Information Warfare: January 12, 2000

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The Internet Goes to War: The Internet has become a major military tool at the start of the 21st century. It kind of snuck unto the military arsenal without anyone really noticing it. This should come as no surprise, as the Internet was invented in the late 1960s as a communications tool that could survive nuclear war. It should also be remembered that the troops were early adopters (unofficially) of the Internet and personal computers. Soldiers bought PCs with their own money before the brass got around to making such purchases officially. The troops immediately saw the labor saving potential of PCs and email. But when the Department of Defense finally allowed the Internet to be "commercialized" in the early 1990s, the troops ran with it. But as long as the Internet was tied to phone lines, most of the military use was restricted to military bases, and soldiers using their home PCs to stay in touch with each other. This was a tremendous asset. Even before the Internet became available to the general public, soldiers were using ARPANet (the DoD predecessor of the Internet) and commercial networks to discuss military issues, plan things and generally operate faster and more efficiently. 

Thus there was no magic involved in the rapid adoption of the Internet for military use. The pressure and expertise was coming from below. The generals were usually the last to know what a powerful new tool they had available. Indeed, many of the generals in the 1990s had gotten their first taste to networks when they were college students and junior officers. But there was one more innovation that was needed to put the Internet on the battlefield; satellite communications. The military had been introducing more and more of this in the 1980s, and by 1990 they had mobile communications units that could quickly set up satellite dishes in the field. Meanwhile, the troops were themselves rapidly adopting cell phones and laptops equipped with modems for military use (unofficially, of course.) 
The Gulf war provided numerous practical demonstrations of what this new communications technology could do on a real battlefield. Saudi Arabia was, thanks to all that oil money, one of the most wired nations in the world. The troops quickly took advantage of this, and improvised Internet and email connections among themselves and military organizations back in the States. Rather than rely on the slowed official methods of communicating, the troops used the Internet. The generals noticed that this approach was quicker and more effective. And given that the Gulf war was a wartime situation, no one bothered with the official way of doing things if some soldier with a laptop computer and an Internet connection could do it faster.

After the Gulf war, the buzz word du jour was "netcentric operations." Officers began searching out Internet savvy young troops and turning them lose. Officially accepted technology began to catch up. Satellite dish equipment was tweaked to better handle Internet data. The military came up with a secure (encrypted) version of Internet data so they could send sensitive material from browser to browser. The navy upgraded their communications so every sailor could use email as much as they wanted. This not only made everyone's work much easier and quicker, but vastly improved the morale of sailors forced to spend months at sea. Army battlefield commanders used a browser to replace the field telephone and map with a plastic overlay (and grease pencils) that had been their chief tools for nearly a century. 

The rapid development of new Internet technologies in the civilian world provided the troops with a seemingly endless supply of new tools. Online games, using instant interactive voice and graphic communication, provided the troops with the concepts and working technology to create battlefield techniques that speeded up operations to the point where a non-netcentric opponent could not keep up. There is always a need for speed on the battlefield and the Internet tools provide more speed than anyone ever imagined. 

But potential opponents also have access to Internet tools, so it's not a luxury for the military to adopt this technology. Whoever implements the Internet in combat first will have an edge, and edge that can mean the difference between life and death. 
Few people think of browsers as lethal weapons, but they are. And whoever gets to the battlefield first with the most Internet technology will survive and win.

 


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