Toys 'R' U.S.

By William M. Arkin
Special to
Monday, March 13, 2000

Originally from:

The Navy's announcement that it is arming 2,000 ship-based officers with Palm V computers would seem, at first glance, to be a sound business decision, and proof that the Pentagon can indeed buy "off the shelf" products to the benefit of the taxpayer.

The purchase is touted as the largest government buy ever of hand-held devices. But is it an investment in productivity, or a faddish move that has no place in the military arena?

"It's one of the neatest things I've ever seen," Lt. Jeff Keenan told the Associated Press. Keenan is a combat systems officer aboard the Norfolk-based destroyer USS Laboon. "I used to be one of those people who carried around a big date book all the time, and I'd misplace it plenty of times, particularly when you'd put it down to climb a ladder," Keenan said.

Don't burn your notebook just yet Jeff.

Though his Palm V packs the equivalent of message center, walkie-talkie and clipboard, you can't get it wet.

Plug and Play

Laptop computers, pagers, and hand-held devices are sprouting like weeds in the military. While many are truly purchases direct from civilian vendors, others are made to order for the wear and tear of the battlefield: waterproof, mud-proof, shock-resistant, anti-glare, and electromagnetic pulse surviving.

These computers--Mini-Python, the M-30, Condor, FALCon, and Warlord Notebook--could almost be weapons given their ingenious names. Better able to survive the rigors of combat, they are much more expensive than both the Palm V or any high-end commercial laptop.

"A Palm Pilot is five ounces of dead weight in a firefight," says one military technology expert. For the battlefield, the Army's Force XXI experiment is testing dozens of laptops and helmet and body-mounted computers (called "appliques") to link soldiers, officers, and equipment.

The Navy is not without its own sea-going technology. One company has produced a $30,000 laptop approved for use on the decks of ships because it can sustain sea spray, intense sunlight and the extreme electromagnetic interference from shipboard radar.

Is this indeed "a battlefield bristling with leap-ahead technology," as former Secretary of Defense William Perry described the Army's digitization effort a few years back? Or is it the cyber equivalent of the $600 toilet seat?

Solutions and Problems

"Adolescence," is how Martin Libicki, an information technology expert at the Rand Corporation calls the current state of electronic offerings. Libicki sees a technology harvest that will eventually reap true military benefits, but for now, he says: "If you are going to be an adult, you've got to go through it, zits and all."

Libicki has been worrying about ways to ensure that if soldiers are ever captured with their gizmos, systems will not be compromised. "I'm worried about the guy who finds himself on the wrong side of an AK-47," he says. If the enemy were to gain access to the American tactical picture through a hand-held device or laptop, they could learn gaps in intelligence and "blue" (i.e., U.S. military) vulnerabilities.

Thus Libicki has developed some ideas to ensure network security for the inherently vulnerable battlefield systems. There is his "GPS lock-out" idea, a $200 module could be added to hand-held devices to incorporate a global positioning satellite system. If the device is reported behind enemy lines, the module assumes it has been captured and shuts down the device down awaiting resynchronization.

Then there is "dual password," which would allow a prisoner of war to key in a fake password to unlock his laptop for enemy interrogators. But the back-up password would bring up false data on the screen that would seem plausible. It would also send a signal to the mother ship that the unit has been lost. Libicki has even conceived of an artificial intelligence program that could monitor keystrokes and thus stress to determine that a machine is still functioning under normal circumstances.

Adding without a Calculator

Though Libicki is palpably excited by his engineering challenges, he also asks some pointed questions. Does any soldier who has the potential to be captured really need a laptop? In a world where you can see the enemy from far away, do soldiers even need to close in on the enemy? Are we just building the systems for "a high-tech Gettysburg," Libicki asks?

"The only time you want to get in and amongst the enemy is when there is no choice," he says.

Laptop computers that can survive a nuclear war? Notebooks that can operate on the front lines? Hand-held devices on enclosed ships and submarines? Obviously there is potential for excess here.

Beyond the question of waste though, there is the matter of practicality. Proliferation of personal devices ensure better communication, record keeping, and access to information. But when systems fail, will military people still know the skills to use the old grease pencil? I for one have been writing with a word processor for almost 20 years, and frankly I've lost my ability to write anything beyond a grocery list in long hand.

Isn't war too important to be left to the laptop?

Contact William M. Arkin at [email protected]

Last updated 7.21.03