The Army's first "digital division."

Inside the Internet.
March 31 2003 7:02 PM

The Army's Desktop Jockeys

Can information technology help the military win the war?

Wired for war
Wired for war

The home page for the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, part of a 30,000-strong force currently on its way to Iraq, touts the 4ID as "the Army's first digital division." A name like that suggests that the rest of the military moves at less than Internet speed, but the gear the 4ID will carry into battle includes an impressive adaptation of off-the-shelf PC parts into battle-ready boxes. The idea is to bring the benefits of office IT to the world's most hostile work environment.

The division's tanks, Bradleys, Humvees, Paladin howitzers, and helicopters are equipped with Pentium-powered Appliqué+ computers that talk to one another on a wireless network using the same TCP/IP protocols as the rest of us. (The Army calls the network that links the 4ID's vehicles the Tactical Internet. Technically, it's a private intranet, but that's good enough for government work.) Dubbed FBCB2 in Pentagon speak, the $800 million project is the centerpiece of the military's new digital battlefield. Officers and soldiers in each of the 4ID's five brigades will be able to share a common, up-to-date picture, marking the GPS-plotted locations of both friendlies and hostile forces in the battle zone.

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For reliability, Appliqué software runs on the Solaris operating system rather than Windows. In addition to downloadable maps and video gamelike updates of everyone's location, Appliqué includes both long- and short-form text message systems (think e-mail and instant messaging) to augment voice radio commands that can be missed, misheard, or forgotten. Commanders can send encrypted orders individually or to groups. Individual soldiers can message one another. Updates of troop locations come into the command post, and new maps and plans whoosh back out, without the need for the white boards and sticky pens soldiers used to scribble with during battle.

The system is more than maps and e-mail, though. In the current flick Tears of the Sun, Bruce Willis' Navy Seals team downloads live satellite plots of advancing Nigerian rebels onto its laptop, with each soldier appearing as a little dot. The real-life FBCB2 isn't quite that wired, but it's close. Information on enemy locations comes in from satellites, as well as from human observers in planes and on the ground. The 4ID's arsenal includes the Long Range Advanced Scout Surveillance System (LRAS3), a truck-mounted superscope that combines high-powered lenses, heat-based imaging, GPS, and laser-range finders to let scouts spot and plot the enemy into FBCB2 without having to creep up close enough to get shot.

With enemy locations pinpointed on the computer, it makes sense to jack their whereabouts into the gun sights, too. Geeks in the audience for Tears of the Sun snickered when Willis was able to download his attackers' positions from a satellite but unable to upload them to the fighter pilots who zoomed in for the kill. By contrast, the 4ID's attack helicopters are equipped with a Linux-powered box called IDM (Improved Data Modem), a sort of universal translator that can transfer targeting info directly from planes or the ground. Click-click, bang-bang.

But lethal as it sounds, the system has yet to prove itself in the heat of desert battle. Appliqué computers are tested to withstand severe shock and sandstorm conditions, but one online poster claiming to be an Army captain calls FBCB2 "a very temperamental piece of equipment at its best." A lieutenant who participated in field tests cited the downside of new computers on the job: "Commanders sometimes become fixated on the system and don't look at terrain as much as they should."

Even Pentagon spokespeople concede that claims that the Tactical Internet will "clear the fog of war" are overstated. For one thing, FBCB2 doesn't have built-in friend-or-foe identification, at least not yet. And once the shells start flying, the most advanced information systems can't override the human instinct to shoot first and check the chart later. "If I'm at war, and I'm not sure who you are, you're dead. That's how it works," one Vietnam vet told me. Desert Storm veterans have described firsthand the terror of being fired on by their own Bradleys from within the line of sight while screaming over the radio at them to stop. In a situation like that, sending an instant message instead won't make much difference.

Paul Boutin is a writer living in San Francisco.