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Digital battle maps plot strategy; no more push-pins

CHAMPION MAIN, KUWAIT—Every time Iraqi soldiers launched a missile toward U.S. forces massed in the Kuwaiti desert, an alarm sounded on one side of the command tent for the 82nd Airborne Division.

Thirty seconds after the missile went up, a red "X" showed the launch point on a computer map displayed on one of the giant screens at the front of the tent. A 10-digit Global Positioning System grid point identified the location. Sirens wailed across the 82nd's compound, alerting paratroops from the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based unit to don helmets and flak vests.

The 82nd's command center, which looks like NASA's Mission Control on a desert campout, demonstrates how far and how fast U.S. armed forces have adopted computer technology.

Officers and enlisted technicians sit in rows of tables—four in the back, two on each side—with laptop computers at every seat and surrounded by canvas walls and tent poles. Across the front, four 51-inch plasma computer screens flank a projection screen and deliver live feeds of CNN; an aircraft display; a map of artillery targets in Iraq; and a real-time map with blue squares representing coalition forces and red diamonds for Iraqi units.

As the units move, so do the icons. If a unit of the 82nd calls for artillery fire on a certain spot, a soldier in the command center enters the grid point and makes sure there are no blue squares nearby.

"Two years ago, when I came to this unit, we had an overhead projector," said Maj. Mike Minor, a native of Fuquay-Varina, N.C., who helps run the 82nd's headquarters technology.

"Everything was on map boards," with friendly and enemy units represented by colored pins that were moved by hand every few hours.

Last week, one missile's trajectory was plotted by a dotted line on the computer map within a minute of its launch. Another red "X" showed the expected impact point. On the same screen, a yellow, wedge-shaped outline showed the area protected by a Patriot missile battery that shields the 82nd's camp. If the missile were headed into that area, a Patriot would be launched.

The high-tech transformation of the 82nd took place about 20 months ago.

"We realized the way of the future was digital," said Col. Karl Horst, the division's chief of staff.

Many other industries had long before come to the same realization, but battlefield command presents unique challenges for building a communications system. It combines radio, secure phones, regular phones, secure e-mail, radar, satellites, data from other command and a host of other inputs.

"We get so much information when a battle gets going that it's hard to keep track of," Minor said.

The system also must be portable, protected from hacking and able to operate in an environment where the dusty sand can crash a computer within days.

The current command post can be set up within eight hours after the 82nd lands its aircraft at their destination. A smaller version of the post can be carried in several backpacks.

The greatest challenge for units such as the 82nd is recruiting soldiers to run the high-tech equipment. A young person with the computer skills needed to help run the command center can earn a fatter salary in the private sector. Army officers must figure out how to persuade the generation that grew up on Game Boys, Nintendo and online chat to use their skills to wage war.


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