and control stuff works great - for defense. This becomes a major problem however when no one takes you up on the invitation to attack. Our Navy and Air Force could kick the collective crap out of the rest of the world. Our ground troops excel at shutting down a country’s infrastructure and ability to mobilize on a large scale (as was proven in the “war” in Iraq).
That’s all swell when you don’t have to take and hold ground WWII style.
Right now we’re pounding nails with precision tools.
But nothing is being done to retool the system, the logistics, the manufacturing. Looks like this administration wants it both ways. But hey, we haven’t gotten rid of the M-16 yet either.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:34 AM on May 22, 2006

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