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Wireless Technologies Are the New Information Revolution

December 2003
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

A great deal has been written about how information technologies represent a new industrial revolution, and many of the changes of that revolution have reached into virtually every corner of our lives. Yet, that two-decade-old transformation is now being changed by a revolution emerging from within: the advent of ubiquitous wireless connectivity.

Individuals in the industrialized West are living this change firsthand as they equip themselves with cellular telephones, BlackBerrys and other personal digital assistants (PDAs). But, the importance of this revolution best can be seen where it has the greatest impact—in the military.

Probably the most-often discussed subject at AFCEA conferences such as MILCOM, DOIM and Fort Huachuca’s C4IST has been the requirement to get information down to the individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine. That has been one of the major objectives of U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration John P. Stenbit in his emphasis on “power to the edge.” Virtually all of the lessons learned from operation Iraqi Freedom include comments about the speed of the forces’ advance exceeding the speed with which line-of-sight communications could keep up. Command and control (C2) of our forces was challenged by this rapid mobility, and wireless technology is viewed as the most likely solution to getting collected information and C2 down to the tactical, “trigger-pulling” level.

This challenge, and the advantages brought by wireless technologies, affect all of the services differently. For example, Sailors have been greatly dependent on space and high-frequency wireless technology links for years. With the U.S. Navy’s ships unable to take advantage of the power of fiber optics, the sea service always will depend on some wireless means to maintain information links with its diverse forces. For the Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force, aircraft have no alternative but to rely on wireless communications for information connectivity during the battle—which is becoming more vital as air tasking orders increasingly are changed midflight. The transformational U.S. Army, which is rich in bandwidth among its static facilities, now relies to a greater extent on real-time information as it dashes across the battlefield, and this dynamic force cannot afford the luxury of spinning fiber trails over hill and dale.

Today, the role of the individual warfighter on the ground has changed enormously because of wireless connectivity and the capabilities that it brings to the front. A Soldier, Marine or Airman equipped with a laser designator has the opportunity to direct an aircraft to hit a specific target on the mark—if that individual warfighter has wireless connectivity with other forces or headquarters. In operation Enduring Freedom, for example, we learned how individuals in wooden saddles on horseback could use a laser and a radio to help friendly indigenous forces rout an established adversary.

These new technologies have changed the role of the warfighter from being just a trigger puller to being someone who can target and communicate with fellow forces. This is realizing the long-sought dream of metamorphosing the individual into a node in an all-encompassing network.

This lesson was brought home to me personally when I sat down with a group of Marines in California who had just returned from the Iraq War. At one point in our conversation, I asked the Marines in the room to raise their hands if they had either a cellular telephone or a PDA. Every hand went up. For years, Marines have spoken the phrase “every Marine a rifleman.” Today, every Marine is a communicator. That is power.

Industry is responding well both to finding ways to get power to the edge for the individual warfighter and to providing the bandwidth required to support our increasingly mobile forces. During operation Iraqi Freedom, roughly 80 percent of the satellite bandwidth was provided by the commercial sector. That certainly indicates that industry is stepping up to the plate to provide the wireless bandwidth required to ensure effective warfighting and interoperability among the bandwidth-challenged and the bandwidth-privileged services.

Satellite constellations that are nearing realization offer huge increases in bandwidth capability. Inmarsat 4, for example, is designed specifically to provide bandwidth down to the individual on Earth—especially the individual on the battlefield. The U.S. Defense Department’s transformational communications system promises a quantum leap in bandwidth capabilities for the individual warfighter.

However, complacency cannot be the modus operandi for the implementation of wireless technology. Too much is changing on land, at sea and in the air. The societal changes being wrought on the civilian side pale in comparison with the widespread transformation now underway in the military. And, the stakes could not be higher—the preservation of our precious freedom in the face of a global threat.

Power to the edge and its enabler—wireless technology—are no longer “nice-to-haves.” They are an absolute requirement. We are meeting the technological challenge. Now we must prepare to meet the challenge of new emerging capabilities that will continue to define wireless connectivity as the revolution within a revolution.