Battle Command Toppling the Tower of Babel

By Whitehead, Stuart A. | Military Review, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview

Battle Command Toppling the Tower of Babel


Whitehead, Stuart A., Military Review


As night fell, the situation grew threatening. Marcone arrayed his battalion in a defensive position on the far side of the bridge and awaited the arrival of bogged-down reinforcements. One communications intercept did reach him: A single Iraqi brigade was moving south from the airport. But Marcone says no sensors, no network, conveyed the far more dangerous reality that confronted him at 3:00 a.m: He faced not one brigade but three: between 25 and 30 tanks, plus 70 to 80 armored personnel carriers, artillery, and between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi soldiers coming from three directions: The Iraqi deployment was just the kind of conventional, massed force that is easiest to detect. Yet, "We got nothing until they slammed into us, "Marcone [says]. (1)

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ALTHOUGH THIS FIGHT turned out favorably for U.S. Armed Forces, we must do better as we strive for commander-driven, network-enabled joint operations. The challenges of today's battlefield are many and evolving but so, too, are the insights and technologies to improve Battle Command. Today, we question doctrine in light of new understanding and changing circumstances. Military professionals discuss the commander and his staff on the one hand, and technology and the network on the other--but rarely at the same time. This must change because there is a symbiotic relationship between the two, and Army governance and acquisition processes need to reflect that fact.

The Commander and His Staff

Many see the commander as a charismatic leader on a white horse, surveying the panorama of the battlefield from the high ground; assessing the situation based on his observations, experiences, education, and the written reports of subordinates; and issuing instructions by visual or acoustic signal. But advances in technology have increased battlefield lethality and operational distances, limiting how much of the battle the commander can observe and requiring his presence at key locations and times. The portion of the battlefield he cannot observe has become the purview of his staff, who synchronize operations and dispense situational awareness.

As staffs have grown and become more specialized, so have the technologies that support them. Twenty-five years ago, staff specialists who managed the fight and made recommendations to the commander filled command posts while radio communications allowed the commander to untether himself from it. However, achieving situational awareness was still a manual process requiring the posting of information provided by each operating system onto a consolidated map or series of maps. With the advent of computers, each battlefield operating system automated its manual processes and disseminated information over separate, dedicated networks. There was no concerted effort to make the various systems mesh; as a result, systems became stovepiped.

As weapons systems and communications became more capable, responsibilities increased, requiting better management and integration of combat resources and service capabilities. The need to deconflict fires with airspace command and control (C2) and to convey accurate situational awareness of friendly and enemy locations and actions are just two of the requirements that finally led the Army to integrate Battle Command systems.

Today, increases in the lethality and range of weapons systems and the greater complexity of the battlefield require commanders at increasingly higher echelons to manage operations in real time. As a result, commanders have come to depend on computer-provided information as they make decisions they hope will get them inside the enemy's decision cycle and maintain the initiative. The need for better systems integration as well as continuous network connectivity and bandwidth at lower echelons has also increased dramatically.

However, the Army's Battle Command capability is still a collection of stovepiped systems that share information over an incredibly complex multitude of networks. …

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