Digital technology adapted to hunt for Iraqi rebel leaders
TIKRIT, Iraq -- On mud-spattered computer screens in their Humvees, American soldiers scan digital street maps, monitor enemy positions, zoom in on individual buildings through satellite imagery and download instructions from commanders.
Back on base, senior officers watch raids unfold on large screens showing real-time footage from aerial drones and displaying maps with moving icons for ground and air forces. Their locations are tracked by global positioning satellites.
The two dozen components making up this high-tech digital warfare system are known as Army Battle Command Systems. The technologies, originally designed for battlefield combat involving tanks and helicopters, now are being adapted for hunting rebel leaders and trailing street fighters.
The technology has allowed commanders to plan complicated raids and organize battle gear and hundreds of soldiers within two hours. That speed, they say, played an important part in capturing Saddam Hussein and other fugitives.
The Army's 4th Infantry Division, headquartered in one of Saddam's palace complexes in his hometown beside the muddy Tigris River, is the only unit outfitted with the system, and it is being used in combat for the first time.
"No longer do you have guys on a map putting little stickers where things are at," said Capt. Lou Morales, a division training officer. "It's digitally done. ... It allows commanders to move more rapidly, more decisively, more violently."
In Iraq, where the battle is an intelligence-driven hunt for underground street fighters and their leadership, the system has proven effective in helping planners visualize forces' movements, Morales said.
Each military vehicle is tracked by satellite and appears as a moving blue icon on computer screens inside Humvees, tanks and other craft, and on monitors back at command headquarters.
Red icons represent known enemy positions -- insurgents laying an ambush, fugitives' hideouts or the locations of known roadside bombs.
Each soldier using the touch-screen monitor can place an icon on the map and have it appear on screens throughout the system.
With that battlefield view, a commander can watch his forces surround the home of a suspect and know when they are all in place. The system also is credited with reducing the number of friendly fire incidents.
However, some ground forces complain that the vehicle consoles are too complicated to use and frequently break down under desert wear and tear. Links between pieces of the network sometimes crash and, because the system is unique, replacement parts are slow to arrive.
'It's going to break down'
"They're waterproof and heat-resistant, but when you boil it down it's a computer. You're driving it in dust, sand and rain, 130-degree heat. It's going to break down," said Capt. Nathan Saul, communications officer for the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment.
Some soldiers are not using the system because of the problems, he said.
"These guys are busy. They don't have time to troubleshoot a hard drive," Saul said.
Although the traditional method of gathering intelligence -- using tips from Iraqi informants, seized documents and interrogations of detainees -- still plays a central role, commanders say the computer system has been a crucial tool for orchestrating raids that often change course in mid-operation.
For example, if a reconnaissance team spots a suspect leaving for another location, commanders in a matter of seconds can redirect pursuing forces with an e-mail via the system's "tactical Internet."
"That's pretty much in the realm of incredible," said Lt. Col. Ted Martin, the division's chief of operations. "This is a bunch of infantry men. Their main job is to kick a door down and throw a hand grenade in a room.
"But they're sitting there on a computer screen at night, moving through a town, getting a new order, making a turn and looking at satellite imagery."
The system also includes eight "Shadow" unmanned aerial vehicles -- pilotless drones that observe the homes of suspects or the locations of rebel mortar crews. The drones, the only ones being used in Iraq, carry thermal cameras that produce real-time video, even in darkness or rain.
Beside one of Saddam's ransacked palaces at the 4th Infantry Division's headquarters, leaders oversee military operations from a small fold-out mobile command center on the back of a flatbed truck.
Recently, three large screens illuminated the room with color images from a drone flying above local towns and farms. The aircraft banked west, showing a sunset over the Tigris River.
Martin said the system has given military planners so much confidence they even skip time-consuming rehearsals and contingency plans.
"It gives me the confidence I need to speed up the tempo and outmaneuver these guys," he said.