The Data Gaps of Digital Warfare

By Frederik Balfour In my week as an embedded reporter with the 3rd Infantry Division's D-Rear logistical unit, I've learned something that may sound surprising: The logistics folks are woefully underequipped with communications. Virtually all the money for new equipment has been spent on the fighting brigades, whereas the logistics unit is saddled with older technologies. Says Colonel Steven Lyons: "When it comes to reality, we're one of the more starved outfits in the army."

Only one person in my unit has the technology to see a real-time picture of the battlefield in his Humvee -- that's Colonel Jim Hodge. The soldiers in my unit do work with a digital system called MTS, for multi-tracking system.

DANGEROUS SETUP. Although it's not new technology, it's useful in helping support battalions track food, fuel, spare parts, and ammunition that is moved forward to the fighting units. The system gives the user a full, real-time picture of vehicle movements. You can click on the icon for any vehicle on the map and get its position. The system tracks vehicles through transponders mounted on each of them.

This allows supply commanders to know where all their vehicles in a convoy are -- especially helpful for dealing with vehicle breakdowns quickly. But not all vehicles in our unit are equipped with the multi-tracking system. And communication between those that aren't is rudimentary at best. In my Humvee, we don't even have an FM radio for communication. We use hand-held walkie-talkies that have a range of about five miles.

Such a setup can be dangerous if anything goes wrong. On our way to the camp where we're now located, about halfway between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad, our 70-vehicle convoy got split into two parts. About 40 vehicles got out front, but the three vehicles with the multi-tracking system were left behind. The front section had no way of tracking the rest of the convoy. The lesson: A supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

COMMUNICATIONS BLOCKAGE. The high-tech equipment in the 3ID has one other problem. The division got delivery of its systems only in early February. Many people aren't aware of all the bells and whistles because they haven't had enough time to get used to the equipment.

To make matters worse, the MTS units can't communicate with the computer Colonel Hodge has in his Humvee. Asks Lieutenant Dennis Tebout, who oversees supplies of fuel, food, and water: "What's the point in buying two different systems that don't talk to each other?"

This is going to be increasingly important as the war drags on. The fighting brigades need the logistics guys to keep them supplied with ammo, fuel, food, and water, and my buddies in logistics need the fighting brigades to make sure the route is safe when we follow. The troubling thing now is that the route from the Kuwait border north to supply nodes to the front are coming under ambush.

BACK TO BASICS. Part of the convoy I traveled in over the weekend also was fired upon, and two soldiers were injured. And on the evening of Mar. 27 (Iraqi time), convoys around the town of Al Samawah were halted after taking fire. The headquarters of the 703 Brigade, part of the 3rd Infantry Division responsible for moving supplies to the front, received a text message to that effect via MTS. But at first officers discounted the message, as they were unable to verify its origin. To confirm they got on the FM radio.

U.S. soldiers are using a lot of new technology to fight this war. But when in doubt, the army knows it's still best to revert to technologies it knows and trusts. Balfour is a European-based correspondent for BusinessWeek currently embedded with the 3ID unit

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