Information Warfare: December 3, 2002

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Militarized PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants like the Palm computer) are going into combat. The military was not quick to adopt personal computers when they first appeared in the late 1970s, but the troops were. Using their own Apple or Radio Shack PCs, soldiers, sailors and airmen quickly found ways to make their jobs easier by writing programs, or using off the shelf database and spreadsheet software, to automate the large number of record keeping jobs that many of them had. Eventually, the generals noticed this and by the late 1980s, PCs were flooding into military units. When PDAs showed up in the 1990s, the military saw many opportunities. The first PDAs were too crude for many military uses, but that changed over the last few years. Afghanistan saw the use of laptops in combat, and some PDAs as well. The latest PDAs are being ruggedized (waterproof and more heat and cold resistant) and equipped with enough muscle to handle lots of combat jobs. One of the first militarized PDAs comes with 64 MB of working memory, a 3.77 inch (diagonal) color display and several ports (serial, infrared, USB) for connecting to other equipment. Using the Windows CE operating system, and slots for laptop cards, additional features can be added. 

Meanwhile, Special Operations Command is using the same technology to build a PDA for Special Forces and commandos. JEDI, (Joint Expeditionary Digital Information) is a customized PDA with GPS and wireless communication via the Iridium satellite phone network. Running a cable to laser range finding binoculars, the JEDI can collect the targeting information and send it to bombers overhead in seconds via the Iridium connection. But the combat PDA has a lot of other uses. Special Forces, in particular, pick up a lot of information while in the field. Local contacts, locations for numerous uses (where good and bad guys were found, landing sites for helicopters, minefield and supply cache locations) and all manner of information that has to be recorded. Putting it all in the PDA makes it easier to use the data, and to send it without error via the satellite phone link. This system also handles text messaging and encrypted communications.

PDAs like the JEDI are a bit heavier, weighting nearly a pound, and a little larger (3.5x6x2 inches). The memory is sufficient to display useful maps of the area the troops are operating in and automatically receive important messages from commanders or subordinates. The mapping allows the user to mark red (enemy) and blue (friendly) forces. It sure beats plastic overlays and grease pencils. These PDAs have also gotten a lot of field use, so its not another case of some new, untried, hi tech gadget being sent into the field for the first time. 

You don't have to be a Special Forces trooper in the field to use a PDA. There's a lot more information troops have to collect and keep track of. Keeping vehicles going requires keeping records on maintenance, fuel and who can operate what. Company commanders have an easier time running their organization of the company clerk can update the commanders PDA (via the infrared port) each day with the status of all troops and equipment in the organization. In combat, information is power, but only if you have it handy. PDAs make that happen, giving the troops that have them another edge.

 


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