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Military Treats Outbreak of Chat Rooms in Afghanistan

May 31, 2011
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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Thousands of chat rooms create confusion in the battle zone.

As chat capabilities threaten to overtake voice radio as the preferred means of communication on the battlefield, military officials in Afghanistan are countering the proliferation of chat rooms available on the coalition network. Chat capabilities offer several advantages over voice communications, according to military officials in Afghanistan. Those advantages include: providing greater clarity when communicators speak different languages or dialects; being less prone to jamming or friendly force interference; and offering quieter, stealthier communication for troops in tense situations, among others. But thousands of chat rooms available to warfighters have proven to be too much of a good thing.

“Voice is still king for immediate collaboration, but chat is definitely close on its heels. On a broken radio transmission or a hard-to-hear telephone transmission in a high-stress environment, you may not be able to understand what that other person is saying,” explains Col. Derek Orndorff, USA, the communications director for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan. “With text, it’s right in front of you and you can read it, so that’s a real benefit to chat in a coalition environment.” He adds that chat also offers a record of what was happened during a specific incident.

Chat has become so popular for conducting battlefield operations, however, that the number of rooms available has reached into the thousands, creating inefficiency and confusion. “With the chat capabilities we have across the network, we could host up to 3,000 chat rooms a day. And it was unmanageable. You don’t even know what’s going on with 3,000 chat rooms. It’s too many of them.”

 As a result, the colonel has initiated what he calls a “chat rationalization process” to whittle down the numbers to something more manageable. In consultation with other warfighters, his staff has defined which chat rooms are absolutely essential for conducting missions. “We got down to around 120 that are listed as the official chat rooms, so [for example] if you’re going to do medevac, you go to this one room,” Col. Orndorff says. With fewer rooms and a directory of available chat areas, warfighters can more easily identify the exact room they need to log into for a particular problem instead of “fishing around in five or six chat rooms trying to find someone to answer their problem,” he adds.

The specific number of chat rooms will likely fluctuate, in part because a chat room may be created for a specific mission and then deleted once the mission is complete. In addition, Col. Orndorff and his staff monitor chat rooms no longer in use and disassemble them as necessary.

One of the most widely used chat capabilities in Afghanistan is a joint tool known as JChat, which is provided by the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency. It has become an integral part of the Afghan Mission Network—the core network for conducting operations in the war theater. The Afghan Mission Network is highly touted by NATO and military officials in Afghanistan for allowing the various nations to share information much more seamlessly. Col. Orndorff emphasizes that the network continually proves its value in part by giving units on the battlefield a reliable connection back to the Coalition Joint Operations Center (CJOC). “Every night, or every day, you have combat operations, and it creates what we call ‘troops in contact.’ In those instances, those nations that have troops in contact now have connectivity back to the CJOC, so the CJOC can turn resources—whether intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or combat aviation resources or medevac—to help accomplish those missions going on out there.”

Without that capability, he explains, every single one of those troops-in-contact incidents would involve one person calling in information, which would have to be carefully jotted down, passed along and physically input into the various individual networks. No longer does a piece of intelligence have to “fight its way up” through a particular system, receive permission to be shared and then have to “fight its way back down the system,” according to Col. Orndorff. Now, one person enters it into the network, and it’s there for all to see, he explains, citing JChat as an example. “The increase in combat effectiveness is directly related to the fact that we’re all using the same information from the beginning. We’re not all asking if this is the right grid, the right unit, the right enemy, the right village.”