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Marines monitor war with lightning technology from inside `The Bug'

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—In the dim light of the U.S. Marines' mobile combat center, a map of Iraq projected on a big-screen TV shows two blue snakes advancing on Baghdad.

Each segment of the snake is a computer icon for a Marine or Army unit, tracked by satellite beepers they carry. Click on an icon and up comes the unit's designation, e-mail address and a slew of other information.

Other laptops in the six-tent complex can display real-time photos from spy satellites and Predator drones, zoom out to show a blanket of warplanes over Iraq or zoom in to a detailed map of any ongoing battle.

Another program allows a commander to "fly" above an Iraqi highway, using photographs taken from space, to look for likely enemy ambush and detours around cities.

That's just part of the whiz-bang technology deployed for the first time ever, thanks to Col. John Coleman, 49, the Marines' top designer of digital command and control centers. An unabashed booster of high-tech who is sometimes called "1-Digital" by his men, the chief of staff for the 60,000-strong 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, or IMEF, sees technology as one of America's sharpest edges in war.

"Technology is the greatest combat multiplier, even more so than some weapons systems," the Georgia native said. "If properly deployed, it supports the development of a higher practice of the art of war."

The new technology gives U.S. forces a huge advantage over the Iraqis, who have difficulty keeping track of the Americans and coordinating defenses. But technology has its limits on the battlefield, too: A blinding sandstorm Tuesday knocked out the mobile command center's communications, and a permanent center in Kuwait had to take over until the storm let up.

In just four months Coleman put together three Combat Operations Centers, or COCs, for his boss, IMEF commander Lt. Gen. James T. Conway.

The tent complex, deployed in Iraq on Monday, is known as The Bug because its linked tents have a spider-like appearance.

The Bug is Coleman's pride, an array of techno-goodies, many classified. Four journalists reporting from Conway's headquarters were given regular access to the COC in Kuwait and The Bug here in exchange for a prior review of stories for security issues.

When one reporter spotted a laptop showing a blue icon in Baghdad and asked what it was, its operator clicked on the icon and reported, "Oh. That's Special Forces."

Some 30 officers sit in the Bug's main tent, before three rows of nine laptops and four large-screen projection TVs controlled by the senior watch commander, who coordinates the 12-hour shifts.

Most wear short-range radio headsets, with specific groups assigned to individual frequencies so they can talk without leaving their chairs, and use "chat rooms" to kick around issues such as ongoing operations and logistics.

Legs of The Bug hold intelligence operations, including home to related units such as the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Fire section, which coordinates artillery and air strikes.

Friendly force icons are all blue, dome-shaped for aircraft, squares for ground units and navy ships. Iraqi ground forces are pink diamonds, and anti-aircraft SAM missile sites are marked with yellow circles.

The data for ground units comes from what are known as M-DAC and Blue Force Tracker boxes on commanders' vehicle—computers that broadcast their own positions and can display maps and satellite photographs of the area, report enemy positions to the rear and send and receive short e-mails.

"It's much quicker than radio, and visual makes it easier to absorb," said Coleman. "Our kids are adapting to it quickly because of the video games."

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When an American pilot over Baghdad reports spotting two anti-aircraft batteries and 100 tanks hiding in a stand of palms, or a ground unit reports an ambush, Bug officers add new icons with the location and information.

Another laptop operator can almost instantly plot the downwind drift areas for possible chemical attacks when Iraqi missiles strike.

Virtually all communications are digital and encrypted against interception, and it's all mobile, packed into 27 vehicles tended by a crew of 180 Marines. The best previous tactical operations center was two light armored vehicles equipped with radios.

Even the smaller Mini-Bug, officially the First In Command Center, gives Conway a satellite link with eight megabytes of bandwidth, the equivalent of about five T1 lines, some of the fastest U.S. Internet connections. It has video-conferencing capabilities and its own cell phone base, with a range of about five miles.

"Even one year ago most of this stuff wasn't here," Coleman said.

Compared with The Bug and Mini Bug, Saddam Hussein's army is "operating in the Middle Ages," said Col. David Pere, senior watch officer on the night shift, as he chewed on an unlit cigar.

Coleman said The Bug and Mini Bug are not just technological wonders but part of the effort to keep commanders informed and in control.

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

Iraq

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