Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A demented tale of how the Army actually does business

In July 2011, an army combat team known as the Arctic Wolves moved into the Kandahar district of Panjwai, where the Taliban was born and where Osama bin Laden is said to have planned the 9/11 attacks. The area was all but evacuated—it was not yet poppy-growing season, and Panjwai’s residents had gone to nearby cities to find work. For two months, the Arctic Wolves went about their business of clearing the territory of weapons and establishing a combat outpost without suffering casualties. 

But as the Wolves continued to patrol the area in their brand new, supposedly bomb-resistant armored vehicles, they could feel eyes watching them. Insurgents were starting to move into the houses abandoned by the villagers. During this season of uneasy quiet, a 21-year-old Army specialist from Wichita, Kansas, named James Burnett called home. Burnett had enlisted while he was still in high school, and he intended to marry his fiancé and become a cop once he returned to Wichita. Those plans seemed distant now.

“I’m in a bad place,” the soldier told his stepmother. “I’m scared. Pray for me.”

Burnett and the rest of the Arctic Wolves should have had a keen sense of where the enemy was and what it would do next. The Army had developed a sophisticated data platform called the Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS-A (pronounced “d-sigs A”) for that exact purpose. The multibillion-dollar “system of systems” was built to gather, analyze, and share information from a multitude of sensors and human intelligence sources so that an Army commander could immediately assess the threat in his brigade’s environment. It would reveal the enemy’s history in the territory, the danger zones, names, faces. That was the concept, anyway.

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