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Battlefield Information Systems Empower The Warfighter

May 2002
By Lt. Gen. John A. Dubia, USA (Ret.)

Battlefield information systems, both in use today and being designed for the future, have gone beyond being a force multiplier to become a cornerstone of military operations. The technology of today, along with that being prototyped for tomorrow, means timely response to execute the commander’s intent and timely and accurate response to the individual warfighter.

Our operations in Afghanistan under the command of Gen. Tommy R. Franks, USA, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, illustrate the effectiveness of battlefield information systems and their potential for the future. Their influence is not merely an enhancement of military operations but a change in the way warfare is waged. Just how much these systems have transformed combat can be seen by comparing one standard facet of ground operations—fire support—today and 30 years ago.

When U.S. forces fought in Vietnam, fire support coordination was a complex process requiring precision moves against an elusive adversary amid a dynamic environment. The ability to command, control and coordinate army artillery fires, naval gunfire, air force air support, army attack helicopters and marine artillery took far more than one radio system. In many cases, liaison personnel were required to interface with different services in tactical operations centers. In some situations, U.S. Air Force aircraft took U.S. Army observers aloft to help direct air strikes. And, all of these endeavors involved voice communication.

Now, fast-forward to today. The technological advances since that conflict have improved capabilities exponentially. Digitized communications networking allows secure voice, text messaging, maps, sensor data and real-time battlefield imagery to flow across multiple levels of command as well as among warfighters. Technology has allowed the commander at all levels on the battlefield to see the battle better, and it has enabled the warfighter to wage combat more effectively and with fewer casualties.

Our forces now have more timely sensor-to-shooter capability. If an enemy hurls an artillery barrage against U.S. forces, systems such as Firefinder will track the trajectories back to their points of origin and transmit those locations to artillery units for immediate counterfire response. For more involved activities, diverse assets such as naval surface fire, submarine-launched cruise missiles, and air support all can be coordinated through networked command, control and communications.

The result is providing the fire support needed to close with and destroy the enemy. The effective use of battlefield information systems serves both the commander at the higher level and the noncommissioned officer leading a small team to take an objective.

The ability of individuals to better see the battlefield continues to advance. Special operations forces already are using these technologies in ways not even considered feasible just a few years ago. Today, in some units the individual warfighter can see the battlefield through helmet-mounted devices that display situational awareness information. He can communicate his own situation and request fire support digitally without even speaking.

In this manner, the warfighter joins the category of sensor platform. Virtually every node in the networked battlespace will be an observer, whether on foot, in an aircraft, in orbit, at sea, or under the sea—and whether human or machine. The goal is the same: quick and effective support through superior battlespace situational awareness.

However, praising these technological successes is not to say that we have achieved all of our goals. Interoperability remains one of the key challenges facing military planners. Joint and coalition interoperability are imperatives. The full advantages of network-centric warfare cannot be achieved without effective interoperability among all of the participants, including coalition partners who join U.S. forces in defense of the Free World.

Being able to see the battlefield and to have all of the available intelligence makes the job of the commander and the warfighter easier and more effective. However, a major challenge facing military planners is the need to fuse this intelligence into a useful product for users at multiple levels. The intelligence collected by diverse sources and processed through information systems must be translated into solution sets for commanders at sea, in the air and on the ground. This is a challenge being addressed today by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As new battlefield information technologies continue to evolve and revolutionize military operations, the user must be part of their development and testing. Only individual users can tell their colleagues in industry how the prototype must be shaped to work most effectively.

Despite all of this technology, there is no substitute—nor will there be a substitute—for the soldier, marine, sailor, airman or coast guardsman who is taking an objective. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is the human element—that man or woman in uniform—who is the ultimate weapon to win any war.