Let Technology Aid, Not Drive, Military Operations

December 1999
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

The military information revolution has been underway for many years now, but its outcome remains far from clear. Advances in communications and computing are teaming with promising materials developments to reshape the defense environment for decades to come. However, the defense community may be starting to suffer an Alvin Toffler-style “future shock” as it tries to embrace too many technology-enabled opportunities. It is absolutely vital that defense planners focus on their goals for the military and plan accordingly, rather than merely design future forces around new or anticipated technologies.

Toffler’s landmark 1970 book Future Shock warned of a decision overload affecting people who are presented with too many options. This problem is caused by too much sensory, cognitive and decisional stimulation and the resulting need to regulate those stimuli—a problem similar to that faced by tactical commanders bombarded with a vast range of diverse intelligence during a fast-moving operation. For defense planners absent a clear idea of how future forces should be configured and how they should operate, the temptation to build around technology increases, as technology becomes the easily quantifiable criteria. The goal becomes secondary to the tool.

Another hazard of building forces around the state of the art is a technology gap. Information technology capabilities vary widely even among North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members. These disparities were exposed during the Kosovo operation. In that conflict, too many situations required U.S. technological assets that could not be duplicated by most other European NATO members. If the United States or European nations plan their militaries solely around their own optimal technological capabilities, disparities among different national systems could grow larger over time.

It would be ironic if attempts to build the ideal force for the future are hampered by the very enabling technologies that the free world is counting on to maintain military superiority. It also would be wholly unnecessary.

With the Cold War over, defense leaders have already taken steps in the right direction to reconfigure forces. Recognizing that ground forces will be more likely to operate in rapid reaction deployments than face massed armor streaming through the Fulda Gap, army planners in several nations are working to design lighter-weight armored vehicles that are versatile and can be deployed rapidly. The U.S. Navy has closed the books on one new attack submarine class and is reconfiguring its fleets to support littoral operations. And, air forces in the United States and Europe are breaking with tradition by designing a generation of unmanned combat aerial vehicles to engage in deep-strike missions with performance envelopes that preclude the presence of human pilots.

Near-term technologies hold the promise of greater versatility for military forces. Imagery increasingly is moving into the real-time realm while simultaneously reaching further down the chain of command. It is only a matter of time, and available bandwidth, before it reaches individual combatants. As these individuals become distinct nodes in the theater information network, they also will function as vital sources of real-time information.

The global positioning system, teamed with other technologies, is providing innovative capabilities to warfighters. Combatants wearing visual augmented reality systems in urban warfare environments may soon be able to view a city map or even structural labels overlaid on terrain features based on their specific locations. Soldier situational awareness systems will serve the two-way information flow by attaching precise position location data to messages from the front.

Capabilities formerly found only in science fiction are just over the horizon. Soldiers could wear uniforms that provide lightweight, flexible protection against chemical and biological agents as well as kinetic energy weapons. Intelligent clothing materials would change colors to provide chameleon-type camouflage. Each individual could be equipped with augmented reality technology that uses intelligent software to provide comprehensive, but relevant, knowledge. For weapons platforms, smart skins on ships and aircraft would eliminate multiple protruding antennas and ultimately would perform minor structural repairs autonomously.

Many of these innovations fill long-sought requirements. Additional ones are opening up new vistas in military operations. And, still others offer tantalizing potential that cannot yet be placed on the battlefield. The shape of the future military becomes less clear as its technological options proliferate.

With these points in mind, it is to everyone’s benefit that planners define the military in terms of goals rather than capabilities. Training is less complicated and more clear cut. Forces are well suited to their missions instead of constantly being asked to adapt to them.

And, perhaps most important of all, the West’s high-technology industrial base can better plan to develop military-crucial products and capabilities. Simply tell these experts the job that needs to be done, and then let them find the way to do it. This leaves the door open for unexpected developments to be incorporated into systems as they emerge—as have so many over the past 10 years.

Make no mistake; the advent of information technologies is revolutionizing military operations at an unprecedented pace. The free world must decisively determine how it wants to configure its military forces, and this effort must be built around goals, not capabilities. Then, we can turn to our new technologies to help our trained personnel successfully carry out their missions.