In early 2005, when I was assigned as an assistant battalion intelligence officer with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division in Baghdad, our section noncommissioned officer in charge introduced me to the various systems in our section. When we got to a gray Panasonic Toughbook laptop, he explained that it was an All Source Analysis System-Light, or ASAS-L, part of some vaguely defined “intelligence data-basing tool.” In reality, he said, it was used primarily as a word processor.
When I returned from the deployment, I attended a Tactical Intelligence Officer Course in early 2007. Among the topics was how to use the ASAS-L. My fellow students also had not used ASAS-L during their deployments. In fact, only the course’s instructor had actually used the system. Nonetheless, we learned how to manipulate the program — its databasing functions, its trend-analysis tools, its link-analysis utilities — which in theory could be quite useful for intelligence analysis in a counterinsurgency. My analysts and I attended a number of ASAS-L courses in our year between deployments. And yet, when we deployed to Kirkuk in 2007 and I asked my counterpart — an intelligence officer with 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division — what he uses his ASAS-L’s for, he replied with a chuckle: “word processing.”
Ultimately, our ASAS-L sat barely used throughout our deployment.
Alas, ASAS-L is just one of many programs that are regularly funded but rarely used. Each year, the military sinks billions of dollars into developing and fielding a variety of technologies. Most seem as though they should be useful and work well in the classroom or the demonstration hall — like ASAS-L. Once they are fielded, however, only a fraction of the technologies are actually used. The question becomes, why? Here are the common problems and answers:
1The audience. Like any product, military technology is built for a specific audience: the soldier who will use the device in question. Too often though, the technology fails to consider who that faceless soldier is. Take, for instance, command-and-control software used in battalion-and-above tactical operations centers. Most likely the actual user of the technology is a battle captain or duty officer (a senior first lieutenant or a captain at battalion or brigade level), a noncommissioned officer (typically a sergeant first class or master sergeant) or a radio telephone operator (a junior enlisted soldier). These soldiers typically get their positions because they were promoted out of, fired from or got hurt in their old jobs in a “line” unit. They have been imbued with the idea that the path to career advancement lies in command — leading troops — not through spending time doing dreaded staff work. The net effect is that these positions have high turnover rates; therefore, these soldiers likely will have to learn on the job. Since it is impossible shut down a command post in combat for retraining, these soldiers’ tools must be relatively simple. This is in part why the Command Post of the Future is so widely used in Iraq while its clumsy predecessors, like those ASAS-L was a part of, are not. The Command Post of the Future system is easy to learn and manipulate.
Solution: Keep it simple, stupid. Most soldiers are not computer programmers, so keep technology tailored to the audience at hand.
2The individual vs. the collective good. Most people — soldiers included — act in their own self-interest. Unless they are ordered to do so by their chain of command, soldiers generally will not use technology unless it directly and immediately benefits them, even if the technology benefits the unit as a collective. A good example of this the use of the biometrics technology and the forensic analysis of improvised explosive device (IED) components. For this technology to work, units need to recover as many IED components as possible and input as many local nationals into biometric databases as possible. The more components collected and the more people populating the database, the greater the chance of matching an IED attack to an actual person, turning a fingerprint into a viable target. While on the grand scale this approach makes sense, from the point of view of the patrol that spends hours combing through an IED blast site at night or enrolling sullen local nationals into biometric databases, the choice becomes less clear, particularly because the individual soldier may never see the insurgent he helped capture.
Solution: Push the big picture and publicize the successes.
3Micromanagement. Similar to the problems of the individual and the collective, leaders are more inclined toward certain technologies than their subordinates and vice versa. Modern intelligence drones, for example, allow commanders at multiple echelons to view a single event on the battlefield simultaneously. All good in theory, but in practice it has its drawbacks. I can recall one instance during my most recent Iraq tour where a company commander, a battalion commander and a brigade commander (and for all I know, higher echelons as well) watched a single platoon conduct a raid, all from their respective command posts, all in real time. This is an amazing technological feat and a useful asset for commanders, but not so if you are the platoon leader. Aside from having “Big Brother” watching how you place each and every soldier in your platoon, you functionally have to answer to three sets of bosses and lead your platoon at the same time. From the platoon leader’s standpoint, it would be better if the technology was not there or at least had an “off” button.
