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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Tampa Tribune March 7, 2002

`Fog' Obscuring U.S. Military Vision


WASHINGTON - While al-Qaida soldiers may know their terrain and have their tunnels, the U.S. possesses stunning powers of detection and observation.

The American military can survey the battlefield with satellite images of to-the- yard clarity. Pilots have goggles that enable them to navigate through the night. Infrared markers illuminate targets. And unmanned Predator drones can catch it all on camera - and have it beamed back to Central Command in Tampa.

War has come a long way since Achilles led his troops onto the plains of Troy or Gen. Robert E. Lee surveyed Gettysburg from his horse - and woefully miscalculated.

The night before D-Day, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was so uncertain about what was going on - especially the weather over Normandy - that he assumed full responsibility for defeat, penning words of regret. Even during the Persian Gulf War, it took days to bomb some targets after they had been identified.

In Afghanistan, it often takes minutes.

Yet the ``fog of war'' persists.

Despite sophisticated technology enabling military brass in Florida to monitor and manage complicated conflicts on sprawling mountainside battlefields half a globe away, inconsistent accounts of U.S. forces' deadliest day in Afghanistan underscore a reality of this most modern of conflicts: It's still not always possible for commanders to know what to expect or what's happening before their eyes.

An Enigma On The Screen

Was an American shot Monday as he clung to a helicopter or was he dragged away and executed? Nobody is sure, not even Gen. Tommy Franks.

Commanders watched live images of the incident relayed to them from an unmanned Predator, yet they differed on what happened to Navy SEAL Neil Roberts of Woodland, Calif.

Meeting with the president at the White House and the media Wednesday at the Pentagon, Franks repeatedly was quizzed about the incident.

``To review the tape,'' he said, ``is not like reviewing a Monday Night Football tape.''

Asked what happened, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld replied: ``We may never know.''

The commander in the field, however, spoke with certainty about Roberts' fate.

``We brought home the body of that young sailor,'' said U.S. Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, at a news conference near Kabul. ``I would tell you, from all indications, the al-Qaida executed him.''

The incident, which occurred during some of the heaviest fighting of the 5-month-old war in Afghanistan, served as a reminder that speedy intelligence and more accurate weaponry can't eliminate the murkiness surrounding some military operations.

During subsequent operations, seven more Americans died. At least 40 were wounded.

War is still, as military jargon puts it, ``VUCA'' - volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

``The fog of war will always persist,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, a specialist in military technology at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

James K. Hogue, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, observes that ``generals are always trying to figure out exactly what's going to happen next - they're reaching for a perfectly transparent intelligence. But there's no such thing. And so, even when you have a perfect picture from the air, you might still misidentify your target. You think it's [Osama] bin Laden, but instead it's a peaceful village.''

Origin Of `Fog'

The term ``fog of war,'' increasingly invoked by senior military officials in recent days, originated with the Napoleonic wars, when black-powder weapons produced a cloud in the air, obscuring vision.

More than 150 years ago, Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz extended the meaning, referring to the difficulty of getting even ordinary information during a war. Reality is hard to discern. Von Clausewitz wrote that battlefield action occurs ``in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.''

Even with radical improvements in satellite imagery, the use of night- vision goggles and the Predator, technology cuts through only some of the fog. Gigabytes and streaming video are no guarantee that people will learn everything they want to know or even see the same thing.

``Technology has lifted some of the fog but can never eliminate it,'' said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a defense-policy organization that tracks development of weapons and intelligence-gathering technology. ``They've got some video, but they'll never have enough. It still takes time to reconcile differing accounts, and at the end of the day it may not even be possible.''

Adds Pike: ``This isn't a computer game, it's real life.''

Information from the Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

Reporter Keith Epstein can be reached at (202) 662-7673.

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