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IT fuels battle awareness

In Afghanistan recently, a United States Marine on horseback rode to the top of a dusty ridge with pursuers not far behind. He signaled his GPS position via communications satellite to a command center in Florida and called for a strike on his own position--in 10 minutes. Then he galloped away.

Ten minutes later a nearby fighter aircraft struck that position and took out his pursuers.

Technology is creating a new era of battlefield awareness, Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO Vance D. Coffman told an MIT audience April 2. "Today, there is restored view of technology as the key to defense superiority," he said in a talk titled, "Total Awareness: the Real Revolution in Military Affairs." The Industry Leaders in Technology and Management lecture was co-sponsored by the Industrial Liaison Program and the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development.

The Bush administration is backing up that commitment with a call for $60 billion a year in defense and civilian information technology investment by 2007, said Coffman, who told the audience that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is the next-generation aircraft that will be used by the United States and its allies. While current aircraft rely on a few hundred thousand lines of code, the JSF's expanded capacities for observation and communication require more than five million lines of code. Lockheed Martin recently won the $200 billion, 30-year JSF contract.

Coffman said the United States conflict in Afghanistan has focused energies on dissipating the historic fog of war, the inability to see action in real time. In World War II, one of 400 bombs hit their targets; 10 years ago, one in 10 hit. In the current conflict, nine of 10 munitions hit their marks.

Next-generation technologies will advance those capacities, he predicted. Miniature uninhabited air vehicles, no more visible than a bird, will scout targets and detect biological or nuclear threats. Space-based radar will beam real-time information to commanders in the field. Soldiers will wear lightweight nanotechnology clothing that protects them from munition fire and biological agents. Performance-enhancing exoskeletons will allow them to leap over buildings. Surface ships and ground combat systems will be cloaked in stealth technology, he predicted.

Tom Ridge will be applying many of these technologies to the goals of Homeland Security: gathering intelligence, protecting critical infrastructure and effective border control, said Coffman.

Coffman acknowledged that at least two proposals, national ID cards with fingerprints and common databasing, raise questions of personal freedom. Common databasing would have alerted the airline ticket agent on Sept. 11 that Mohamed Atta had several aliases known by the FBI and had bought half the seats on the early morning flight. That alert could have averted disaster. Common databasing that tracks banking, purchases and law enforcement records would also abolish current privacy rights.

"Certainly we have constraints in this country to protect our freedoms. There will be a debate about how much freedom to give up," he said.

Coffman concluded that many citizens will be willing to trade some loss of freedom for increased security. Increasing information gathering is the key to winning and preventing future conflicts, he believes.

"If your enemy understands what you can do with information--that is, get the right information to the right people, displayed in the right way at the right time--you may not have to fight," said Coffman. "That's how potent information is becoming."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 10, 2002.

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