military planners keep track of U.S. forces from carrier in Arabian Sea
Steve Crowley
Military planners keep track of U.S. forces from the Flight Deck Room of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea. Under the "network-centric" approach, the armed services share more information.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 5/4/2004 11:33:05 AM ET 2004-05-04T15:33:05

Computer networks and satellite technology have revolutionized the way battles are being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — but there are limits to the revolution. “Battle Plan Under Fire,” a “Nova” documentary premiering on PBS Tuesday, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the gee-whiz of modern warfare as well as the potential pitfalls that face America's high-tech soldiers.

Producers at “Nova,” working in collaboration with The New York Times, gained access to weapons laboratories as well as meetings of the U.S. government's Combating Terrorism Technology Task Force, an ad-hoc think tank that was given the job of fast-tracking technologies that could battle post-9/11 threats.

The task force's high-tech scramble dovetailed with military trends that predated Sept. 11, 2001, including "network-centric" battle planning, where every fighter is noted as a blip on a tracking screen back at headquarters; and increased use of precision-guided weapon systems.

Technologies for transformation
All this technology is being put at the service of "transformation," a doctrine aimed at integrating the Pentagon's land, sea and air units into a faster-moving, more efficient fighting force.

One instrument of transformation is the Stryker armored vehicle, which saw its first battlefield deployment in Iraq. "Battle Plan Under Fire" provides an eye-opening look at the Stryker's high-tech interior: a state-of-the-art video system, night-vision imagers, screens for displaying troop coordinates, and a satellite uplink that connects each vehicle to the military Internet.

"I can look at where I'm at, where they're at, where I want them to go and post graphics on my system, which is instantaneously visible on theirs," Army Col. Michael Rounds, commander of the first Stryker brigade in Iraq, says on the program. "That's tremendously powerful."

Successes and failures
"Battle Plan" explains the workings of satellite-guided munitions and unmanned aerial vehicles , and touches upon other innovations such as bunker-buster bombs and hand-held electronic translators for soldiers. But the show isn't merely about the latest gadgetry for G.I.'s: It also examines how high-tech warfighting has succeeded — and failed — on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s particularly timely, because the problems we’re having over there right now are by and large of a category that technology cannot fix,” John Pike, an expert on military and intelligence technology who heads, told

Tools of warThe PBS show begins with the effort to bomb Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on March 19, 2003, the first night of the war against Iraq. “If everything works, an intricate network of high technology and information could bring an enemy to his knees,” the narrator intones. Unfortunately, the precision-guided attack was based on a bad tip from an Iraqi informant.

"Battle Plan" also reconstructs the war's deadliest friendly-fire incident, in which as many as 10 Marines were killed by U.S. air attacks near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah a year ago. The failure of a "Blue Force Tracking" system rendered the Marine unit invisible to the military command network, setting off a string of fatal communication errors.

Human and technical glitches aren't the only factors that cancel out a high-tech military edge: Close-in combat also tends to erase the advantage, as seen all too vividly in post-Saddam Iraq. "If the enemy can see you, and range you with his weapons," retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, co-author of "The Iraq War: A Military History," says during the show. "All he needs is a 13-cent bullet."

The current insurgency changes the rules of the game again, says Mohammed Al Ashrray, a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard.

"Technology helps in many things," he tells the producers, "but in such cases where a person is willing to blow himself up, that has to do with an idea. You cannot really stop him with technology. You have to fight him with his own weapon. Fight ideas with ideas, and weapons with weapons."

Balancing technology and tactics
"Battle Plan Under Fire" shows how the tides of war are continuing to shift: For example, the government's antiterrorism task force is advancing new ways to address guerrilla threats, including blast-resistant building materials, battlefield sensors and robots to seek out and destroy roadside bombs.

It also shows how technology can be vulnerable to tactical blind spots: During the U.S. military's Millennium Challenge war game in 2002, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper was assigned the task of coming up with a hypothetical enemy's strategy for countering a high-tech assault.

His side executed a low-tech sneak attack at the very beginning of the exercise, sinking 16 ships in the simulated U.S. fleet. The result was so crippling that the war game had to be reset for a fresh start.

"We've had terrorist attacks on our forces like the USS Cole, but we haven't had anything on the scale of the Millennium Challenge, where someone is actually attacking our forces before they can get ready to fight," Michael Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says during the show. "So we ought to pay a lot of attention to it and figure out how to counter it."

As the conflict in Iraq continues, U.S. military planners constantly have to balance technology and tactics, Pike told As a snapshot of that continuing process, the "Nova" documentary is "a pretty good piece of work," he said.

"They're continuing to try to figure out the extent to which there are technological solutions, and the extent to which there are tactical solutions," Pike said. "The challenge is to correctly and quickly figure out what your problem is, and what the best solution is. And the challenge you face is that the enemy is doing the same thing, and the enemy remains a moving target."

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