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The Toughest School of All

July 15, 2008
SIGNAL Staff

Throughout the 1990s, the end of the Cold War brought with it a new approach to military doctrine. Planners throughout the newly enlarged Free World modernized their forces around information technologies. In the United States, network-centric operations became the modernization catch phrase as the military moved to embrace new enabling technologies and transform for new missions and obligations.

But, as with most military modernizations in peacetime, the effect of information technologies on the fighting force largely was theoretical. Planners designed architectures around systems that then were acquired and fielded; but at the end of the day the effectiveness of the network-centric force could be evaluated only by limited training and experimentation.

That changed on September 11, 2001. The United States found itself at war, and the military soon was pressed into service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Suddenly the new network-centric systems had moved from the theoretical to the actual battlefield. The technologies and the concept itself would undergo the ultimate live-fire test—war.

Early grades were good. Warfighters liked many of the new technologies, which they found especially useful against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s army in Iraq. Some systems making their way through the procurement pipeline were sent to the battlefield on an accelerated schedule, and they also were received warmly by the troops.

But with the defeat of Saddam Hussein came a change in the nature of the war in Iraq. The end of the conventional war gave rise to multiple insurgencies—uprisings by different groups with diverse goals against the backdrop of a governmentless Iraq. These insurgents adopted old guerrilla-style tactics while introducing new ways of waging asymmetric warfare.

Quickly, allied forces had to adapt to adversaries who defined the battlespace on their own terms. While the network-centric technologies originally were designed for conventional warfighting, troops quickly learned how to exploit them in the ever-changing asymmetric fight.

As the technologies proved their worth on the battlefield, their users sent out the call for related capabilities. Situational awareness became one of the top priorities for ground forces combating urban insurgents, and the U.S. Army responded by speeding a host of new systems into the field. Soldiers were given hardware that increased their abilities and reduced their risk. And, by pushing the network down toward the individual warfighter, the Army was able to advance many capabilities that previously had been limited to commanders at higher echelons.

The effect was felt far beyond the battlefield. As soldiers applied new systems that had been sped to them, they provided feedback to procurement authorities and contractors alike. This valuable data has helped developers change new and future systems to suit warfighter requirements better. Similarly, engineers have moved in different directions to design equipment that addressed newly discovered needs.

These warfighter lessons learned had major effects. The Army’s network-centric environment was not designed in a vacuum; it entails numerous pieces of equipment developed to interoperate as a system of systems. Changes to any parts of the whole promise to affect the full spectrum of information technologies in the pipeline. This is not an unwanted effect; everyone involved in implementing information systems wants to deliver the best possible capabilities to the warfighter. But it does force change on major ongoing programs that have been carefully sculpted for years—past and future.

The school of war always has imparted valuable lessons on warfighting doctrine. Now it is doing so on high technology. The rapid implementation of systems into Southwest Asia is improving the lot of the warfighter on the ground, and the feedback it is generating is improving the potential for the warfighter of the future. The price paid now will help reduce any price paid later.

—The Editor

More information about Army technologies is available in the August 2008 issue of SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers August 1, 2008. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services