What does Wal-Mart, police departments and the army have in common? All can be much more effective if they can get more information more quickly. Wal-Mart became the largest retailer in the world by linking together check out clerks, managers and suppliers in one large computer network. Wal-Mart knows immediately when an item is selling very quickly, and can reorder fast enough to keep things in stock. This provided an enormous competitive edge. Police departments found that collecting crime statistics as quickly as possible, and getting the information to commanders and cops, gave them an edge over criminals, and brought crime rates way down. The army has a similar problem with intelligence information. The faster you can collect, analyze and distribute it, the more effective you can be on the battlefield. In combat, theres also a potential advantage for the troops themselves. The more data you can get, the more clearly the situation appears for the soldiers in the middle of the fighting.
The U.S. Army now has an opportunity to actually try this sort of massive, high speed, data collection. Later this year, a thousand infantry officers in Iraq will be getting combat PDAs. Similar to the Palm Pilot type PDAs civilians use, the military ones will have a satellite phone capability, allowing for instantly sending and receiving data. The PDAs will have more memory and a screen optimized for displaying maps. Replacing the map case, which infantry officers have been lugging around for over a century, is alone worth the effort. No more problems with having, or losing, the right map. You can download a new one as needed. More importantly, you can download up to date overlays showing where other friendly forces are, where you are going, and where enemy troops have been reported. But heres where the intelligence collection angle comes in. As a platoon makes contact with the enemy, the platoon leader notes that on his PDA and transmits the information. Takes a few seconds, but now everyone up the chain of command knows that he and his guys are under fire. This makes it a lot easier for the folks providing supporting firepower (mortars, artillery, rockets, gunships, bombers), because the PDA also reports the platoon leaders exact location. If someone in the platoon gets wounded, the medical people know exactly where to go, without being told, or having to search around a chaotic battlefield.
The platoon leader thus has incentive to duck down and enter additional information, such as how many bad guys appear to be out there and what kind of weapons they are using, and how they are using them. One purpose of the PDAs in Iraq is to see what kind of data forms will enable the lieutenants to get the most useful information entered most rapidly. It is hoped that the data entry while in combat will cut down on the time infantry commanders have to spend talking on the radio to their boss. Voice communication would be saved for exceptional situations. Most of the information being passed around in combat is bare bones, just the facts, mam type stuff. Currently, a lot of that data is moved by voice messages over the radio, maybe scribbled down a paper somewhere along the line, before it disappears. Now everything will get captured, to be used immediately and later analyzed.
Its not some theoretical idea that collecting this information will prove useful. The army has been doing it, for other reasons, at the NTC (National Training Center) for two decades. There, the data is collected by a system of sensors and recording devices, so that officers can receive a detailed critique of their performance after the exercise. Many officers have thought about how useful it would be to collect that kind of stuff in real time, pass it around instantly and put it to use right away. Now that may be possible. How possible will be known by next year.