March 7th, 2002, 04:24 AM
Laptops in combat?
First check out this site then read the article afterwards
Killed at Their Keyboards
The Marines learn that technology can't solve everything on the urban battlefield.
By David H. Freedman, February 2002 Issue
The enemy landed at night. Crossing the bay by amphibious vehicle and helicopter, the warriors paused at the edge of a sleeping city to check their backpacks, sling their rifles over their shoulders -- and boot up their laptops. It was March 1999, and Oakland, Calif., was under high-tech attack.
The attackers were U.S. Marines, 5,000 of them, carrying out one of a series of exercises designed to see whether computer power could alter the grim algorithm of urban combat. The mission received a fair amount of news coverage, but the Marines' surprising conclusion went virtually unreported. The computer gear, far from shifting the balance in favor of the digitized troops, would have cost lives in an actual battle. "It wasn't an enabler, it was a disabler," says Randy Gangle, a retired Marine colonel who is now with the Marine Corps's Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va.
Collectively known as "Urban Warrior," the exercises were a cautionary tale for any organization expecting computer technology to provide a quick fix for an old problem. Buildings and side streets make easy hiding places for ambushers and snipers -- even for entire tank battalions, as the Yugoslav army demonstrated to the U.S. military in Kosovo. Inner-city obstacles can leave troops cut off from support that might be only a block away. If war is hell, in short, urban combat is a step deeper into the inferno: Culling data from urban engagements that date back as far as World War II, military researchers have found casualty rates that average a hair-raising 30 percent a day during the first several days of fighting.
But the casualties drop precipitously when team commanders can pinpoint the location of both enemy and friendly troops within a range of one block. And what better way to gather and distribute that vital information than with laptop computers on a wireless network?
Almost any other way, it turned out. In the Oakland exercise, network connections were repeatedly severed by the concrete and steel canyons of the city, forcing the laptop-wielding Marines to lose precious time logging in again and again. With laser beams simulating live fire, dozens of troops were "killed" at their keyboards. The data that they managed to enter, moreover, was rife with typos and difficult to decipher on the small, cluttered screens -- which did, however, provide illumination enough to make their users easy targets in the dark. "After two years and millions of dollars," Gangle says, "what did we find? A casualty rate that was 15 percent higher than the historical rate." It would probably have been worse if many of the troops hadn't quickly wised up and stowed their machines.
In their postmortem brainstorming, Gangle and his colleagues perceived a major misfit between the laptops and what the Warfighting Lab terms the "business processes" of urban warfare -- that is, such specialized tactics and skills as clearing a building of enemy troops and avoiding ambushes near alleys. Computers undoubtedly have their uses in such situations, the Marines concluded, but only in the hands of highly trained specialists who direct the flow of information to and from the team. The laptops were simply too distracting for leaders who had to come up with plans on the spot, or for troops trying to scramble for cover.
The exercises were not a total loss, however. They reaffirmed the value of old-fashioned speech and the importance of good radio communications. Appalled by the spotty reception of radios used for voice communications during one of the Urban Warrior experiments, a Marine officer rushed to a nearby Radio Shack and snatched up several cheap Motorola walkie-talkies. They performed so much better than the government-issued models that the Marines wound up buying enough for the entire corps.
If higher-tech gadgets have a place in urban warfare, it might be in finding the enemy. "Up until now," says Carl Bott, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, "the way you found the enemy in cities was to walk down the street until they shot at you." The Warfighting Lab is developing a condor-size flying drone designed to circle a city block capturing video images and acting as a communications relay. Plans are also afoot for a tiny ground-based robot that could be thrown through a window and sent scurrying around a building under the remote control of the information specialist. In experiments taking place this winter in Chicago and other cities, the lab will test prototypes of video sensors that might someday be fired into a wall or surreptitiously dropped in a city street -- disguised as, say, a Coke can. But the general-issue laptop will stay in the barracks. The road warrior's favorite weapon isn't up to a real war.
Maybe it's just me, but I do NOT want our troops to be packing 80 pounds of wireless networking **** in a gun battle.
We are what we know; Feed your head!