10 March 2010

Now I Know My ABCS

In late February, I pulled two weeks in snowy Pennsylvania, where I learned the ins-and-outs (and inputs-and-outputs) among Army Battle Command Systems (A.B.C.S.)--the "system of systems" that today's Army uses to command and control its specialty functions.

In our new digital Tactical Operations Centers (TOC), soldiers like me no longer track the battle using radios and maps and pushpin flags. Instead, we practically play video games. There's a computer system for controlling artillery fires, and one for monitoring logistics and personnel statuses. There's one for drawing maps and overlays. There's one for analyzing terrain, and another for filtering through reports of enemy activity. There's even one for updating the weather forecast, and one for tracking aircraft moving through the area.

There are related systems, too, including "Blue Force Tracker" (B.F.T.)--which shows the pretty-close-to-current locations of friendly vehicles--and "Command Post of the Future" (CPOF), which commanders use to "visualize the battlefield." The latter acronym is pronounced "see-poff," and invites the question: "If we have a 'Command Post of the Future' in our possession, isn't it really more like a 'Command Post of the Present?'")

All of these TOC systems talk with each other in different ways, so that everyone on the battlefield is reacting to the same events at relatively the same times. That "Fog of War" you always hear about? We're throwing a lot of money, mental power, and technology to see through those clouds of uncertainty.

Near as I can tell, we're still years away from the Army network achieving self-awareness. That's more the stuff of science fiction, like Skynet from "The Terminator," or Colossus from "The Forbin Project." The ABCS suite seems to be a kludged-together constellation of separately developed machines, which is now expected to work as one. I'm not an expert troubleshooter yet, but I bet it's going to be like trying to get a humidifier and a dehumidifier to work in the same room together. Oh, and both of them are armed. With mops. And lasers.

Still, whenever you can paint a more accurate picture for commanders--where our troops are, where the enemy is likely to be, how we can best achieve the mission--we fight better, more efficiently, and more safely. Computers can help with that, as long as we lowly humans recognize their limitations. We created them, after all, in our own limited frames of reference.

Even the best computer system--or system of systems--can still fall prey to user-input error. Garbage in, garbage out.

What's my job? It's either to sort through the garbage, or to make sure that the compactor works really, really well.


  1. Custer could have use you. Nothing in the mil is like it was in my day (60's). Honestly, I would love to serve now and have fun with all the newest and latest technology.

  2. And the Navy has even better toys! Apparently, their digital command centers look like a cross between Star Trek and Wolf Blitzer's "The Situation Room."


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