High-tech map helps commanders plan next moves
By David J. Lynch
MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Southern Iraq — At 2:05 p.m., Lt. Col. David Pere, the senior watch officer at this U.S. command post, fields a disturbing intelligence report.
Iraqi troops at an Ababil missile site northwest of Basra have been spotted wearing chemical weapons suits. A special vehicle designed to decontaminate troops and their gear after a chemical attack is parked nearby.
The intelligence, transmitted from cameras aboard a Predator drone, seems incontestable. The Iraqis are readying a chemical-tipped missile to launch against U.S. forces. Officers scramble for confirmation while steering bombers into position to strike.
But this Friday afternoon, in the half-light of this high-tech command center, Pere, 41, doesn’t have the luxury of grappling with only one crisis. At this moment, a 200-vehicle convoy of desperately needed supplies is under attack by Iraqis.
In central Iraq, an elite reconnaissance team fears it has been spotted behind enemy lines. As the logistics of a rescue mission are being considered, an officer cries “gas, gas, gas” — the warning of possible chemical missile attack.
This was the scene inside the combat command post of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), which marshals more than half the land army swarming Iraq. Just days ago at this secret location, there was nothing but sand. Now, a bustling U.S. military outpost sprawls across the desert.
Bristling with antennas and radar dishes, the Marines’ mobile war room — nicknamed “the Bug” — is a triumph of improvisation and technology. Hastily designed, tested and fielded as war loomed, the unusual facility treats commanders to an incredibly rich picture of the battlefield. That could give them a critical edge in the perplexing war underway in Iraq — or swamp them with data that proves of little help in an unconventional fight with a bitter foe.
In an earlier generation, men pushed wooden icons representing fleets, air wings and army divisions across giant tabletop maps. As recently as the 1991 Gulf War, most communications were with a person’s voice, and the maps were made of paper, not bytes.
The Bug is to those tools what a computer chip is to the vacuum tube. Inside the multi-room, air-conditioned tented canvas structure, the soldiers — each wearing a wireless headset — sit in a small central chamber. On the front wall, four high-resolution screens display classified e-mail transcripts, maps of U.S. and Iraqi forces and satellite photos of the streets in individual Iraqi towns.
The ubiquitous laptops arrayed in front of every staff officer portray a mind-numbing assortment of combat data.
The maps are so detailed that 1st MEF Commander Lt. Gen. James Conway can use them to test-drive potential convoy routes. As a sergeant manipulates a joystick, a view of Highway 7 leading out of Nasiriyah appears on the screen. The general appears to be scrutinizing the route for potential choke points, susceptible to ambush. “Sergeant, back up now and see if you can find a bypass to the north of that built-up area,” Conway commands.
With a flick of his wrist, the young Marine does.
A few feet away, through a passage dominated by a television tuned to either CNN or Fox News, sit Conway’s intelligence specialists. Other wings of this facility hold topographic experts who produce customized maps on demand and liaison officers for British forces and U.S. Army and Air Force units.
The Bug might belong to Conway. But it’s the brainchild and baby of his chief of staff, an intense, steel-haired colonel named John Coleman.
On a Saturday morning last fall, Coleman sat on the floor of a Virginia tent maker and sketched his dream. With quick pencil strokes, the 27-year veteran outlined a multi-chambered canvas tent that met rigorous military requirements for portability and endurance. Thirteen days later, a prototype was at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The easy part was building a new structure. Constructing a new mindset among fellow officers grown accustomed to a more sedentary command approach proved more difficult. Using cartoon images from the 1960s, Coleman, 49, says with a smile that the Bug split the MEF headquarters staff into “Flintstones,” stone-age warriors resistant to change, and “Jetsons,” space-age fighters eager to embrace the digital world. But Coleman had the support of Conway, his general and a former neighbor when the two were junior officers in Virginia.
Data is a key weapon in any war. The Bug’s officers know that most of the initial reports they get from the field will inevitably turn out to be wrong. “The best advice anybody can give on initial indications is stop, count to 10 and then go about trying to figure out the facts,” says Col. Paddy Gough, deputy operations chief.
Time usually resolves such contradictions. But face-to-face contact also helps eliminate “the fog of war.” To allow commanders to get closer to the fight faster, the Bug is housed in a canvas tent filled with computers that can be set up or broken down in two hours. It is a smaller version of the Combat Operations Center at the Marines’ rear headquarters in Kuwait. But instead of a steel-sided building with all the drama of a FedEx hub, the Bug is a multi-sided pale-yellow dwelling with twin domes at its heart and appendages that make it resemble a deformed starfish.
If the chief of-staff was the visionary who conceived the Bug, Pere is the combination emcee and traffic cop who keeps it humming. Throughout his shift, he can be heard above the din, barking announcements or trying to reach units on secure communications links: “Papa Victor ... Say again numbers. Say again numbers.”
The often profane San Diego native works an unlit cigar as he prowls the war fighters’ lair. His visible emotions track the ebb and flow of the battle. When the Marines are pounding Iraqi targets, his enthusiasm for the fight is like that of a quarterback in the big game. When a junior Marine is slow to respond to a query, Pere smacks him on the top of the head with an open palm, playfully, but hard enough to win the man’s attention.
The battlefield war room is usually a hive of barely restrained energy. But there also are long hours where nothing in particular seems to happen. At these times, officers munch cookies or calmly work the plugs of chewing tobacco that seem to be in just about every other mouth.
Pere choreographs this organizational ballet with a mix of bravado, humor and poise. Talking down the line to a rattled Marine in the midst of battle, he is the soul of equanimity. Irritated by a slow-moving subordinate, he barks: “Somebody is not getting a (expletive) Tootsie Roll tonight.”
All those traits were on display this day during Pere’s day of multiple crises. An alarming hour elapsed before a closer look at the apparent Iraqi chemical weapons site found no sign of soldiers dressed in protective gear or the special decontamination vehicle. Aircraft were scrambled to destroy the missiles anyway, couldn’t find them, but found and destroyed a different set of surface-to-surface missiles.
The serpentine convoy heading north was defended by Cobra helicopters and ground units and reached its destination.
The enemy howitzers taking a bead on the Marines’ forward headquarters turned out to have been the result of a map error. Actually, they were miles away.
The recon team spotted by shepherds hunkered down and stayed safely in place.
And the cries of “gas, gas, gas” — through which Pere kept working sans mask — was just another in a long series of false alarms.