Solution: Look, but do not touch. Barring a catastrophe, let the leader on the ground fight his fight and leave the rest for the after-action review.
4Information overload. The problems of micromanagement in some ways feed a larger problem: too much information. Modern technology has allowed individual soldiers to have a vast array of information at their fingertips through the use of battlefield computers and personal data assistants. The problem is that the soldier’s ability to process information, particularly in a combat environment, has not kept pace with the technology. To put this in perspective, I remember that one of the basic grading points for the field exercise in both my time in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and in Officer Basic School was whether the cadets or second lieutenants actually bothered to look through their weapons’ sights when firing blank rounds. The truth of the matter is that with the adrenaline pumping, many chose to squeeze off rounds in the “general direction” rather than aim. The point of this anecdote is not that soldiers need to learn how to shoot — with training and conditioning soldiers can and do shoot accurately — but to highlight the effect of stress on the soldier’s ability to perform even simple functions.
Solution: Less is more. Sometimes giving a soldier less, but better tailored, information is what adds value.
5Flexibility. If there is one constant in a counterinsurgency, it is that soldiers need to be flexible and the tools they use therefore need to be similarly flexible. This is where a lot of technology runs into trouble, because it also needs to be in some ways rigid. For instance, in a training course, I was asked to build a map on ASAS-L showing roughly where I thought the enemy would be. Assuming a counterinsurgency scenario, I wanted to place an IED cell on the map, but the program would not let me; there was no “IED cell” icon on the program. I could put an enemy infantry company, a tank battalion, even a camel platoon on the map, but no IED cell. “Why?” I asked the ASAS-L contractor. The contractor explained that the programmers did not want soldiers to create nondoctrinal icons out of fear that it would reduce the program’s interoperability (i.e., soldiers from one unit will begin creating one set of symbols, another unit will create another set of symbols and before long, there is a Tower of Babel effect).
Solution: Your plan may not survive the first five minutes of contact with the enemy, but your equipment must. Build modular systems — with apropos plug-ins for a variety of scenarios — to adapt to the changing environment.
6“Brief-ability.” From company commander on up, an officer’s success depends almost as much on his ability to brief his accomplishments in a conference room as his ability to achieve results on the battlefield. For many military-designed computer programs, in particular, the measure for what gets used is not what is the best program in terms of options and features, but what makes the prettiest PowerPoint slide. For example, Analyst Notebook is an excellent analytical tool for the intelligence community. Basically, it takes the traditional photos-and-yarn method of organizational analysis that depicts criminal or insurgent networks, familiar to any cop show fan, and digitizes it. It is simple to learn, easy to manipulate and even allows intelligence analysts to insert the supporting reporting or evidence into the link diagram. That said, Analyst Notebook files grow as more individuals and places are added to the file, and before long they turn into a tangled yarn of people and places. In short, they become “unbriefable.” As a result, I — like many of my counterparts — switched from Analyst Notebook to “lines of operation” charts — again, nothing more than a PowerPoint slide depicting roughly where key insurgents, represented by their photos, fit the hierarchy of the insurgency.
Solution: If PowerPoint presentations are battlegrounds for the modern war, design for it, just as one would for mountains, hedgerows or deserts.
