The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan

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Secret Special Skills Revealed
by James Dunnigan
August 8, 2012

The U.S. Air Force recently honored one of its officers for developing better software for the display of map information available to C-130 pilots. Captain Kyle Alderman is a C-130 pilot who was not happy with the way the many types of available information was presented to C-130 pilots on their cockpit displays. Two years ago, while attending a training course on the new C-130J, he was able to get his hands on information about how map information was currently displayed. Alderman, like many air force officers, knew how to program (create software) and spent the next year creating new software that would present map information in a more useful manner. He showed this to fellow C-130 pilots and commanders of C-130 units, who all agreed his version of the map display software was superior to what was officially available. The air force tested the new software, found it sound, agreed that it was useful, and had it installed in all C-130s that could handle it. Alderman was congratulated, by name, by senior air force brass and will have an easier time making his next few promotions.

What happened with the C-130J map display software is nothing new, as it's been going on for a long time. It all began in the 1980s, as soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines began buying PCs and creating software to help with their military duties. Most commanders were technically literate enough to appreciate what their geekish troops and junior officers were doing. By the 1990s, the much more powerful PCs and PC technology was beginning to replace the much more expensive custom built computers the military was building into weapons and equipment, as well as for a growing number of tasks. In tech-savvy services like the air force and navy, lots of enlisted and officer personnel had the programming skills that enabled them to create new software. More often, in an emergency, these uniformed geeks were called in to make emergency repairs on some cranky piece of software. After 2000, most commanders were aware that many of their subordinates were very, very tech savvy and could be used to fix or modify bits of troublesome tech that was encountered. Especially in the last decade the military has received a huge amount of new technology, and most of it used software to get things done. Keeping this stuff working was often a matter of life or death.

All this was a continuation of the trend first noted during World War II, when commanders were delighted to discover that many of their recently drafted troops had sufficient technical skills to quickly master the operation and repair of motor vehicles, aircraft, and electronics. Most young Americans, especially the boys, who grew up in the 1920s and 30s were fascinated by the "new tech" (automobiles and consumer electronics like radios and amplified record players) of their day. These items were the "PCs" of that time. It happened again, in the 1990s, without much notice. The kids are always the first to dive into new tech and in the last century this had unexpected impact on the military. But all these tech savvy young men and women joining the military is having an enormous impact on how the tech is used, maintained, and modified. It's now being increasingly recognized as another thing to be measured when evaluating those seeking to join the military.

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