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U.S. forces have decade gain in technology over last Iraqi battle

FORT HOOD, Texas—U.S. troops are preparing to face the same enemy they did in the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago, but if fighting breaks out again with Iraq the battlefield will be much different this time.

For many soldiers and commanders, it will be digital.

The U.S. military is launching an information technology revolution. Drawing on advances fueled by the computer industry, it has begun integrating that technology into its fighting forces.

With a flick of his thumb, Army Spec. Jeff Bugaj demonstrated its potential.

On a dusty test range at this Army base in central Texas, the 21-year-old peered at ghostly green images through the viewfinder of a thermal, infrared camera mounted atop his Humvee. He zoomed in on one of them.

By pressing a button on the camera's grip, lasers and global positioning satellite units instantly determined the exact location of an enemy armored vehicle.

Within seconds, a red diamond popped up on computer screens throughout the Army's 1st Cavalry Division. Fellow scouts in Humvees, crews in tanks and generals in a nearby command center saw its location on a detailed battlefield map and could target it for attack.

The U.S. military has embraced information technology in hopes of better targeting the enemy while avoiding friendly-fire accidents.

"The single most important advance that the U.S. military has made since Desert Storm has been to hugely improve the coordination of its forces," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Virginia. "There was a time when they had no idea in a battle space where their friends were, where their enemies were and where their allies were. That has all changed courtesy of the information revolution."

During the Gulf War, friendly fire accounted for 17.5 percent of the 615 dead and wounded U.S. troops.

Now, with high-powered computers integrating data from forces on the ground, surveillance aircraft and satellites, it will be easier for commanders and soldiers in the field to identify their forces and those of the enemy.

"In the analog system, I was constantly trying to figure out where everybody was," said Col. Michael Formica, a brigade commander in the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, which is in the process of becoming the Army's second officially "digitized" division. The first digitized division, the 4th Infantry, also based at Fort Hood, has shipped out for the Persian Gulf. The 1st Cavalry Division is expected to follow shortly.

Information technology is revolutionary only when it works, and the new military systems are susceptible to the same problem as personal computers: They can crash. During a recent demonstration at Fort Hood, the crew of one tank was unable to fire up its onboard computer, and Formica admitted that "my guys have to fight" to keep the system up and running.

The military has backup equipment to try to reduce those problems, but there are other potential drawbacks to the new systems.

The GPS units used by the systems are susceptible to jamming by the enemy. And while the computer screens can show the movement of vehicles in nearly real time, there is not enough bandwidth to allow all the computers such a constantly refreshed view.

In addition, the Army system is built for an open battlefield and may be of little use in a crowded, urban setting such as Baghdad. And the ability of commanders to see an almost real time view of the entire battlefield led to some complaints of micro-management from field commanders in Afghanistan, said Elihu Zimet, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

"The general learning and growing pains are natural," he said. But if the system works as planned, he predicted it would have "a pretty profound difference" on warfare.

Both of the Army's first two divisions to be digitized are expected to be at the forefront of any U.S. attack on Iraq. Troops training on the system at Fort Hood used computer screens depicting a map of southern Iraq.

In addition, military commanders will be using a new common operating environment on their computers designed to integrate information from all military branches. Two Navy ships in the Gulf region are outfitted with the new Area Air Defense Commander Capability system, which uses high-powered workstations from the high-tech firm SGI of Mountain View, Calif., to give military commanders a three-dimensional depiction of the entire battle theater.

Using technology to improve the flow of battlefield information was one of the lessons learned from the Gulf War. In 1996, the Joint Chiefs of Staff made "information superiority" a priority for the military.

That meant using commercial products when possible, said Arthur L. Money, who served as assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence from 1998 to 2001. The switch to off-the-shelf technology allowed the military to ride the advances pouring out of Silicon Valley in the 1990s.

"When we were in the age of the military developing its own computers, by the time they were developed they were totally obsolete," said Money, who now is on the board of SGI.

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

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+wartech

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