Visions of the Future

Commercial technology and ideas will propel the Pentagon into the next century, says Adm. William Owens, the nation's second highest-ranking soldier

Adm. William Owens has his eyes fixed on the near future when commercial software, satellites and fiber optic cables deluge the world's soldiers, industrialists, politicians and consumers with terabytes of data every second.

Owens -- the nation's No. 2 soldier -- says this market-driven data flood is creating a revolution in military affairs that will deeply change how the U.S. military operates. His immediate task is to combine the military's many weapons systems, communications links and sensor networks into what he calls a "system of systems."

WT: How is the commercial sector changing the world in which you're preparing for warfare?

OWENS: [About] 98 percent of the world's cities [with a population greater than] 100,000 will be interconnected with fiber by 1998. With that capability, the increase in data rate around the world goes up by 1,000 to 10,000 times [and] our whole vision of the future changes.

It also means [you must] plug into the fiber optic net. We have given a lot of thought to how we do that. It could be the global cellular network -- Odyssey, Iridium or Globalstar -- it could be that we actually string fiber or it could be direct broadcast satellites. I learned a lot about direct broadcast satellites from CNN [when] I visited Ted Turner [who is] putting together a global satellite network.

WT: What can the commercial information technology industry, such as Microsoft Corp., do for the military?

OWENS: The list is endless. Our future will come -- especially in this area of smart warfare -- more and more from commercial industry, R&D and ideas. [For example], industry is very good at multimedia kinds of things. They bring together groups of technologies... taking advantage of each others' products to build architectures and concepts.

I've talked to a lot of companies that are working on technologies [and] are very interested in helping us to conceptualize this system of systems.... It is the AT&Ts, the little companies, the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, or Sarkos, the little company that built the prehistoric monsters for [the movie] "Jurassic Park" [who can help us].

WT: What commercial technologies can the military use in warfare?

OWENS: Automatic target recognition. In North Korea for example, if a Scud launcher comes out of a hardened cave, you want to see it immediately.... [Commercially, this could help] in the detection of cancerous masses in a breast. The Mobile Sea Base idea, [which calls for the use of commercial oil-rig technology to build massive floating airfields and storage depots, is another application]. And large airships are being considered by industry for commercial transportation. We [could use these] for getting equipment overseas.

WT: How can you gain from commercial service providers?

OWENS: There are tremendous areas of expertise in commercial industry that can be the basis for a whole new way of doing business. [For example], the operation of large bases can be put out for contract. Can we contract out pay systems? Can we contract out travel systems? Maybe we need to learn more about this.

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