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Myths of Digital Technology

Chapter 6:  Materiel
Table of Contents
Appendix A:  Acronyms and Abbreviations

As we work our way into the future and focus on the potential military application of information technology, we must not allow ourselves to get overly enamored with the potential military application of information technology. There are several concepts in vogue these days that I will refer to as "Myths of Information Technology." Allow me to work my way through four of these dangerous myths.

Myth No. 1 -- TOCs will get smaller using information technology.

This will be true--eventually. Now, however, we find that TOCs are getting bigger rather than smaller. They take more soldiers to man them; they have a larger footprint (both physically and electronically). Existing technology isn't totally reliable. Remember--it isn't IF the technology will fail you but WHEN. Commanders must equip, man, and train their TOCs to be able to command and control both digitally and in an analog fashion.

Staffs must track the battle. To do this in an analog environment, we had soldiers serving as radio-telephone operators (RTOs). They took the radio spot report from the subordinate units, and then passed the information to a soldier who posted that information. If the spot report was about a change in enemy or friendly locations, the soldier turned to the map and moved the "stickie" to replicate the most recently reported position.

In a digital TOC, those reports come over the ABCS. Subordinate units send changes to friendly positions over the MCS and changes to enemy positions over the ASAS. This information automatically updates all "addresses" with the new information. The people in the TOC simply see the new information when they look at their screens.

But what happens if, during the heat of the battle, the screens suddenly go blank. If a power surge destroys the systems? If the enemy was able to interdict the tactical internet? Or if a soldier touched the wrong button, or pulled the wrong wire, and the ABCSs stopped working? If the TOC doesn't have an analog backup to the digital systems, it would be clueless as to what was happening on the battlefield--and of no use to the commander.

In addition, units are composed of both digital and analog subordinate units. In the 1BCT during our NTC rotation, we had attached a light infantry battalion from Hawaii, and a Chinook element from the California National Guard. This isn't unrealistic. We won't get to the point of the battlefield anytime soon where everyone is digital. TOCs have to be able to process some information digitally and some analog.

In short, the requirement to be able to command and control both digitally and analog causes TOCs to get bigger, not smaller, at least in the near term. We need the digital systems and their assigned operators as well as the analog systems and their assigned operators. It is important to note that both of these functions require dedicated soldiers. For example, a soldier can't be both the RTO and an MCS operator--it just doesn't work.

Myth No. 2 -- Training will take less time.

Some people believe that it is easier, using information technology, to train individuals and teams to do their missions. In fact, there are groups who advocate that the technology is the panacea for a poor training program -- all wrong.

As was cited in previous chapters, training on information technology systems requires a three-step process:

  • First, we must train the individuals and teams on the basics of being soldiers--the blocking and tackling, if you will.
  • Then we must train them on the technology. How does it work, what are its capabilities and limitations?
  • Then we must train them on the application of the technology. How can we apply what we now know about the new technology to how we improve our lethality, survivability, and ability to manage the tempo of the battlefield?

Every piece of the training program takes our most valuable resource--time. Training on the basics, the blocking and tackling, still requires what it has always required. Focus on the individual tasks during sergeant's time training. Focus on the collective tasks during lane training. Taking soldiers and units over to a consolidated training facility, or to their motor pools for that matter, to learn a new piece of "kit." (We have always referred to this as New Equipment Training--and it takes time.) Then, the application of the technology to basic warfighting takes time.

In the near term, it will take longer to train a unit that has information technology available than it does to train a similar analog unit. And nothing will ever take the place of a good, solid training program that is focused on the fundamentals, grounded in the basics--common-sense training.

Myth No. 3 -- We need "contractor battalions" to support us.

Early in the evolution of information technology, everywhere we went we had to have contractors available to support us. They were the ones who had the parts and the knowledge to troubleshoot and repair the digital systems.

We are growing past this. We found in the 1BCT that our soldiers (our 74Bs, the computer automation specialists, and our 31 series, the communications specialists) could troubleshoot problems and diagnose faults with the best of the contractors. As stated earlier, these soldiers immersed themselves in the technology, and figured out how to best use and repair it.

The problem was the soldiers didn't have access to repair parts. On many occasions, our soldiers told the contractor what was wrong with their system and what part they needed. The contractor would then get the part, and give it to the soldier who fixed the system.

We must be very careful with the idea of relying on "contractor battalions" to support us in every contingency. They clearly were critical in the early evolution of the technology. Now, however, we must concentrate on "growing our own" maintainers, soldiers who wear the uniform and can always be counted on to be available when needed.

Myth No. 4 -- Digitization will show us an immediate impact on battlefield operations.

This is probably the most dangerous of all the myths. People are touting that information technology is going to show an immediate impact on our ability to conduct warfighting. They are trying to convince the world that information technology will show immediate improvements in lethality, survivability, and the ability to manage the tempo of the battle. But after hearing all these pronouncements, we then conduct a major test and these so-called improvements are not obvious.

In July 1999, the Government Accounting Office published a report, Battlefield Automation--Performance Uncertainties Are Likely When Army Fields its First Digitized Division, with references to the lack of obvious improvement in tactical operations:

In our opinion, the efforts thus far designed to measure force effectiveness have produced inconclusive results, with maneuver units in the field showing no significant increase in lethality, survivability, and operational tempo while modeling and simulation do show increases.1

Why are we not seeing obvious increases in force effectiveness in live experiments? Two primary reasons:

  • Technology is still in its infancy. It isn't reliable, nor is it easily sustainable. Parts are hard to come by. Systems do crash without any apparent reason.
  • Units still lack the time to train on the systems.

Training has always been and always will be "Job One." We must take the time to train on the systems.

A perfect case in point was the FBCB2 limited user test in which the 1BCT participated in August 1998. A decision was made by the Division Commander to freeze hardware and software changes on January 1, 1998, which gave the team seven months to train using the three-step process. (We first trained on the basics (the blocking and tackling), then we trained on the technology, then we applied the technology to the basic warfighting.) By August, we were proficient, and the results of the limited user test showed the effectiveness of the FBCB2 system. During the last fight, a Mechanized Infantry Task Force, equipped with FBCB2, totally destroyed an Armor Task Force, only losing one Bradley Fighting Vehicle during the course of the fight.

We used the technology the way it was intended. Forces were dispersed over 15 kilometers, and combat power was concentrated at the time and place of their choosing. The Mechanized Infantry Task Force could do that because the leaders of that task force all had situational awareness and understanding, provided by FBCB2. This occurred because we had taken the time to train.

Finally, we must be very careful not to conduct live experiments with information technology when the tested unit has not had time to adequately train. Technology isn't the panacea for a poor training program.


1. Government Accounting Office, July 19999, GAO/NSIAD-99-150, p. 14.

Chapter 6:  Materiel
Table of Contents
Appendix A:  Acronyms and Abbreviations

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias