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Alpha Geeks at War

Some defenders of force transformation argue that the troops’ problems were doctrinal, not technological. According to this line of reasoning, the networking of the Iraq War was incomplete – because it was fatally grafted onto old-fashioned command and control systems. Sensor information went up the chain of command. Commanders interpreted it and made decisions. Then they passed commands, and tried to pass relevant data, down the chain. The result: time delays and the magnification of individual communications failures.

Better, some say, that information and decision-making should flow horizontally. In fact, that’s how the 2001 war in Afghanistan was fought. Special-operations forces organized into “A teams” numbering no more than two dozen soldiers roamed the chilly mountains near the Pakistan border on horseback, rooting out Taliban forces and seeking al-Qaeda leaders. The teams and individuals were all linked to one another. No one person was in tactical command.

But despite the lack of generals making key decisions, each of these teams of networked soldiers had a key node, an animal once confined to corporate IT departments: the alpha geek, who managed the flow of information between his team and the others. The U.S. special forces also maintained a tactical Web page, collating all the information the teams collected. And this page was managed by a webmaster in the field: the metageek of all alpha geeks.

How did the page perform? Postmortems and reports on special-forces operations in Afghanistan are more secret than those from the Iraq War. A report on one major special-forces operation, Operation Anaconda – an attempt to encircle and root out al-Qaeda in March 2002 – is due soon from National Defense University. Still, anecdotes are trickling out of the special-forces community. And they provide a startlingly different view of warfare than Marcone’s tank-level vantage. One account, not previously reported, comes from John Arquilla, an expert in unconventional warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

The scene was a cold night in the late fall of 2001. In New York City, the World Trade Center ruins were still smoldering. In Afghanistan, a U.S. Air Force pilot en route from Uzbekistan noticed flashing lights in the mountains below, near the Pakistan border. Suspecting that the flashes might be reflections from hooded headlights of trucks bumping along, he radioed his observation to the webmaster. The webmaster relayed the message across a secure network accessible to special forces in the region. One team replied that it was near the position and would investigate. The team identified a convoy of trucks carrying Taliban fighters and got on the radio to ask if any bombers were in range. One U.S. Navy plane was not far off. Within minutes, the plane bombed the front and rear of the convoy, sealing off the possibility of escape. Not long after, a gunship arrived and destroyed the crippled Taliban column.

The episode, as recounted by Arquilla, shows what’s possible. “That’s networking. That’s military transformation right there,” Arquilla says. “Some of the problems in Iraq grew out of an attempt to take this cascade of information provided by advanced information technology and try and jam it through the existing stovepipes of the hierarchical structure, whereas in Afghanistan we had a more fluid approach. This is war by minutes, and networking technology allows us to wage war by minutes with a great probability of success.” In this case, service members on the battlefield collected data, shared that data, made decisions, and ordered strikes.

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