7Equipping for “the last war,” “this war” and “the next war.” Every unit is going to have some legacy equipment in its arsenal — technology that was useful in the last conflict but is not useful for the current one. Similarly, as part of a forward-looking organization, every unit is going to have some equipment that not useful now but is going to be useful to the “next war” — whatever strategic thinkers believe that conflict may be. Should the need arise, all the unit would need to do is pick up a different equipment set and head off to war. The problem with this assumption is that with a year between deployments, units barely have time to train adequately for the current conflict. More often than not, the skills to operate and maintain this equipment fall by the wayside amidst a host of more-pressing tasks. The typical pattern is that the equipment is unpacked and inventoried once every other year or so, when the company commander changes command, and then promptly packed back into some non-climate-controlled container in a forgotten part of a battalion’s motor pool. Whether the equipment can be found in short order, much less function, no one knows.
Solution: Unused gear in the motor pools is not strategic flexibility; it is rusting equipment. Keep it where it can be cared for properly (i.e. out of the hands of tactical units) and field it when it will be used.
8Logistics. Behind every technology there is a logistical tail and logistical constraints. An extra three-pound gadget may not seem like much, but try adding it to the 70 pounds of body armor, ammunition and water in 120-plus-degree heat on a several-hour mission. The same is true with software as well: A computer program is only useful if the infrastructure supports it. While overhead imagery software can be immensely useful in planning operations, it also can require significant bandwidth to pull data from a server or storage space to save the data onto hard drives. At the company and platoon level, where the number of government-issued, classified computers is minimal and bandwidth is limited (especially at more remote posts), more-sophisticated programs simply may not be feasible. Take an even more basic consideration: How is the technology powered? Practically every piece of equipment on the modern battlefield requires some sort of electrical power, and how the equipment gets the power is a big deal. For instance, one of the many reasons soldiers tend to prefer the L-3 EOTech weapons sight for their rifles over the M68 Close Combat Optic sight is that the EOTech runs on standard AA batteries, available practically anywhere in the world, whereas the M68 requires a specific type of lithium battery. If a piece of equipment runs on standard sources of power, such as AA batteries, or can be recharged by a standard 110- or 220-volt power cord (or preferably both), it is logistically easier to support and hence more likely to get used by soldiers.
Solution: Plan systems around how they will actually be used.
9Civilian vs. military technology. For the civilian world, there is a certain allure of military equipment: It implies a degree of ruggedness and sophistication. For the military world, the reverse is true. If they can get away with it, soldiers will use civilian as opposed to military technology from everything from boots to backpacks, GPS devices to weapons optics. Civilian systems are typically smaller, lighter, more comfortable, offer better features and so on, usually because they do not have to go through the lengthy military testing, purchasing and fielding process that can leave military equipment lagging behind civilian counterparts. Conversely, if a piece of military equipment is conceptually similar to what is used in the civilian world, it often can ease its adoption by the service. For example, Blue Force Tracker, fielded on many military vehicles today, combines a series of technologies that are familiar to even newest lieutenant: a navigational system akin to many found in civilian cars; a messaging system similar to the text-messaging function available on most cell phones; a map that shows your location relative to friendly units in the area in a display similar to those on civilian mapping programs.
Solution: Design military technology to be similar, but never the same, as its civilian counterparts.
10The coolness factor. Soldiers are people, too, and like many people they care about fashion. This is perhaps best seen in soldiers’ choice of protective eyewear. In terms of ballistic protection, a cheap set of no-name ballistic sunglasses will work just as well in most situations as a $100 pair of Oakley M Frame sunglasses, but they will not look as “cool” and certainly do not carry the same status. Soldiers often choose equipment that highlights their machismo. Just as teenagers model their look on what movie stars wear, young soldiers take fashion cues from their “movie stars” — usually operators in the special operations community.
Solution: Accept “combat fashion.” Enforcing standards becomes easier if soldiers are naturally inclined to wear the gear anyhow.
If one is designing military technology for the iPod generation, it is important to consider what makes the iPod so successful: It has an intuitive display and is simple to operate, attractive, transportable, easy to maintain and capable of providing an array of services, but without overwhelming the user with information. And it’s cool. AFJ