“A Critical Vulnerability”
Once the invasion began, breakdowns quickly became the norm. For the movement of lots of data – such as satellite or spy-plane images – between high-level commanders and units in the field, the military employed a microwave-based communications system originally envisioned for war in Europe. This system relied on antenna relays carried by certain units in the advancing convoy. Critically, these relays – sometimes called “Ma Bell for the army” – needed to be stationary to function. Units had to be within a line of sight to pass information to one another. But in practice, the convoys were moving too fast, and too far, for the system to work. Perversely, in three cases, U.S. vehicles were actually attacked while they stopped to receive intelligence data on enemy positions. “A lot of the guys said, ‘Enough of this shit,’ and turned it off,” says Perry, flicking his wrist as if clicking off a radio. “ ‘We can’t afford to wait for this.’”
One Third Infantry Division brigade intelligence officer reported to Rand that when his unit moved, its communications links would fail, except for the GPS tracking system. The unit would travel for a few hours, stop, hoist up the antenna, log back onto the intelligence network, and attempt to download whatever information it could. But bandwidth and software problems caused its computer system to lock up for ten to 12 hours at a time, rendering it useless.
Meanwhile, commanders in Qatar and Kuwait had their own problems. Their connectivity was good – too good. They received so much data from some of their airborne sensors that they couldn’t process it all; at some points, they had to stop accepting feeds. When they tried to send information to the front, of course, they found the line-of-sight microwave-relay system virtually disabled. At the command levels above Marcone’s – the brigade and even the division levels – such problems were ubiquitous. “The network we had built to pass imagery, et cetera, didn’t support us. It just didn’t work,” says Col. Peter Bayer, then the division’s operations officer, who was south of Marcone’s battalion on the night of April 2 and 3. “The link for V Corps [the army command] to the division, the majority of time, didn’t work, to pass a digital image of something.”
Sometimes, intelligence was passed along verbally, over FM radio. But at other times vehicles outran even their radio connections. This left just one means of communication: e-mail. (In addition to tracking vehicles, Blue Force Tracker, somewhat quaintly, enabled text-only e-mail.) At times, the e-mail system was used for issuing basic orders to units that were otherwise out of contact. “It was intended as a supplement, but it wound up as the primary method of control,” says Owen Cote, associate director of the Security Studies Program at MIT. “The units did outrun their main lines of communications and networking with each other and with higher command. But there was this very thin pipe of information via satellite communications that allowed the high command to see where units were.”
The network wasn’t much better for the marines pushing forward on a separate front. Indeed, the marines’ lessons-learned report says that First Marine Division commanders were unable to download crucial new aerial reconnaissance photographs as they approached cities and towns. High-level commanders had them, but the system for moving them into the field broke down. This created “a critical vulnerability during combat operations,” the report says. “There were issues with bandwidth, exploitation, and processes that caused this state of affairs, but the bottom line was no [access to fresh spy photographs] during the entire war.”
Fortunately for U.S. forces, they faced little resistance during the Iraq War. The Iraqis launched no air attacks or Scud missiles. Iraqi soldiers shed uniforms and boots and walked away barefoot, studiously avoiding eye contact with the Americans. When they did fight, they used inferior weapons and vehicles. To be sure, U.S. units racing forward would run into stiff “meeting engagements” – jargon for a surprise collision with enemy forces. But such meetings would end quickly. “They [the U.S. forces] would succeed in these meeting engagements,” Cote says. “But we were far from the vision of total knowledge. You can easily see how we would have paid a big price if it were a more robust opponent.”
The problems are acknowledged at high levels. However, Art Cebrowski, retired vice admiral and director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, cites “existence proofs” that networking was generally successful in Iraq. In previous conflicts, combat pilots were briefed on targets before takeoff; hours would elapse between target identification and an actual attack. In the Iraq War, more than half of aerial sorties began without targets in mind, Cebrowski says. Instead, targets were identified on the fly and communicated to the airborne pilots. “Combat was moving too fast; opportunities were too fleeting. You had to be in the networked environment” for it to work, says Cebrowski.
Clearly, networking during the ground war was not as successful. “There were certainly cases where people didn’t have the information they needed. This was a very large operation, so you would expect to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in it,” Cebrowski acknowledges. But it would be a mistake to use these problems as an argument against phasing out heavy armor, he says. Big tanks require not only considerable time and energy to move into battle but also larger supply convoys that are themselves susceptible to attack. According to Cebrowski, by keeping heavily armored tanks your main line of defense, “you simply move your vulnerability to another place on the supply chain.”