Utopian science fiction has long featured highly sophisticated central computer, functioning as the ship’s central nervous system. But the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica takes a much different approach. In the pilot episode, we learn that Cylons have infiltrated the Colonial Defense Mainframe, allowing the Cylons to disable nearly the entire Colonial fleet in a devastating cyber-attack. This, in turn, paves the way for the destruction of the Twelve Colonies.
Yet the series’ titular ship, the aging Battlestar Galactica, was unaffected; Galactica’s obsolete analog computer was an asset when fighting the Cylons, as it was was impervious to Cylon hacking.
As the US Army extricates itself from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its combat training centers have focused on a type of war–one which challenges many of the command and control systems we’ve become accustomed to in the last 10 years. Multiple US Army Brigade Combat Teams have confirmed that we are over-reliant on digital communications systems–we simply do not know how to operate without them.
An Army which preaches “empowering subordinates” and “mission command” should take note.
A modern BCT’s complete paralysis in the fact of a downed Outlook Express server is distressing for two reasons.
First, we’ve taken digital communications for granted. Unfortunately, we can’t always count on the robust communications our forces in Afghanistan enjoy today. We’ve had ten years to build hardened buildings, lay fiber-optic cable, and truck tons of equipment into even the most remote combat outposts. In future conflicts, an Army Brigade Combat Team may be communicating while “on the move”, or may jump into a hostile country, with little more equipment than the radios on their backs.
Forget PowerPoint slides and CPOF (Command Post of the Future)…it’s back to paper maps and radios.
The difficulties will only multiply at the joint-force level. If an Army Brigade is communicating through analog means, but the Air Force is communicating digitally, can we honestly say that we are a digital army?
Add to this the fact that our enemies know how reliant we are on computers, and are actively seeking to attack our computer systems, and our satellites. In fact, our own Opposing Force (OPFOR) units are already wreaking havoc on Army brigades, the best of which are forced to plot the battlefield with acetate and markers.
Digital communications don’t necessarily make us better communicators. Since the advent of the optical telegraph, commanders have used information technology to micromanage troops in the field. Every advance in information technology has generated an exponential growth in the amount of information we’re able to disseminate and produce. When organizations are unable to prioritize information, it has a deleterious effect.
This has become most evident in the case of small-unit leadership within the US Army. After-Action reviews are finding that junior leaders are so inundated with minutiae during mission briefings that they cannot identify several critical pieces of information–most notably, their commander’s intent, and the mission statements of organizations two levels up (see page 6). More simply put, junior leaders:
- Do not know how they fit into the big picture
- Do not understand what their commander’s priorities are
- Do not know what to do if an unexpected situation arises
Interestingly, unit After-Action Reviews have indicated that units which produce a clear, concise, “mission order” are generally more successful than those who post dozens of detailed, often inane, “fragmentary orders” to their Sharepoint sites. Just because we have the ability to disseminate a 100-slide briefing doesn’t mean we should. In the 21st century, just as always, what we’re saying matters much more than the medium we say it with.
Much like the crew of the Galactica, we’re going to have to learn to communicate more effectively. That’s going to mean terrain models and equipment mock-ups. And, of course, we’ll need to communicate with simple, clear, effective language.
My Starbuck alter-ego, Lt. Kara Thrace, will demonstrate the aforementioned clear, effective language.