The mission changes for Charlie Company seconds after the soldiers roll off the base. The dreary night patrol around Balad, a shambling Shi'ite town in north-central Iraq, has just been canceled. It's time instead to hightail it west, to the Sunni neighborhood of Ad Duluiyah. "Alpha Company is taking direct fire," a voice crackles over the radio in First Lt. Brian Feldmayer's Humvee. "I need you to expedite."
Feldmayer, a 24-year-old Virginian with the smooth cheeks of a teenager, tries to straighten out a smile of excitement and nervous anticipation. He stares into the glowing touchscreen at his left elbow. The Army calls this system Blue Force Tracker, or BFT. It's a militarized version of an automotive navigation aid, enhanced to track-and communicate with-other coalition vehicles. Firmly tapping the screen with his gloved fingers, Feldmayer calls up the grid coordinate just radioed to him and marks it with white crosshairs. Zooming out, he studies the roads leading there. He plots a course, then radios the rest of his patrol-two tanks, three more Humvees and an Iraqi Army Nissan truck-with orders to haul ass.
It doesn't take long for Feldmayer to regret it. Nobody on the patrol knows the roads, and he's wary of getting lost. Ordinarily, on his terminal, he should be able to track Charlie's other BFT-equipped vehicles and follow the route they're taking. But the satellite signal that feeds BFT is weak tonight. And the lieutenant doesn't exactly trust the system's maps: It can take the Army's cartographers up to a year to update them; in Iraq, a lot can change by then.
Feldmayer curses loudly. He calls his command post for help, but he hears only static.
This wasn't how the 75-man Charlie Company was supposed to operate. It's part of the Army's first "digital division," the Ft. Carson, Colorado-based Fourth Infantry Division (4ID), outfitted with the military's latest gear: new tanks, firearms and armored vehicles, but also flying reconnaissance drones, advanced sensors, electronic jammers and battlefield data networks. All of which should make the 4ID a model for the Pentagon's vision for the future of combat--"network-centric warfare." With the right technologies, soldiers should be able to communicate better and have a clearer picture of the battlefield. Their movements become lightning-quick and lethally effective. Think of it as combat on Internet time.
Every war becomes a proving ground for new tactics and new technologies. Battleships rose to prominence in World War I; tanks and bombers determined the course of World War II; Vietnam brought air power definitively into the Jet Age. The current conflict is no different. The Pentagon began this war believing its new, networked technologies would help make U.S. ground forces practically unstoppable in Iraq. Slow-moving, unwired armies like Saddam Hussein's were the kind of foe network-centric warriors were designed to carve up quickly. During the invasion in March 2003, that proved to be largely the case-despite most of the soldiers not being wired up at all. It was enough that their commanders had systems like BFT, which let them march to Baghdad faster than anyone imagined possible, with half the troops it took to fight the Gulf War in 1991. But now, more than three years into sectarian conflict and a violent insurgency that has cost nearly 2,400 American lives, an investigation of the current state of network-centric warfare reveals that frontline troops have a critical need for networked gear-gear that hasn't come yet. "There is a connectivity gap," states a recent Army War College report. "Information is not reaching the lowest levels."
This is a dangerous problem, because the insurgents are stitching together their own communications network. Using cellphones and e-mail accounts, these guerrillas rely on a loose web of connections rather than a top-down command structure. And they don't fight in large groups that can be easily tracked by high-tech command posts. They have to be hunted down in dark neighborhoods, amid thousands of civilians, and taken out one by one.
Even in the supposedly wired 4ID, it can take years for frontline soldiers to benefit from the technologies that high-ranking officers quickly take for granted. The finicky, incompatible equipment that's given to the infantrymen and tank drivers in Charlie Company-the guys who are spending this cold, wet February night on the front-is primitive in comparison with the gear at the sprawling military base outside of Balad, where battalion-level commanders oversee the 300 troops in Charlie and three other companies. There, things are beginning to work like the network-centric theorists predicted, with drone video feeds and sensor data and situation reports flying in constantly. But to the guys in Charlie Company, this technological wizardry and the Pentagon's futuristic hypotheses seem awfully far away.
There is a simple, but significant, reason why: Bringing frontline infantrymen into the network isn't as easy as wiring up a headquarters. Battlefield gear has to be wireless, durable, secure, and completely effortless to use in the chaos of combat. The network is slowly expanding to meet the grunts. But the Department of Defense's lumbering process for buying new equipment still virtually ensures that ground-level soldiers won't be linked-in until early next decade. "The fog, friction and uncertainty of war are still there, same as always," says retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, considered one of the leading authorities on counterinsurgency. "This net-centricity helps some, but it only goes as far as the battalion [the command echelon above the companies that do the actual fighting]. After that, these guys are on their own."