REBOOT CAMP: As War Looms, the Marines Test New Networks of Comrades
Joel Garreau© 2002 The Washington Post Company
The Washington Post
March 24, 1999
The drive-by massacre was a thing of beauty, the militiamen rejoiced as they roared back to the village. The arrogant infidel Marines had been caught lounging. It was as if those young Americans had dismissed the 15 wool-capped warriors of the Furzian Liberation Army on a truck full of garbage cans as no possible threat.
Well, the impertinent imperialists would not soon forget this lesson. They'd rue the day their leaders decided to send them to the country of Green to offer "earthquake assistance." If they had come in peace, why had the Marines massed below the Furzian village the previous day? And why, when the Furzian snipers tried to frighten them away, did they respond by defiling the Temple of Monad searching for weapons?
The FLA counterattack had been textbook. The militiamen had backed their garbage truck right into the heart of the Marines' humanitarian assistance feeding station. Then they'd whipped the lids off the trash cans, reached in and grabbed their hidden weapons, and within seconds a score of Marines were "dead." How jubilant were the militiamen as they sped back to the village!
Then they rounded the last curve. Suddenly, martyrdom flashed before their eyes. Three armored vehicles full of Marines blocked their way. The FLA men had no cover. What could they do? Thinking fast, they pumped their arms and started chanting, "We love America! We love America!"
It worked. Word of the massacre had not yet made it to these Marines, despite the elaborate electronic gear strapped to their chests. So the grunts smiled, waved, and let the Furzians pass. The militiamen raced up the hill to hand off their weapons to those practiced in hiding them. Then they melted into the crowd of civilians.
Chalk up another learning experience for the U.S. Marine Corps. For mercifully, this was not a real mission in, say, Kosovo, but an experiment called "Urban Warrior" staged in California last week.
As American forces mass off the Balkans, the lessons couldn't be more timely. The exercise was designed to see if one of the big ideas of the Information Age -- human networking -- could help the Marines fight successfully in cities. It was about how an old-fashioned hierarchy like the Marine Corps could transform itself into a spider web to confront unconventional forces like those found in Haiti, Somalia -- and, of course, Kosovo.
The Marines were surprised again and again during this Urban Warrior exercise, and not just by the "militiamen." The Marines were equipped with, for example, tiny experimental computers on their chests that were supposed to provide them unprecedented views of the battlefield, and instantaneous connection to awesome firepower. Those are going to have to be sent back to the drawing board. On the other hand, cheap off-the-shelf radios performed so well they will become part of the American battle kit as soon as possible.
But the real lessons were rarely about gear. They were about psychology. What the Marines repeatedly came away with were new insights into how humans must behave to thrive in the chaos and speed of the 21st century. They also gained a new reverence for adaptability and innovation. For, they reminded themselves again and again, "the plan goes out the window with the first shot."
SAN FRANCISCO BLUES
The first thing the Marines learned was that if they were going to try to hit the beach at a place with complex tribal rituals -- for example, the San Francisco Bay area -- they would have to become much more sophisticated about cultural intelligence. Otherwise, they would repeatedly get their butts kicked for not understanding how legions of apparently docile residents might suddenly rise up with one mighty political roar if a baby seal were threatened with being sucked into landing craft rotors and exhaled as a cloud of pink mist.
In the city of San Francisco, a January grass-roots uproar prevented the Marines from conducting one of their exercises in the city's exquisitely beautiful Presidio area. They moved it to Oakland. But then, only hours before the landing craft were scheduled to arrive for the first operation in Monterey, the California Coastal Commission refused to allow use of the beach there because of a similar flap.
"For some it was the sea otters, for others it was the snowy plover eggs that might be tromped by the boots of the troops, for others it was images of American troops storming ashore in the homeland," observed John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, author of "The Advent of Netwar."
"It was simply something unacceptable to a large part of the local community. The network came together extremely rapidly and very informally. It was a wonderful case for conducting an information operation well ahead of any exercise and engagement. They didn't do their homework. If they had taken a look at the Web page of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and realized Angela Davis was on the faculty, they'd get an idea of what the Marines would kick up. In some ways it was a replay of what happened in Somalia. The information campaign, the management of perceptions, was what was really going on."
"I don't actively seek pain -- I really don't," said Col. Gary W. Anderson, chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, which set up the Urban Warrior experiment. "But we certainly got it."
Anderson felt particularly wronged because for months the Marines had dutifully gotten permission to conduct their exercises from all the hierarchies they thought they had to deal with -- the mayor, the police, the fire department. Basically, the Marine mind-set was that those must function something like a Marine hierarchy -- in control of all they surveyed.
This profound lack of understanding had consequences.
The loss of the landing craft didn't stop the Marines. But switching to helicopters put a substantial dent in the show. Most of the attack force wasn't allowed to land because of low-hanging clouds and fog that triggered self-imposed safety and noise restrictions designed to protect civilians.
"Normally, cultural intelligence is simpler than this," Anderson acknowledged. "Normally, we go into a country that's in some fatal stage. We work with those who are with us, and shoot those who are not.
"The part that's missing here is that you can't shoot the Coastal Commission," he added ruefully.
HARDWARE AND HUMANS
The Marines did come up with some very pleasant surprises.
They discovered, for example, that if they gave a bunch of 19-year-old corporals some cheap, fast, convenient ways of talking with one another, these young people could organize a small war quite splendidly without necessarily consulting their elders.
