Smart Soldiers: Decentralization and War

Article excerpt

The nature of combat and command is about to be changed dramatically by advancements in information technology, which will allow the individual soldier, squad, or armored unit to become an independent decision-maker on the battlefield.

Soon the US Armed Forces will possess capabilities previously dismissed as science fiction: detailed physical knowledge of the battlefield along with an unprecedented amount of strategic information in the hands of even the most junior soldier. Many military leaders observe that tactical orders are often made irrelevant by rapidly changing circumstances common to combat situations. In modern warfare, the variables of combat can change at breathtaking speed: high-speed aircraft and ground vehicles coupled with increasingly accurate long-range missiles plague commanders' carefully crafted designs. Every officer's nightmare is sending well-prepared troops into combat only to watch the situation deteriorate due the unexpected. Low-ranking soldiers, trained under rigid decision-making hierarchies, face combat with specific orders made flexible only by permission. Traditionally, soldiers in unpredictable situations are incapable of rapid mission adjustment and suffer from slow reaction times, often converting a temporary setback into an unsalvageable disaster. However, with the widespread dissemination of essential information to even the most junior soldiers made possible by emerging communications technology, such past inefficiencies--and potential disasters--will likely disappear.

A fundamental problem in battlefield decision-making is that commanders are often removed from the scene of combat and therefore have limited ability to fully understand the situations facing their soldiers. Conversely, soldiers in the field have access to valuable tactical intelligence, but have historically been unable to convey it effectively to their superiors and are restrained from acting independently based on their information. Past decision-making structures have concentrated information into centralized command centers to formulate orders issued to their subordinates in the field. Commanders, with their superior training and access to theater-wide information, are thought to be best situated and qualified to give momentary orders. However, using new technologies, providing this theater-wide information directly to field soldiers and bypassing the cumbersome hierarchy seem increasingly feasible. Soldiers can combine their commander's information with their own localized circumstances to produce the best possible decisions. The current assumption among US military planners is that soldiers in the field can, with the proper education and training, make better decisions than their commanders who are removed from the battlefield itself. Only in recent years has communications technology advanced to the point where it is no longer practical for commanders to maintain a theater-wide information monopoly. With the capabilities of reliable satellite communications and compact, lightweight computers, all soldiers will have instant access to all relevant information. This could potentially eliminate the requisite and perilous delay in obtaining information or changing orders through a centralized location. …