Defense officials ponder technology's role in warfare

Technologies that can provide information and "decision superiority" are increasingly critical to the future of U.S. defenses, but the branches of the military still face challenges in adapting to the demands of 21st-century warfare, a panel of experts said Tuesday.

Several Defense Department officials at the Defense Summit sponsored by Silicon Graphics Inc. touted the growing need for more precise information and for the ability of U.S. warriors to react speedily to that information. That reality departs significantly from the needs of the military over the last few decades for technologies that increase the effectiveness of weapons.

The defense and intelligence communities "must invest in technological capabilities and people to meet the information and knowledge needs of our armed forces and the nation's decision makers," Lt. Gen. James King, former director of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, said during a keynote speech.

Panelists said that "visualization," a concept that requires defense operations to rely on better imaging of such things as maps and geographic information, is a key aspect of information superiority.

David Borland, deputy chief information officer for the Army, noted that technologies that disseminate data are as essential as technologies that enhance information gathering. "How do we get the right amount of information ... when we need it?" he said.

Borland said the security and availability of bandwidth, the pipes that transmit data, is a major challenge in the information-gathering equation. The Army intends to launch a program known as the joint tactical radio system that is designed to increase both the bandwidth within the organization's networks and the interoperability of those networks.

Similarly, the Navy is establishing one "naval network," said Rear Adm. Nancy Brown, director of space and information warfare at the Navy's command and control division. Brown said the Navy is developing a system that "in the end will have one set of security policies and one management infrastructure to control that network."

The projects seek to make the information-gathering process more precise. But panelists said military success also hinges on how quickly leaders can react to the information.

Consequently, stronger cooperation between the Defense Department, government decision makers and the technology industry is necessary. The panelists said companies need to launch or continue investing in projects designed to meet the growing demands of the Defense Department.

"Digital defense is the direction in which we are going," said Bob Bishop, SGI's chief executive. "For 20 years, we have spent between 12 percent and 15 percent of our annual revenues on research and development of digital technologies."

But panelists also echoed Brown's sentiment that human capital is critical to maintaining "decision superiority."

"All of the technology in the world isn't going to make the decision makers comfortable and able to make the right decisions," Brown said.

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