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By Stan Crock It's a dimension of modern warfare that doesn't get as much attention as precision-guided missiles and unmanned aerial "drones" that can drop bombs by remote control. But the U.S. operation in Afghanistan has another key feature that could have an equally important impact on the future of fighting. Many military logistics experts have been impressed with the unprecedented tactical flexibility and cooperation among the services that has produced so much success in this campaign.
Exhibit No. 1 was the decision to take naval aircraft off the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk to make room to transport Army Special Operations forces to the front. Those forces have played a critical role in organizing opposition troops and spotting targets for bombers and jet fighters. Getting the Navy to agree to move Army personnel at the expense of their flyboys, sources say, was highly unusual. But it's a good omen for the future if the intense rivalries between the services are starting to crumble.
Exhibit No. 2 is the way the Army has coordinated its ground efforts with Air Force, Navy, and Marine planes above. The process is far different from what the brass in Washington envisioned. Their idea was to create an information-based, network-centric armed forces in which troops on the ground and surveillance aircraft send information to a central command center. The commanders in the center in turn would relay target data to bombers and jet fighters, which rain bombs down on targets. The "system of systems" is designed to be all-seeing and all-knowing.
"A CAPTAIN'S WAR." The flaws of such a system have now been laid bare. "If you have some guy in Riyadh deciding whether to drop the bomb, you are not going to get to the target on time," says James Lewis of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. The military tried it at first in Afghanistan -- and the grand scheme was a flop. Bombing decisions were vetted by the Pentagon and a dozen lawyers, Lewis says. As a result, some Taliban and al Qaeda leaders who were sighted escaped. "It is not a change for the better," Lewis says.
But then the people whose lives were on the line, the folks on the ground, intervened. "We have exceptionally able captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels figuring out how to make things work," notes Eliot Cohen, a defense expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Afghanistan is a captain's war."
Among other things, the officers figured out how to get video feeds from Predator surveillance drones to stream into the AC-130 aircraft, which provide close air support to troops in the trenches. Thus, those with bombs had a real-time view of the action on the ground.
CUT OUT THE MIDDLE. What's more, spotters on the ground decided to bypass the hierarchical loop designed to send information to the central command center. Instead, they gave target coordinates directly to the planes overhead, reducing the response time to 19 minutes or less. That's half the time it takes to go through the command loop and less than it can take in military exercises, where the operation is scripted.
What's remarkable about this is that Air Force commanders lost control of the chain of command. It was the Army folks on the ground controlling the bombing, with the full cooperation of Air Force pilots. "This is really an Army show," says Pentagon tactical-air expert Franklin C. Spinney. "The Air Force is just doing what the Army sergeants and captains on the ground are telling it to do. If anyone should be replaced by robots, it should be the pilots."
Such inter-service cooperation may turn out to be fleeting. And since the services often have incompatible communications networks, this kind of cooperation may not always be physically possible. But the war in Afghanistan shows that the services can work together in almost seamless fashion. They've also made great strides in common communications systems. More work is needed on both fronts. But Afghanistan is proving a great leap forward for the artisans of effective modern warfare. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online