Connecting the foxhole to the White House

There is an excellent Wired article about information technology during the Iraq war. It is amazing for me to think if, because the Cisco switches and Sun servers that they use are supposed to be sitting in climate-controlled clean rooms, but they are out in the middle of a desert where it is over 100 degrees F and there are constant sandstorms. These critical pieces of network infrastructure are running the war, and they are in little outposts scattered in the Iraqi deserts, and the people in charge of them are running patch cables like mad and constantly vacuuming to try to get the dust out and are rolling in “tactical air conditioners” to keep the darn things cool.

Why is everything off-the-shelf hardware? Because Microsoft Chat and Internet Explorer is better and more efficient then waiting for a year for the military procurement process to come up with something ruggedized for the battlefield.

There are other problems. “When we were deployed from the States,” says Lieutenant Marc Lewis – the commander of the convoy’s 27 heavy equipment trucks – “they told us that we would be given encrypted, military-issue radios when we got here. When we arrived, they told us we should have brought our own.”

Same goes for special, military-grade encrypted GPS units. The ones that will work when the military enables Selective Availability to drastically reduce the accuracy of normal GPS units. Well, SA wasn’t activated, and with good reason — it would have hurt the US military more then the enemy.

Lewis is improvising as best he can. Before leaving the States, he bought a handheld eTrex GPS device, which he uses to track each of his forays into Iraq. In essence, he’s created a map of Iraq’s charted and uncharted freeways and desert roads. He just has no way to share it with anybody. But he is able to navigate as well as any of the tank or missile commanders he transported. I notice that at least four other soldiers in the convoy have brought their own store-bought GPS handhelds. These devices keep the convoys on track in lieu of having proper systems. “If we run out of batteries,” Lewis says when showing me his map of Iraq, “this war is screwed.”

The signals intelligence people in the military did a phenominal job with what they had — but what they had was nowhere near enough. If we had been fighting a real foe, an organized and coordinated enemy with good weapons, the casualty count would have been much higher.