The Elusive Last Tactical Mile

March 2005
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

When talk turns to providing a comprehensive picture of the battlefield, people often overlook the fact that the defense community is not providing a good enough picture down to the battalion level, much less to the company level. These warfighting levels especially need an accurate and actionable picture of where enemy forces are located. But, even as we head into the promised land of network-centric operations, the muddy-boots warfighters are not receiving the information they desperately need to prevail on the battlefield.

A few months ago, a group of retired flag and general officers invited a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel to brief them on a serious subject discussed in an academic journal. The focal point was how technology failed that lieutenant colonel in the Iraq War. This battalion commander described how when his force led the way to its objective in the early days of the Iraq War, the battalion discovered that it was under attack from three Iraqi brigades only from direct contact with the enemy—their attack. His battalion had no warning of the impending assault against it, and this resulted largely from a series of errors in moving the appropriate intelligence to him. He cited one example of how he requested a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle for surveillance, but his request was turned down because he did not have a high-enough priority. Ultimately, his U.S. Air Force liaison officer was able to obtain some airborne intelligence that proved tremendously supportive, but operationally the system had let him down.

I attended this meeting. I sat next to Lt. Gen. Randy House, USA (Ret.), who fought both in Vietnam and in the first Gulf War. He said to us, “You have to appreciate what the Army has done since Vietnam. The issue [for our modern forces] was that we knew that our kill power was so far superior to any enemy that we would encounter, that what we really needed to know—and where we put our emphasis—was where our blue forces were. And, if we knew where our blue forces were, then we could coordinate the force and fight against any enemy that we perceived.”

The lieutenant colonel’s story pointed out that this did in fact come to pass. Despite being hugely outnumbered, his two tank companies destroyed more than a battalion’s worth of enemy tanks. However, this successful tank commander achieved it without access to an available picture of the enemy force. Electrons were banging on the ground all around him, but he lacked either the equipment or the authority to tap that pool of data. The bottom line was that he did not know that his battalion was going to come under attack until they literally saw the enemy attacking them.

This briefing to the retired officers certainly got the attention of civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon. The Army commissioned a Rand study of lessons learned in the Iraq War, and this report described nothing less than a digital divide that caused imbalances in information access. Higher echelons with fixed facilities had access to an adequate common operational picture, but units on the move largely had to rely on armed reconnaissance and actual contact for information on enemy forces. Division and below levels rarely had control of sensor assets providing actionable intelligence, and the U.S. Central Command headquarters devoted surveillance missions mostly to strategic objectives. Tactical commanders were left with a void where they needed a detailed view of enemy warfighters in their areas of operation.

This is a technology problem as well as an architectural problem. Our group has been tasked with creating special companies focusing on this issue in the Army and in the U.S. Marine Corps. These two companies would have additional training and equipment, and they would be assessed in comparison to other companies that are not receiving direct benefits from the lessons learned.

Those lessons learned are being taken seriously. However, the need to address this shortcoming is urgent. And, both the military and the private sector must work together to link the missing mile.

The stakes now are higher than ever. The United States has committed to transforming its military into a power that is driven by information and linked by digital networks. The Army is changing from a heavy ground force configured to defend or conquer territory to a leaner and lighter force designed to move rapidly to achieve whatever objective is placed before it. In effect, this lighter and leaner force is sacrificing heavy armor and firepower for information-driven precision and speed.

If there is one area where industry can continue to make investments that will support warfighters, it is in solving this last tactical mile issue. The solution probably needs to be wireless and beyond-line-of-sight. It must take maximum advantage of the limited bandwidth available, and it must be ruggedized and easy to use.

As always, the key remains the person who has a trigger. Government and industry should work backward in the manner that both make investments. This would entail starting with that person who has a trigger and asking whether that person is being provided with the right intelligence—and then working up the chain of command all the way to the president of the United States.

But, until that is achieved, the last tactical mile remains elusive. To solve that problem, we must take the amount of money that goes into higher echelon headquarters and instead give it to the battalion level and below. It is time to reverse the pyramid of battlefield funding. Then, perhaps we will have the results that everyone desires.