Marine Corps General Decries Predator Imagery Allure

March 30, 2012
By George Seffers

In a fiery and impassioned speech at the TechNet Land Forces conference in Tucson, Arizona, Brig. Gen. David Coffman, USMC, former commander of the 13 Marine Expeditionary Unit, colorfully described what he feels is an addiction to the full-motion video provided by high-value intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, such as the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. Coffman is now assigned to the National Command Center, where he works "in the basement of the Pentagon," he said.

Gen. Coffman described centralized command and control enabled by "ever more fabulous" command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and surveillance (C4ISR) technologies as a growing trend challenging military commanders, asserting that the trend was as alluring as pornography.

Commanders often confer with one another and try to help each other out, he said, describing one of his fellow commanders who was enamored with full-motion video and enhanced ISR. The other commander felt he needed all of the "bells and whistles" to feel relevant in "this brave new world," Gen. Coffman suggested.

While they watched the video onboard ship, Coffman asked his peer commander what decisions he would make based on those pictures, but the commander had delegated away all of his authority to lower-ranking officers, and all he had to do was check off a list and call the president when the mission was over.

Meanwhile, people were being tossed from the room "because 50 other people wanted to look at the show."

The general said he had his own experience on two deployments under national taskings when people crowded into the room. "Why are we all watching the objective area? Because we can. Because we can," he said.

Now in the Pentagon, he said, he sees the other side of the addiction. "In this unclassified forum, I can't go into a lot of detail about what we're doing, but suffice it to say, with [special operations forces] and interagency partners in our counterterrorism fight ... you've got the privilege of having access to about 10 command centers all with real-time or near real-time full-motion video watching the objective area," he said. "What does that sucker us into? It suckers us into centralized decision-making and just-in-time decisions. This is a problem."

In his current position, he said, "I get to be the guy to call the vice chairman at 3:00 in the morning and request approval for such and such and such and such, to get the wheels turning, for him to go across the river-as we say in Washington-to the White House."
"I have very few perks in my present job down in the basement as the unblinking eye for the chairman reporting all the things that that happen to our seniors. But I've got one. And it's a free shot. Occasionally, we get to take the morning brief up and talk to Secretary Panetta. That's a big mistake for me," he said.

Within the last week, he said, he was reporting on national tasking and one of the secretary's staffers asked, "How late can I get in on this game?"

"I said, 'Please, Mr. Secretary, stop! You're looking at it! I've given you everything I've got! What more do you want? You can get in the F-16 yourself. I'm done! You need to go the other way. You need to get out of the objective area and let warfighters fight the mission based on mission!'"

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