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Off the Shelf, Into Battle

August 2004
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

A few weeks ago, there was a story on the evening news about a waitress in Texas whose son is a Marine stationed in Iraq. Although his unit could communicate with the higher echelons, its members were having difficulty communicating with each other while on the battlefield. He asked his mom to go to a local electronics store, buy a set of walkie-talkies and send them to him. She was happy to help the war effort, but what she didn’t anticipate was the hit the equipment would be with her son’s buddies who wanted walkie-talkies of their own.

The Marine’s next request was for his mom to go to an electronics store, buy all of the walkie-talkie sets it had and ship them to his unit. Not being a woman of great means, she decided to share her son’s request with the people who frequented the restaurant where she worked. Within weeks, she had collected more than $8,000 in donations, which she used to purchase and ship the equipment.

This is an example of network centricity at the grassroots level. It also is a story of how communications gets a job done quicker than ever before. Everyone—from the customer looking for an out-of-stock product to the warfighter calling for air support—recognizes the power of networking. And, they are using it.

In the military, this is sometimes occurring without regard for standard operating procedures. Why? The answer is simple. Troops under fire cannot wait for formal doctrines, tactics, techniques and procedures to be established to tell them how to solve a problem they face today, right now. Many know from their personal lives that solutions lie in networking. They also know that the technology is out there that will help them network, and they can’t afford to wait for formal network-centric warfare processes to be hammered out to take advantage of innovative technologies.

Some military leaders realize that the services must move faster in getting network-centric-enabling technologies into the field. The U.S. Navy, for example, has been using secure videoconferencing to get input from the field while capabilities are still on the drawing board. The U.S. Army is re-examining the Warfighter Information Network–Tactical (WIN-T) program to ensure it incorporates the latest wireless technologies.

Although individual efforts like these are moving forward, the network-centric ship is still operating only at half speed. This isn’t a surprise. Young warfighters are coming to the field used to being connected through laptops, cell phones, e-mail and handheld computers that surpass the capabilities that desktop machines featured only a few years ago. And let’s face it, the world today belongs to a generation that not only is always connected but also moves and changes at lightning speed, and it’s time for military leaders to catch up.

Sending walkie-talkies to the troops to help them stay connected is a laudable effort. However, commanders know that equipment that is sent into the field must be supported. Savvy soldiers and Marines may be able to fix a device if it breaks, but once the battery runs out, the networking breaks down unless new batteries are part of the logistics chain.

And support is needed in other ways as well. Several speakers at Transformation TechNet in June pointed out that new hardware and software facilitate network centricity, but warfighters can use only a small percentage of the innovative features unless they are properly trained.

Logistics and training are just two examples of the “back office” issues that need to be resolved sooner rather than later by decision makers as they promote the attributes of network-centric warfare. Warfighters in the field understand the benefits of being connected, but they need the infrastructure to take full advantage of the capabilities they know are out there. It is up to military leaders to coordinate this effort and move ahead quickly.

Believe it or not, even in today’s high-tech world, there still are people who say the Internet is just a fad. Most of us know that it’s here to stay and growing by leaps and bounds every day, and so are the ways network centricity can help in the global war on terrorism. As a result, military leaders today have a huge responsibility. While dealing with the tremendous challenges in current operations, they must stay on top of the capabilities that are available and at the same time put into place the foundation for the force of the future. All three tasks are equally important.

The military cannot be anchored in old processes. The enemy has a vote. The enemy has access to the same technologies. The enemy is willing to adapt, change and network. The U.S. military cannot afford to do less.