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[] Newsweek 03.03.03: Wired For Battle,

March 3, 2003
Pg. 32

Wired For Battle

Booting up the FBCB2?American soldiers' best weapon yet for cutting through 
the fog of war

By T. Trent Gegax

 From the front seat of his scout Humvee, Sgt. Travis Palmer looks out at 
the rocky landscape of Fort Hood, Texas. It doesn t seem like there s much 
out there but the laptop mounted on his dashboard tells Palmer otherwise.

On the color touchscreen, red and blue icons pinpoint the battlefield 
positions of enemies and friendlies. Yellow diamonds mark chemical and 
biological bomb-fallout zones. Green lines surround a minefield and a 
dotted line reveals a safe bridge through it. Were he to come under attack, 
Palmer wouldn t reach for his compass, map and radio a soldier s timeless 
tools. He d grab the rubber-coated keyboard at his side and send the 
appropriate e-mail to his commander, who d instantly receive his 
coordinates and send in reinforcements.

No such danger today. Palmer, a 29-year-old New Yorker with the Army s 
First Cavalry Division, is training on the latest in battlefield 
communications equipment. In an actual combat situation an invasion of 
Iraq, say his commander could forward Palmer s e-mail from the front 
straight to Gen. Tommy Franks s in box. It s automatic, says Palmer. I don 
t need all kinds of books to find who to send information to. It just makes 
my job easier.

Dubbed Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below FBCB2 in Army-speak the 
Internet-based communications system was beta-tested in Bosnia during the 
1990s with promising results. Now it s being rolled out to Army divisions 
and select Marine units. It s standard equipment in thousands of Humvees, 
tanks and helicopters camped on Iraq s southern and northern doorsteps. The 
generals hope that giving soldiers on the ground a near-omniscient view of 
the battlefield will help lift the chaotic fog of war that can lead to 
mistakes, and friendly fire casualties. The Tactical Internet, as FBCB2 is 
called, takes data collected from thousands of Global Positioning Satellite 
sensors aboard vehicles and aircraft and integrates them with battlefield 
intelligence from a wide range of sources aerial spycraft, roving Green 
Berets and CIA agents. The data are continuously updated on the fortified 
FBCB2 Web site and beamed to mobile units in the field. E-mail and voice 
transmissions provide additional information. In combat, e-mail is said to 
be more reliable than voice transmission, which is prone to cross talk and 
crashes more often than the Tactical Internet.

The system s backers say it is far more efficient than conventional 
battlefield communication. Navigating through a hostile zone, for instance, 
can consume 80 percent of a soldier s time. Now, I ve got 80 percent of my 
time to talk about how I m going to kill him instead of figuring out where 
he is, says Brig. Gen. Robert Durbin, the First Cavalry s assistant 
division commander. He can instantly pinpoint to within a few feet a 
vehicle traveling 65 miles per hour anywhere on the battlefield. Where a 
request for firepower took 10 minutes to process, it now takes five. In 
theory, the system may even reduce friendly-fire deaths, which accounted 
for a quarter of American fatalities in the first gulf war, by 
automatically rejecting calls for fire into known friendly zones. It s as 
significant as the evolution we went through when radios were propagated in 
the 1930s, says General Durbin.

Even so, some in the military are wary about the prospect of war by Xbox. 
Traditionalists fear that computers are no substitute for time-honored 
fieldcraft, and warn that putting too much information before soldiers eyes 
could cause paralysis: would a tank driver go into shock if his screen 
indicated he was surrounded? There are also worries about the potential 
vulnerability of the software itself. Early versions were hacked by 
testers, and the system s GPS backbone is vulnerable to jamming by small 
Russian-made devices, available for about $35,000, which have ranges of 
more than 150 miles. The rest of the world knows that the best way to fend 
us off is to blow our GPS because we re so dependent upon it, says 
Elizabeth Stanley-Mitchell, a security-studies professor at Georgetown 
University and a former Army intel officer. Overloading is another problem. 
The sheer volume of messages pouring into the system at once could 
overwhelm it, slowing the ability to provide real-time updates. While it s 
built to withstand the elements including heat up to 140 degrees an errant 
shard of shrapnel, or even an accidental elbow blow, would crumple the 
screen. And entire portions of the system could be wiped out if the enemy 
attacked the program s brains operations centers, established about 12 
miles behind the front lines. Technology has limitations and can be 
defeated very easily, says Army Col. John Rosenberger, an in-house skeptic 
who fears the day when GPS devices replace the compass. But there is a very 
large group of influential decision makers within [the Defense Department] 
who believe that technology will provide us dominance in the future.

The Tactical Internet s champions say that while it s not perfect, it s an 
overdue step into the digital age. And analog navigation had its problems, 
after all. One general recalls that during the 1991 gulf war, planners used 
double-sided tape to stick friendly icons on acetate maps. Occasionally, 
one of the bits fell to the ground and resulted in friendly-fire 
casualties. The project s deputy manager, Thomas Plavcan, acknowledges that 
given enough energy or deception, the Web page could be hacked. But, he 
insists, we ve done a lot of testing on this, and we met the marks. The 
system is protected by the strongest encryption available, and each onboard 
computer is equipped with an instant self kill mode, which will destroy the 
unit if it falls into enemy hands. In two years, Pentagon planners say, the 
devices will be compact enough to carry. Their sensors will monitor the 
vital statistics of troops and their vehicles (much like the digital dog 
tags some troops already wear).

So far, the Army has spent $800 million in development and training to get 
the program up and running. The Pentagon will spend an additional $82 
million over the next four years. But the future of battlefield computers 
may depend on how well, or not, they perform in a war against Iraq. I know 
the system works, says Sergeant Palmer, fiddling with the computer in his 
Humvee. But I don t know if everyone is fully trained to work it. He may 
soon find out.

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