15 November 2010

The View from Here

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 26--Regardless of size or type of unit, the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC") is the nerve-center, the hub of activity, the reptilian brain of the organization. Working in "current operations," the staff tracks where people and equipment are, what they're doing, and to whom they're doing it.

Twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, working in the TOC is simultaneously thrilling, infuriating, and boring beyond belief. The TOC is like a casino, in that there are no windows. "The sun never sets in the TOC," the brigade executive officer likes to say.

Reports constantly go up, down, and sideways through the TOC. Calls and contacts go out seeking more information, more detail, more ground truth. "We're driving the war from this building," the S3 Operations officer reminds his crew. "But it's the battalions that own the battlespace."

It's like playing a party game of "telephone" while simultaneously assembling a jigsaw puzzle and juggling parrots.

And at least one parrot is always on fire.

Some people love this TOC stuff. Others hate it. The latter are the guys who would be out there doing it, taking it to the streets and to the bad guys, rather than working in the air-conditioned dome, sorting through problems and moving pins around on a map.

It takes all kinds to run an Army, of course. We're all pins, one way or another.

For the next 14 days, the operations staff of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) has set up shop on the first floor of the two-story "Igloo"--a newly constructed, dome-shaped permanent building at the National Training Center (N.T.C.). The layout resembles something like the bridge of Star Trek's Starship Enterprise. There are three or four video screens across the front, depicting maps and real-time video feeds and message traffic.

A battle "captain"--the position is rank-immaterial, and can be held by a captain, major, or seasoned non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.)--keeps an eye and ear on what's happening. Located up close to the video screens, multitasking "radio-telephone operators" (R.T.O.) send and receive communications via radio, telephone, e-mail, Blue Force Tracker (B.F.T.), instant- or text-messaging.

The battle captain sits on a raised platform one step up and back from the "battle desk," in order to be able to take it all in at once. Around and behind him, there is a constantly changing collection of people from other organizations and staff functions, a combination "peanut gallery" and "Greek chorus."

Even in a digital age, technology can't replace the value of embedding a knowledgeable inter-organizational liaison, someone who can answer quick questions about unit status, capability, and location. The same time, these liaisons listen in on TOC traffic, and call their respective organizations with the latest news and heads-ups.

Like a fisherman floating on a favorite lake, if you sit in the right place and watch the water, you can see the physical ripple and flow of communications throughout the TOC. The report comes in here, it should go there and there. Now, watch to see where--and if--it goes. Sitting in the back of the room is where I do most of my "knowledge management" mojo, eavesdropping on multiple conversations, making connections, putting the question over here together with the answers over there. People in the TOC ask themselves a never-ending question: "Who else needs to know what we know?"

Sometimes, I am hindered in my eavesdropping efforts. The operations sergeant major attempts to keep the TOC as quiet as a library, and periodically yells at everyone, regardless of rank, to shut the heck up and take all conversations outside of his TOC. Lucky for me, he is stymied by the igloo's poor acoustics and the staff's chatty good humor.

For example, a bulletin board on which "significant actions" ("SIGACTS") are to be listed goes missing. Spartacus starts asking loudly, "Where is the SIGACT board? Somebody took the SIGACT board!"

Pilz, for some reason, is hanging around the battle desk. "We'll need to log that as an incident on the SIGACT board," he tells Spart, "after we find it, of course."

In another corner of the room, one of the wargame referees is whining about the brigade's prohibition on civilian "gut-truck" food vendors in the training area. "That's kind of jacked-up," he says. "Because, No. 1, you're simulating being on a FOB, and you'll have that kind of stuff available in-country. And, No. 2, that's how these guys make their money. They come out every rotation."

Man up, sir. Embrace the suck. The 2-34th is an infantry brigade combat team, not a tasty stimulus package. We're the "Red Bull," not the "Red Burrito!"

There's real lessons-learned stuff to be had, trolling around the conversational airwaves. One battalion, for example, repeatedly calls in emergency medical-evacuation ("MEDEVAC," pronouced "med-evak") request, specifying "red smoke" will be used to mark the landing zone for the helicopter. The TOC staff repeatedly have to validate whether or not the mission is a real emergency, or one that's occurring within the NTC's wargame simulation. "Someone tell them that red smoke is for real-world emergencies only," says the Battle NCO.

Immediately below my perch, a young liaison officer (L.N.O.) from one of the infantry units is schooling the brigade S4 (Logistics) staff on how to use its computer systems to track supplies and equipment. Granted, the kid is some sort of quartermaster savant, but it's a little bit like having a 6th-grader fix daddy's computer. Daddy should keep up with the 21st century, if he doesn't want to get left in the dust.

Just then, the Army laser-tag sensing equipment worn by the brigade information officer starts beeping--indicating he's now a simulated casualty. It's an obvious malfunction--no one has fired a weapon in the TOC, but he looks around, bewildered. Maybe it's a simulated heart-attack. Or spontaneous human combustion.

Another wargame adminstrator walks over with a God-gun to reset the officer's system. "It's all these fluorescent lights," he says. "Working in the TOC will kill you."

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