The digitization of the battlefield

During last year’s attack on Baghdad, global positioning systems installed on U.S. vehicles allowed troops entering the city by tank to monitor the invasion on their computer screens in a common operating picture.

So-called “”blue force tracking”” used in Iraq makes a huge difference in war

operations, because the military can make faster decisions and reduce incidents of “”friendly fire,”” since allied forces are clearly in sight, according to John Bovenkamp, senior strategic planner for Defence R&D Canada-Ottawa.

It’s an example of network-centric warfare, or network-enabled operations, the application of the latest network technologies to the battlefield and peacekeeping operations that the Canadian military and others consider to be the cornerstone of the military’s transformation, Bovenkamp explained.

Rather than being exported to the private sector, he said, network-centric systems are already being used by companies like Wal-Mart to inform suppliers of customer purchases via a computer system.

But in the armed forces, explained Paul Addy, an associate consultant with Ottawa-based government-relations firm CFN Consultants, the “”digitization of the battlefield”” will help solve a common problem of an allied troop’s inability to pass on information to other team members better positioned to act.

Although Bovenkamp said he believed it will be two decades before network-centric warfare — which better coordinates troops throughout the armed forces — is fully implemented in the military, other examples are showing up.

In Afghanistan, coalition special operating forces worked together using Blackberrys and global positioning systems. “”They were able to communicate very closely . . . with the shooters, if that’s the way to put it,”” he explained. “”The airplanes would then apply the force that they were looking for.””

The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to increase the bandwidth of the global information grid, an information system for war fighters, policy makers, and support personnel, to achieve security and connectivity essential to both conflict and peacekeeping situations, Bovenkamp explained.

Other players developing network-centric warfare include the UK, Australia and NATO. Canada has also researched this area but only now is it integrating its approach, a key part of which will be to soon hold its first major international symposium on the topic.

It’s the kind of work CAE in Montreal is doing. In a trend that’s still new, it produces military training and simulation systems allowing several people to practise in a common environment, explained Stephane Albert, senior manager of modeling and simulation business development.

NATO, for instance, has a program in which 27 jet-fighter simulators are connected around the world in a common battle space to “”rehearse what would have happened”” if all countries fighting during the 1990s war in Bosnia — “”not exactly a pretty picture,”” with out-of-position troops and the bombing of wrong targets — could have trained together, Albert said.

CAE said it’s providing several simulation and mission rehearsal systems for the U.S. Army’s 160th special operations aviation regiment under ASTARS-04, the Army Special Operations Aviation Training and Rehearsal System project. It’s also a prime contractor for managing the technology for Canada’s participation in Exercise First WAVE (Warfighter Alliance in a Virtual Environment), a multi-national distributed simulation exercise NATO held last September.

On the downside, network-centric warfare creates a danger that Americans will move further ahead of other countries and, as a result, not allow for interoperable systems between allies, Martin Shadwick, a defence analyst at York University in Toronto, said.

“”The other question, too, is no matter how good your information gathering and information sharing capabilities are . . . in the final analysis, a lot of it still comes down to so-called boots on the ground. That you have the most informed and literate military machine, I suppose. But if you’re short of people to actually carry out some of the missions, you could be in big trouble.””

At the same time, it must be understood that the “”human component of following the system is still part of the system,”” said Rob Huebert, assistant director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He was alluding to an incident two years ago in which a U.S. pilot killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan as a result of both negligence and a momentary lapse of communication in the Allies’ network-centric system.

Although money is being poured into developing the technology, Bovenkamp noted big roadblocks to its widespread implementation are concerns about “”the security, the robustness, the trustworthiness, the protection”” of networks, as well as information overload.

“”Some people tend to get too enthusiastic and make statements like, ‘Network-enabled operations is going to completely lift the fog of war,'””complained Bovenkamp. “”I think there always will be a fog of war, but I think network-enabled operations will really improve the situation.””

Day one: The costs of defence technology

Day two: Network-centric warfare

Day three: Autonomous intelligent systems

Day four: Directed-energy weapons


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