Information Warfare: The Killer Collective Memory

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March 26, 2010: American troops have developed a collective memory that has become a formidable, and largely unrecognized, weapon. It's all because of the Internet. Military personnel, at least in the West, and especially in the United States, were enthusiastic early adopters of Internet based communications. Even before the world wide web appeared in the mid 1990s, military PC users were connected by bulletin boards and email. They exchanged professional experiences and information. They used this electronic information network as a means to collect, and share, lifesaving advice.

The military eventually got into the act by establishing official message boards, for military personnel only, where useful information could be discussed and exchanged. All this rapid information sharing has had an enormous impact on the effectiveness of the troops, something that has largely gone unnoticed outside the military.

The U.S. Army was the leader in this, but the other services were right behind them. The army and marines, in particular, quickly established message boards and email lists (listservs). Ground combat troops are the ones most frequently sent into action, and they are always looking for information on new weapons, equipment, techniques or whatever. 

In 1999, the U.S. Air Force was one of the first services to try and centralize a lot of knowledge held by air force personnel. The Air Force Knowledge Now website was created, and restricted to military personnel. Message boards and data downloads were a major draw, because they were organized by air force job specialty. If you were an ammunition handler, and had a problem you could not find an answer to, the Knowledge Now site increasingly became the place to go. The site now has over 320,000 registered users (not all air force, but all American military, and a few civilian or foreign experts invited in). About the same time, the army set up a similar operation, and the other services followed.

The navy had a hard time until recently, because most ships had poor Internet access. Satellite communications at sea are expensive. The navy has, over the past decade, worked to rectify that.

The senior generals did little to discourage all this communication, because the officers use it as well, for the same reasons as the troops. Most junior officers grew up with the Internet, and many of the older ones were using the Internet before it became popularized in the 1990s. The generals of today, came of age in the 1980s and 90s, when PCs were proliferating, so have no trouble getting into this new form of communication. Moreover, the military is eagerly building a "battlefield Internet" for use during combat, and parts of this are up and running and heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is all uncharted territory. There's never been an army before where all the troops were so well connected with each other. So far, the benefits have outweighed any liabilities. But no one is sure where it will go next, and the public is largely unaware of the impact, because the mass media has not grasped nature and extent of the changes.

But even before the Internet became widely available, some branches of the military were trying to capture, organize, and make available large amounts of useful data. For example, the U.S. Army Center for Lessons Learned has been around since the 1980s, and U.S. commanders use it to determine what works in combat and what doesn't. This is more important than ever in the 21st century, where urban combat and counter-insurgency conflicts dominate. In urban warfare and counter-insurgency, the potential for mistakes to be made is exponentially larger than in conventional, large-scale warfare. 

CALL performs several different functions. One department collects data from previous engagements, by interviewing and visiting with units in the field. This effort works at discovering issues and areas of needed improvement in doctrine, training and readiness. The Analysis Section deals with evaluating the data collected and assessing the methods needed to improve effectiveness and combat efficiency. Finally, the Information Integration Section is responsible for processing and distributing the suggestions and findings from the previous two departments.

The CALL is sometimes seen by other branches of the Army as a group of desk-bound analysts, but their suggestions and changes implemented in counter-insurgency and urban warfare tactics played a major role in maximizing the effectiveness of the troop surge in 2007-2008.

Without something like CALL, doctrine and tactics rarely change. On-site CALL troops have visited nearly every single major combat zone in Iraq and Afghanistan. CALL soldiers have also spent significant time with Iraqi and Afghan security forces, collecting useful information. Some of the results are made available to Iraqi and Afghan troops. Troops can query CALL online, and thousands do so every day.

 

 


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