The transformation of the nation's military communications is a reality that has not yet been fully absorbed by America's military and civilian leaders. Since the invention of the telegraph in 1833 leaders have become more and more detached from battlefield realities. This has been true for both winners and losers; great soldiers understand this and do everything in their power to compensate for their isolation. No military commander can operate without communications, even if it is just his or her own loud voice.
As S.L. A .Marshall wrote in his famous book on military leadership, "Men Against Fire" (1947), "Information is the soul of morale in combat and the balancing force in successful tactics. Yet in an era which is on the whole extremely enlightened, when we are so concerned for the welfare of our troops that we strain our supply lines so that fresh eggs and oranges may be served in the front line during the course of the most rapid advance by field armies in history (Germany, April - May 1945) , we have not found the means to assure an abundant flow of that most vital of all combat commodities - information."
Today, with drones flying over the battlefield, commanders have been tempted to imagine that , without being present on the ground, they can understand what exactly is going on. Full motion video-feeds showing exactly who is doing what, and when, have the potential to clog the chain of command; yet at the same time they are giving the troops on the battlefield vital knowledge of what is behind the next corner or beyond the hill. Modern communications systems also do something soldiers have needed ever since they ceased to fight in close order: accurate data on where their comrades are in relation to where they are. Nothing is more important for morale than to know that your flanks and back are protected by your comrades.
Recent changes in military communications technology have enabled all, or almost all, of the troops on the battlefield now to wear small radios; they can use these radios to talk to each other locally, and, with the right networking equipment, they can talk to a different unit that is over the ridge beyond the line normally needed for a small radio to work. In Afghanistan this technology is essential.
The US Land Warrior system -- designed to give every American Infantry soldier a fully integrated set of digital tools including communications, navigation and the ability to view a small multipurpose display -- has evolved to the point where some of its elements are now accepted by the troops, in contrast to the troops' rejection of the early models of the ensemble, which weighed too much and were unreliable. With all the progress that has been made, however, no one has yet come up with a surefire way to protect America's troops from being interfered with while they are engaged in combat. So far we have not heard any reliable reports of direct meddling by politicians, but the potential is there.
The idea that the President or the Secretary of Defense could give direct orders to a squad leader on patrol in an Afghan valley may seem absurd; but what is not absurd is the way that the breakdown of the barriers between strategic, operational and tactical communications networks is tearing apart the old differences between the strategic -- defined as the President , the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs and the Theater commander; the Operational, which includes Army, Corps and Division command; and the Tactical, which is everything below Division command.
This is not something the military is prepared for. The old orderly process -- beginning with an "estimate of the situation" and ending with a clearly written order -- that has guided commanders and their staffs for generations may not be valid in a networked world where a soldier, using civilian communications, can send a digital picture to a buddy, or add something to a Facebook page, that might do serious damage.
There is also the question of how the military determines priorities. In 2001 and 2002, many Defense Department leaders were surprised when they found that in order to watch the full motion video-feed from a Predator drone operating over Afghanistan, the Air Force needed to use the entire capabilities of a billion dollar Milstar communications satellite -- built in the 1980s and 1990s -- to help the US Commander-in-Chief keep control of his forces during an all-out nuclear war. The limits of the video-feed came as nasty shock when commanders found that allowing leaders in Washington DC to watch the action on the ground in real time blocked essential communications channels being used by Air Force, Navy and Special forces.
This problem helped lead to the now-cancelled T-Sat transformational advanced communications satellite program, the goal of which was to provide abundant, secure bandwidth capability to the whole US military, using both radio frequency and laser linkages.
For the moment, the Milstar system is being replaced by the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) series of satellites, the first of which was launched on August 14th, 2010. The Air Force plans to build and operate six of these spacecraft for a total program cost of $12.5 billion. However that is only an estimate, the failure of a onboard rocket motor, intended to put the first one into geosynchronous orbit, will not only delay full operations until sometime in the middle of next year, but the effort needed to fix the problem will no doubt add to the program's price, a factor that will make it more difficult for the Air Force to justify fully funding the program and building an improved version. This episode is yet another example of the need for military space professionals to be totally committed to a 'zero defects', perfectionist engineering culture.
The interconnected nature of available communications systems creates unprecedented levels of intimacy between leaders and troops: Good officers will be able to use these tools to inspire the men and women they command; poor officers will find themselves overwhelmed by the technological complexities
Keeping these systems secure is now, and will always be, an ongoing nightmare for those whose job it is to protect our secrets: if a single security breach at a low level can compromise a huge network, then clearly something is wrong with the design. Yet the need to maintain seamless connections between troops, machines and commanders makes keeping the balance between confidentiality and the free flow of essential information exceptionally difficult.
At present, a strong case can be made for restraint. Men and women at the highest levels of government should teach themselves to refrain from using all of the fabulous capabilities that are available; instead, they should allow those who are lower down in the chain of command to do their jobs with minimal supervision. Tight control kills initiative. Battles are often lost because a junior leader at a critical moment decided to sit down and wait for new orders. A leader who spends too much time talking with his superiors is, almost by definition not spending enough time actually leading. But as long as the real ramifications of the use of these new communications systems are not well understood, it might be better to "keep quiet and be thought a fool, than to speak (or send a message) and leave all doubt."