By Neil Munro
The U.S. Department of Defense could boost the military's combat efficiency and cut the cost of weaponry by using information networks to deliver just-in-time services and supplies like Wal-Mart does with its stores, a top defense official said.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Donald Buchholz
But the new technology must be combined with difficult organizational and cultural reforms, warned top defense and industry officials.
"If you get a rise of [combat] efficiency due to automation or technology, you get a double, triple or quadruple rise in efficiency when you co-evolve both doctrine and organizations," said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Donald Buchholz, who heads the command and control section of the military's joint staff, a top-level planning group that works for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs report to the Secretary of Defense and other civilian officials who approve all defense spending.
Buchholz cited Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville, Ark., which uses IT to quickly identify and supply hot-selling products to its 2,700 stores. That just-in-time strategy helps Wal-Mart minimize its expenses at its stores, cut its costs and provide roughly half of its 1996 profit of $3 billion on $105 billion in sales, said one Pentagon official.
"The parallels [in the retail sector] are very, very similar to warfighting," Buchholz said. Like Wal-Mart, the military can ensure a rapid feedback by making its suppliers and buyers part of the information grid, he said.
The U.S. military is "witnessing the triumph of the microchip in warfare, transforming it in ways we are only beginning to comprehend," Defense Secretary William Cohen said June 24 at the National Defense University, Washington. The Pentagon must "get this technology into the force, to experiment with it so we understand its implications, and to develop the operational concepts, doctrine and tactics to take full advantage of it," he said.
"The issue really is smart warfare," said former admiral William Owens, now president and vice chairman of the board of Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, Calif., which does much systems integration work for the Pentagon.
With the skillful use of information technology "we will save more American lives, we'll do it more efficiently and save more dollars, and do it with a lower defense budget," Owens said.
To get from here to there, the joint staff is pushing for extra spending on information technology, sponsoring a series of free-wheeling technology experiments and publishing new policies calling for "network-centric warfare" that can achieve information superiority over a wartime enemy.
A closely held study prepared by the joint staff this spring calls for a fiftyfold increase in tactical communications and a fourfold increase in regional communications by 2001, defense officials say. The study, dubbed the Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Critical Mission Area, is one portion of a top-level review of Pentagon spending plans that has been overseen by Defense Secretary William Cohen.
Also, the joint staff's parent organization, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, published a new white paper in May outlining its long-term vision of future warfare. "Emerging technology - particularly information-specific advances - should make possible a new level of joint operations capability" by 2010, according to the white paper, "Concept for Future Operations: Expanding Joint Vision 2010."
In practice, this could allow an embattled commander to use a global information network to summon immediate support, such as an artillery bombardment, a missile strike or a bombing raid, said Buchholz. The commander "could task the network and it ... would propose a package" of possible attack options, allowing the commander to select the best, Buchholz said.
This network would improve combat effectiveness, but it also could save money. Armed with "information technology and information advantage in the far distant future, you could have either fewer weapons because they are more precise; less items hanging on airplanes, which make it less expensive; less [expensive] options in a tank because ... you could anticipate things up ahead so you could get that explosive power" wherever and whenever it is needed," he said.
However, the Pentagon needs to greatly improve its worldwide communications networks, link the weaponry to commanders and overcome cultural barriers that hinder efficiency, said Buchholz.
In peacetime, soldiers tend to buy duplicative or extra weapons - such as grenade launchers, shoulder-launched missiles, mortars, artillery pieces, long-range rockets and attack helicopters - because they don't trust other units or services to arrive on time during the chaos of war, said industry and Pentagon officials.
"You can't fault the warfighter for that because when you are being shot at, steel things are real nice and networks [that don't reliably summon aid] don't make a lot of difference," said Buchholz.
But it will be difficult for the Pentagon to make the transition "from just-in-case warfare, where you take everything that you can possibly use, to just-in-time warfare," where commanders trust other organizations to deliver support whenever and wherever it is needed, said Ryan Henry, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The easiest part [of the reform] is the technology. The second easiest part is the [re]organization. The hardest part [are] cultural" changes, which are needed to allow the shift of funds and war plans away from traditional weaponry such as ships - and to the new networked weapon-ry, said Henry.
"These cultural differences are very deep, and may not change until we get a new generation [of soldiers] in place," said Cheri Reed, a program manager at Oracle Corp.'s federal division, based in Bethesda, Md. Reed is working with the joint staff-sponsored Joint Warrior Interpretability Demonstration, which is an annual exercise intended to showcase new information technology.
To build much-needed trust in networked weaponry and to promote doctrinal reform, the Pentagon must conduct a variety of technology tests, demonstrations and field exercises, said Buchholz. "You wean people to this and gain trust as ... experiments are conducted and people generally applaud them as positive," he said.
Partly because of the cultural problem, "the Navy and the Marine Corps will be able to [cooperate in networked warfare] before the Army and the Air Force can," said Martin Libicki, a professor at the Washington-based National Defense University. Already, the Marines have been testing small infantry units whose firepower comes from distant targets, naval guns and carrier-based bombers, rather than heavy tanks and truck-pulled artillery, he said.
"My hunch is that Congress will not get in the way" of this reform, said Libicki, partly because it is driven by the deployment of a variety of new systems. These new systems include the Navy's Cooperative Engagement Capability, which allows ships to share data about enemy locations and to guide each others' weaponry, he said.
But no matter how fast or slow the Pentagon proceeds, the United States is making more progress than any other country, including European countries, said Henry. European military leaders "are punch-drunk [from] watching us move so fast," he said.