Leadership: Putting Science Fiction To Work



September 30, 2008: The war in Iraq has changed the U.S. Army in many ways, some of them largely unknown to the public. A few of these unknown have been huge, and one of the less publicized of those has been the Command Post of the Future (CPOF). This has become the Command Post of Right Now. CPOF is basically a PC based software and communications system that enables users to collaborate with other units and officers, and plan and run operations in real-time. Each CPOF PC has three flat screen displays, which is unusual for your average PC user, but quite common for corporate heavyweights and Wall Street operators. There are now over 500 of these CPOF PCs in use at brigade and higher headquarters in Iraq and Afghanistan (and worldwide).

The idea for CPOF is only ten years old, but five years ago it was basically ready to go. CPOF showed up in Iraq four years ago, and emerged from beta (was officially "released") two years ago. The speed of development had a lot to do with the fact that similar software was already in heavy use by corporations, and that the army had been quick to adopt PCs and digital data.

CPOF means that commanders can confer from anywhere, with anyone, using network and videoconferencing technology. Most importantly, maps and other data can be shared, in real time, as well. For several decades, the Command Post of the Future was much talked about, but didn't appear much because of cost (high) and technology (largely science fiction) issues. As has happened in the past, wartime tends to eliminate cost and technology issues. In this case, civilian command post technology showed up, along with lots of high speed satellite communications capability, just as the war on terror began. That took care of a lot of cost and technology issues. By the time Iraq was invaded, individual combat divisions, and other military organizations, were already taking the civilian software and hardware to create their own Command Post of the Future experiments.

The U.S. Army had several official projects in development for Command Post of the Future, most notably ideas based on the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) project. Parts of this (especially the Blue Force Tracking system) were quickly issued to the troops for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As combat operations continued in Iraq, so did the flow of money for new communications gear, software and communications capability. As a result, there were soon several improvised Command Post of the Future systems in action in combat zones, and headquarters that were supporting them. The tools were available, there was a need, and things just happened. Standardizing all this, and distributing it to the rest of the army, and Department of Defense, took a year or so. But with new hardware and software appearing every month, standardization became a problem. However, many components of this new form of command post (the fast satellite data links, PCs, large flat screen displays and laptops everywhere, plus easy networking) do remain fairly stable. Most of the change is coming in the software. But even this aspect is kept under control because most screw-ups occur in front of senior commanders. This provides an additional incentive to get these things working right.

This was not the first time radical technology sneaked up on the military. Portable radio, first widely used during World War II, radically changed how commanders operated, especially at the tactical level. But the current revolution is different in that the signals can easily be encrypted, and carry visual, as well as speech, data. Thus commanders at all levels can eliminate face-to-face meetings, and just videoconference, or talk freely about plans. But even Instant Messaging have become a powerful tool, because many times, a few short text messages are all that is needed to solve problems.

Finally, the Internet provided, for the military, many new ideas on how to efficiently handle information. The Internet has been militarized much faster than anyone expected. That has led to the military adopting new database and visualization tools as well. In a single decade, the way commanders run their units, and battles has changed more than it has in the past half century.



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