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U.S. would run war from nerve center in Qatar

DOHA, Qatar—If there is a war with Iraq, it will be run from a top-secret 60-by-22-foot room filled with computers and staffed by experts from every branch of the military.

To get into the Joint Operations Center at Camp As Sayliyah, you walk through a gate in a barbed-wire fence, pass one set of military police in a booth, walk about 40 feet across a cement pad, pass another set of MPs sitting at a table and enter a nondescript tan warehouse. Barbed wire rings another security checkpoint inside the warehouse. Visitors aren't allowed to bring any electronic equipment: no tape recorders or cell phones. There is a sign on the wall: United States Central Command.

The JOC itself looks like a mobile home inside the warehouse. It's a long, narrow, single-room building, without any windows, with brown carpeting. Down the length of the room, there are two rows of desks, pushed together into a 50-foot-long table with plastic chairs on both sides. Every workstation has two to four computers, at least one video screen and a phone.

Thirty to 50 officers work in the JOC at any particular time. Most of them are majors and lieutenant colonels or above, and all of them have special expertise. The workstations, which sit side by side, include the Ground Desk, Air Desk, Navy Desk and Theater Missile Defense desk, to name just a few.

The JOC's chief of operations, Marine Col. Tom Bright of Tampa, Fla., sits at a table in the middle of the room, facing four large plasma television screens that can show troop movements, ship locations, real-time video and CNN.

If there's a war, Bright, 45, a quiet, deliberate man with a subtle Texas drawl from his boyhood in Muenster, north of Fort Worth, will have one of the most important roles. "My job is an orchestrater," he says. "I just have to orchestrate all this expertise that is in front of me, and they help solve any problems. It's my job to make sure it's focused down a narrow road."

The JOC will accelerate decision-making, compared with other wars, Bright says, because its officers can receive information from the field in seconds. During the first Persian Gulf War, the Central Command used paper maps, pins and sticky notes to locate troops. Now, officers in the JOC move icons on a computer screen. Friendly forces are blue and sometimes green; the Iraqis are red.

A commander can call up a specific area of Iraq on a computer, define a block and say:

"Show me everything in that area. Show me every enemy force. Show me every friendly force. Show me both forces. Show me their movement. Show me their movement over the last 24 hours."

Officers send information by e-mail and through top-secret Web sites, never mixing messages with different security clearances. The intelligence comes in a variety of forms, from Global Positioning System satellites to weather reports. Not all of it is reliable. The people in the JOC have to pull it all together and make sense of it.

Bright sits at a desk surrounded by three Dell laptop computers. "In my position alone, we typically have an unclassified, secret and top-secret level computers," Bright said. "Computers are a way of life, damn near down to the rifleman, but you still have to put some cold, steely-eyed soldier, Marine, airman or sailor on the objective before you can call it your own."

Bright takes all the information, distills it into a coherent thought and makes recommendations to the commanders.

Some question whether the U.S. military is ready for this kind of war, predicting snags in getting the right information to the JOC and back to the forces in a wide-scale battle, but Bright promises that the JOC won't micromanage the war.

"Am I interested in telling that rifleman what to do?" Bright asks. "Hell, no. Absolutely not. And I don't do that. Am I interested in what he's doing, as it impacts at the operational and strategic level? I am."

"No plan stands the test of time; once you cross the line of departure, everything changes, because the enemy then has a vote on how this thing will be carried out," he said. "For me, the key is to understand how the plan was written. More importantly, it's to understand what the commander's intent is, which defines how we expect it to end.

"When it comes time to execute, my purpose is problem solving. Assuming it goes to plan, all I'm doing is battle tracking. Keeping appraised of the information. I'm looking at it and I'm feeding it back up through the operations officer to (Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the Central Command) and keeping him appraised how the battle is going."

Bright has a microphone that enables him to talk to any U.S. military officer in the world, including Franks.

Every day, someone from the JOC sends information to Franks, who then briefs Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

It's easier for Bright to describe his job in terms of past missions, rather than talking about the one to come.

"During Afghanistan, in the early days, before we actually started shooting, we were in the process of inserting special operations teams," he said. "During one of those insertions, we lost a helicopter."

After the helicopter crashed, Bright coordinated the security and recovery. He huddled with officers from different desks, starting with the Ground Desk.

"A helicopter went down," Bright said. "Ground, I need you to work with the land component to ensure we've got enough security there. If we don't have enough security there, let me know. Let's get a unit identified that can go in there. If we need to provide a fragmentary order (an abbreviated operations order), we'll give them a Frago (fragmentary order) and direct them to provide that security."

He turned to the Air Desk.

"Air Desk? What are we doing about a medivac (medical evacuation) procedure? What do we have overhead in the event they get into trouble and need to call in air to keep the enemy at bay? What are we doing about that?"


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.