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Iraq War Operations Validate Hotly Debated Theories

July 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Investments and innovations pay off as new capabilities give a glimpse of the future.

The theoretical superiority of network-centric warfare in conventional combat was realized with the rapid U.S.-led coalition victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq. Coalition forces brought to bear the full power of megabits and gigabytes against regular, irregular and so-called elite forces of the Iraq military.

The groundwork for the information network that empowered operation Iraqi Freedom was laid by operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. After that operation’s success, the gradual buildup to war in Iraq allowed careful planning and positioning to provide the necessary technologies and systems that enabled commanders to change plans rapidly as conditions warranted.

Furthermore, efforts to achieve interoperability bore fruit as the services worked together to an unprecedented degree.

“The jointness of this operation is unbelievable,” declares Brig. Gen. Dennis C. Moran, USA, director of command, control, communications and computers, J-6, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Forward stationed at Camp As Saliyah, Qatar, the general relates how he was struck by the degree of jointness as he watched the battle unfold.

“Everything we did was joint in nature—whether it was support coming from the sea, support coming from the air, support coming from the ground, or the special operations forces. I don’t think we have ever had a better integrated capability from a joint perspective.”

Much of this jointness, as well as the other information-related successes, represents the realization of years of network design and technology insertion. “The rapid sharing of information at all levels of command was possible because of the technology that we had in place,” Gen. Moran declares. “The ability to move intelligence rapidly from the sensor to either an analytical decision maker or directly to the shooter was the best that we have ever seen.”

CENTCOM also had a common operating picture of both blue and red forces that could be shared at all levels of command, from strategic to operational to tactical. Each of the services brought its full family of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems to the battle. This produced “mountains of intelligence” from airborne and space-based systems, the general notes.

The Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), for example, could loiter over a target and feed imagery on the target’s development back to a decision maker or a command and control (C2) system. The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JointSTARS) moved data rapidly down to a tactical operations center to support ground operations. This type of capability was a key enabler for the coalition’s success, the general offers.

“We validated the concept of network-centric warfare and the need for communications, C2 and ISR systems to be hooked up to, and interoperable with, the Global Information Grid and to be adaptable to whatever circumstances are on the battlefield,” Gen. Moran declares.

This was a major factor in the evolution of the war. “If you tie together the enemy’s mis-reading of what we were going to do with our unbelievable airborne ISR capability, along with the effectiveness of our air component, those were the things that kept the battle waging way out in front,” Gen. Moran points out. “We never had those large armor movements like we had in operation Desert Storm, which also reduced the potential for aviation to attack blue-on-blue.”

Some pleasant surprises emerged from the war. “Our tactical communications systems performed more reliably than we expected in a very mobile battlefield,” Gen. Moran reports. He offers that this is a testament both to the professionalism of the military personnel who installed them as well as to the designs and the systems that were in place in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and special operations forces to support those tactical systems. “What surprised me was how good our communications were—not because I expected them to be bad, but because our plan stayed pretty true after we crossed the berms into Iraq,” he elaborates.

A related discovery was that many of the measures implemented over the years to improve intraservice interoperability apparently have paid off. “What surprised me—happily—was how mature jointness of command and control is in our armed forces,” the general notes. “I was surprised at how easy things were and how well each one of the component communications staff worked together.”

Gen. Moran describes this war’s success by comparing it to operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (SIGNAL, February 2002, page 17). In Afghanistan, CENTCOM began that war with the same communications architecture that had been established for more than 10 years following the first Gulf War. The command had to build up its infrastructure rapidly with tactical and commercial systems. The operation began with a tenuous communications architecture, he relates, that evolved to a fairly robust architecture within four months.

As it repositioned to continue supporting Afghanistan operations, the command took advantage of its shift in forces to make major investments in its information infrastructure. These investments were made with an eye toward possible operations in Iraq, Gen. Moran discloses, and involved wideband infrastructure and command-and-control-on-the-move systems. The command bought more commercial satellite infrastructure, made significant investments in fiber optic connectivity—both to Europe and to the United States—and brought new technologies into the theater. These technologies included asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) transmission for intelligence and command and control systems. This gave CENTCOM a tremendous amount of flexibility and redundancy as it moved services in and around the theater, the general relates.

As combat forces entered the theater, they brought with them a host of new communications systems. The Marines and special operations forces in particular employed technologies designed to move information rapidly around the battlespace. The Army brought its Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) system, which helped move data from the lowest level to higher headquarters for consolidation and relay.

Several other initiatives, particularly in the Army, took some specific programs and introduced them into the lowest level of operation. A special transmitter for blue force tracking, for example (see page 37), proved useful. Soldiers carrying the devices could report their own locations as well as transmit critical, timely messages.

“These systems gave us the capability to move information from the lowest level to the highest level,” Gen. Moran declares.

With a better common operating picture, the command knew “with a higher fidelity” where the leading edge of the battlefield was, he reports. As a result, the fratricide that constituted a significant percentage of casualties during the first Gulf War largely was absent in this one. “We knew where that lead tank was; we knew where those special operations forces soldiers were; we knew where those SEALs were. So, we had the capability in near-real time to deconflict that for most attacks,” Gen. Moran says.

The use of UAVs, which rose to the fore in operation Enduring Freedom, increased in operation Iraqi Freedom. This provided commanders with the ability to see operationally whatever is over the horizon and, tactically, the next ridge. While these vehicles proved especially useful in Afghanistan, their role in Iraq was absolutely critical, Gen. Moran states.