The smallest Marine unit currently given a radio is a platoon -- about 40 men. It's primarily used to keep in touch with the hierarchy -- the commanders. For communications down to the small unit, the Marines use hand signals and shouts. This means several things: The 13-man squads have to stay fairly close together -- within sight or hearing -- to coordinate effectively. Stealth is a problem when your sergeant is yelling at you. And rarely does anyone go off on his own to solve a problem because then he'd lose touch with the larger force. "If you had an element forward, the only way you knew what they were doing is when you heard the gunshots," said Lt. Michael Hudson of Concord, Calif.
But for this exercise, the denizens of the Warfighting Lab found -- in the back pages of a yachting magazine -- some Motorola radios the size of a deck of playing cards, with headset earpieces and microphones. They were rugged, waterproof, short-range and cost $85. The lab bought several hundred.
The results were miraculous. Corporals made strategy on the fly just by talking to other corporals and not relying on the hierarchy.
"We had to take down a building at night with visibility zero, and we couldn't be detected," exulted Cpl. Daniel Rhoades, 21, of Alexandria. "We'd have no idea what's going on without these radios."
The grunts had absolutely no interest in giving those radios back.
The fact that they were an instant hit with the troops was instructive to the planners who had also provided the squads with those little chest-mounted computers with vast capabilities to network to all the assets of the Corps. That computer network is designed not only to help solve complex problems with one keystroke, like calling in fire on a target without hitting nearby friendly troops, but is also supposed to help anticipate complicated logistical problems like understanding where, how and when to deliver "beans, bullets and Band-Aids" -- food, ammunition and medical supplies -- slightly before units realize they need them.
This first generation of computers was useful, the grunts reported. "There's no guesswork, like is he really on top of that hill?" said Lance Cpl. Edgar Castaneda, 21, of Silver Spring. "This creates a whole new military occupational specialty -- 'data warrior,' " said Cpl. Clinton Eppert, 20, of Cincinnati. "The quicker you make decisions, the more power you have."
Nonetheless, it was the rare Marine who wanted to mess around with a keyboard in the middle of a firefight. "In the heat of battle, adrenaline starts to rush," explained Lance Cpl. Royce Fields. Therefore, the hope for a revolution in "common tactical picture," in which the generals and the corporals had the same view of the battlefield at the same time, didn't really come about.
On one occasion, for example, a platoon was wiped out in the Furzian village and this highly significant event never made it onto the computer network because there was nobody left to type. These bugs were not exactly unexpected.
"The end-user devices are not good enough," agreed Jens G. Pohl, of Cal Tech San Luis Obispo, who masterminded the Marines' network. "In the next stage, voice recognition has to be part of it. What was decided this time was that first we have to show that some [network computer] assistance is possible. That has been established. Now it has to be much easier. We have to have maybe a lapel screen with voice recognition. Give us another two or three years and it will be a lot more sophisticated."
The other big concern was the security of the networks. When the Cali Cartel or the Italian Mafia makes use of its human networks, they are notoriously difficult to penetrate. Not so for the little chest computers. Anyone could knock a corporal over the head, grab his computer, assume his identity and head toward the generals with a hand grenade, appearing electronically to be one of the troops.
Pohl says that's a difficult problem, but he plans on installing software that would work like the agents American Express and AT&T have watching over your credit cards to notice any usage that doesn't match your profile. For example, Pohl had just received a call from AT&T canceling his credit card after its computers noticed a sudden raft of calls from pay phones to Guatemala on his account -- not his usual pattern.
The Marines have a saying that came up again and again last week: "Speed is life." It was originally coined by aviators to describe the winning strategy in dogfights. But the Marines were startled to discover that Silicon Valley corporate leaders use exactly the same phrase to describe success at the punishing pace of business on the Net. Only a week before Urban Warrior was scheduled to open in Monterey, Col. Robert E. "Rooster" Schmidle, commanding officer of the attack force, was faced with an array of problems that normally would take months to solve. He couldn't wait for hierarchical results -- underlings bringing the problems to him and waiting for orders. Instead, he was forced to try a new strategy:
"I said to my executive officer, Frank Difalco, 'I want you to go into Monterey as the forward command element.' And his question to me was, 'Well, what do you want me to do?'
"I said, 'I dunno.'
"I said, 'I want you to just go into the points of pressure. You'll know it when you see it.' He wanted a specific mission. And he's a very experienced officer -- a lieutenant colonel. 'Tell me who you want me to talk to,' he said. I said, 'You'll know.' "
Schmidle was intentionally avoiding the classic Marine hierarchical command style. It worked. Difalco came back with a long list of problems solved.
"The point is I believe that individuals matter. That a certain individual at a certain point changes the course of everything that occurs. It's the great-man theory of history."
The importance of a crucial individual node in a network is only one of the surprises encountered in this new world. Another is the emergent behavior of the group -- a behavior that is more than the sum of its parts.
On board the USS Coronado, which was anchored at Pier 35 in San Francisco for much of the Oakland exercise, "Rooster" Schmidle operated his main Experimental Combat Operations Center (ECOC). All computer screens and gray paint, it looked a little like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Its electronic network offered the commander an unprecedented ability to learn what was going on in the battlespace in real time. Sometimes it produced spooky results.
"When we're busy and things are really percolating, there's guys leaning over computers and they're yelling back and forth at each other. There's kind of a hum that starts in the COC when it's starting to operate as an entity unto itself. Yeah, they are alive."
Schmidle knows he's heading into strange territory, but he presses on.
"And when they are alive they have a . . . they have a . . . they think things. You know, it's groupthink, but it's not groupthink in a bad way. When we talk about being on the same wavelength, that's what we're talking about."
THE HUMAN NETWORK
Far and away the most important lessons the Marines learned were that while all our futures will include revolutionary technology, meant to unite us into human networks, the real challenge is not the technology. It's figuring out the human strategies, tactics, training and organization that will quickly transform all those silicon wafers and batteries into effective human power.