The force was equipped with a wide range of UAVs brought to theater by the command and the individual services. Predator and Global Hawk, which headlined operations in Afghanistan, have matured in both execution of operations and the exploitation of their information. Both the Army and the Marines brought their own tactical UAVs—Hunter and Pioneer—to the battlespace. All of these were used extensively, which Gen. Moran says gave coalition forces “a tremendous advantage in knowing how the Iraqis were disposed—or weren’t—and allowed commanders to know on a real-time basis what was facing them, either 10 kilometers or 100 kilometers into the battlefield.”

Among the most important information technologies used in operation Iraqi Freedom were Internet protocol (IP) services, the general offers. He specifically cites the reliability and the capabilities that these commercial services provided. “The ability of applications operating in an IP environment over a very dispersed battlefield in theater was absolutely key,” he states.

The command did not delve deeply into the use of wireless systems, the general notes. Describing their application as “infantile,” he adds that it faces security and frequency management issues. These include creating a wireless environment that is mobile where information is protected and users avoid frequency fratricide between formations that are using similar bands.

Both commercial and military satellite communications were “absolutely critical,” Gen. Moran states. Operation Iraqi Freedom represented the first major use of extremely high frequency satellite links, he notes. “Milstar was absolutely critical to mobile operations, both on our naval component for the control and launch of [land attack Tomahawk missiles] and, for our land component, the use of secure mobile antijam reliable tactical terminals (SMART-Ts). For the Marines and the Army, they were key to keeping electronic tethers on some very mobile headquarters.”

Compared with operation Enduring Freedom, the higher level theater architecture for operation Iraqi Freedom had matured considerably, the general offers. The command had “literally megabytes of fiber optics,” whereas none existed at the start of Afghanistan operations.

One problem that information systems bring to the battlefield is the potential for overwhelming the user with information. Gen. Moran notes that this can take several forms: reports, access to Web pages, messages in icons in the common operating picture, for example. “Just because you could know it because we had the technology, doesn’t mean that you should know it,” he emphasizes.

To avoid this dilemma, CENTCOM and land component headquarters worked intensely on information management from October 2002 through the start of the war. Considerable effort went into using automated systems to turn data into knowledge that then would be processed and presented to the commander in a coherent way for decision making, the general relates. This was the function of the Camp As Saliyah’s joint operations center as well as its joint intelligence center and joint logistics center.

“We made some great strides using predominantly commercial off-the-shelf products—databases and Web designs—that were capable of receiving information in an automatic manner and then organizing it and presenting it in a way that an action officer could make a recommendation to the commander based on that information,” Gen. Moran says.

This involved more than merely having nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET) and secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) access. At the tactical level, forces could have a seamless IP system that can move information from a tank or other platform to a tactical operations center that had SIPRNET access. Even in an unclassified environment, a combat service support computer or system could access information or process a requisition rapidly.

The biggest challenge involved sharing information with coalition partners. “Our ability to take information drawn predominantly from systems on the U.S.-only network, and then being able to rapidly, seamlessly move those into a coalition network, was extremely challenging,” the general continues. “We had some work-arounds that were less than fulfilling, but one of the biggest challenges we faced was sharing timely information in a seamless manner with our coalition partners. That’s one of the key take-aways of this conflict.”

He explains that the command recognized early that differences existed among coalition partners. These differences encompassed both capabilities and techniques, tactics and procedures. Acknowledging this basic fact, the command took advantage of these differences. Special operations forces, for example, worked under a central command. The command assigned missions based on the different capabilities inherent in the U.S. and British special forces, rather than trying to combine diverse elements. Those making the assignments sought to exploit unit strengths or incorporate complementary capabilities.

Similar approaches were employed with conventional forces. Gen. Moran relates that, at the division, corps and coalition forces land component command levels, the command had to work hard with tried-and-true interoperability methods such as liaison officers (LNOs). At higher levels, the command put in place a coalition C2 system known as Centrix to link the British and Australian forces with higher level U.S. commands. Gen. Moran states that this system “did the best it possibly could, under the current rules, to share information seamlessly with our coalition partners,” but it still fell short of requirements. So, CENTCOM had to rely on placing LNOs with U.S.-only C2 systems with British and Australian command centers even at the strategic levels. This enabled coalition officers with the appropriate clearances to access and view U.S. information that they needed for decision making.

“The key lesson learned is that we must work harder on coalition information sharing,” the general declares. “It must be done in such a way that the information is shared seamlessly and in a timely manner, so that each one of the coalition partners has access to the information they must have to make decisions.” This information includes time-sensitive targeting and blue force tracking, he adds.

Some aspects of coalition interoperability worked well. Gen. Moran cites the air war as one that benefited from frequent international exercises. “We were very well integrated on the air side, largely due to the work that we did in the NATO environment.” This work included identification friend-or-foe and training with air tasking orders.

Another issue was the need to make improvements to command and control on the move. Even with all of the improvements recently made, particularly on the land arena using different line-of-sight or beyond-line-of-sight radios, “we still have a long way to go” to ensure that information is moved efficiently and reliably from formations that are moving at high speed over great distances, Gen. Moran declares. “That is a big challenge that the Army needs to tackle as it moves toward its objective force,” he adds.

The command addressed that concern primarily through the assignment of ultrahigh frequency tactical satellite channels. The goal was to ensure that they were apportioned appropriately during the different phases of the campaign.