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Best-laid plans: mission-planning systems help coordinate multi-faceted amphibious operations.


If the test of a first-rate intelligence, as the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald said, is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function, think then of the mental exertion required for planning major military missions. The many possible lines of attack, the possible reactions by the enemy, the critical supply lines, the coordination between aircraft, ground troops, and sea vessels. Like a chess match, a military operation will result in a win, loss, or stalemate, yet the course of play may vary virtually infinitely.

Inevitably, computers are being put to the task of mission planning. After all, if IBM's Deep Blue can learn to play chess better than the greatest grandmaster in the world, it only makes sense computers would also be used to help plan for what chess merely represents: war. Real war is a bit more complicated, of course. Take, for example, the case of littoral warfare. Around the world, whatever civil or other kind of military conflict that may be brewing is probably not far from a shore-line, simply because some 70% of the world's population lives less than two miles from the coast. It may be in Sierra Leone, Liberia, or East Timor. In lands like Afghanistan and Iraq, neighboring countries didn't generally want to host US or UK troops, creating yet another need to launch military operations from the water.


With littoral warfare, as well as any other kind of military operation these days, the problem is more likely to be an overabundance rather than a dearth of available information. The question is how to sort through it all. Maps, charts, imagery from intelligence aircraft like unmanned aerial vehicles and reconnaissance planes, human intelligence--all of these can be integrated onto a single screen though the use of technology from companies like Skyline Software (Woburn, MA). Use elevation data to turn a two-dimensional map in a three-dimensional (3D) virtual world--just like in a video game--then combine it with information about, say, utility lines or the planned position of friendly troops. The result is a model of the environment that mission planners can use to help determine line-of-sight for communications, the vantage points that particular positions within a terrain will provide to those who hold them, and more.

"So when you're planning, you know that if there's a small mountain between you and the radar, the enemy probably can't see you," said Skyline Software executive and co-founder Ronnie Yaron. "You can create a 3D kind of dome around the threat to show someone who's planning the mission which areas would be visible to a specific threat. In urban environments, you might want to plan from which window you'll be visible when you're planning to do something around a specific location."

When the operation actually beings, such a system could then be used for tracking the progress of friendly forces, with live imagery superimposed over a digital map, for instance, to show the relation of the imagery to its relative location within the battlespace. Among the various tests underway using such technology is an initiative by NATO called Additional Military Layers (AML), which aims to create integrated digital-data products that would replace the paper charts and mix of software currently used. As part of AML, the UK Royal Navy and the UK Hydrographic Office in July 2002 began testing software from Tenet Defence (Horsham, West Sussex, UK) on shore and at sea off the northwest coast of Scotland that allows users to examine various kinds of warfare scenarios. For example, in anti-submarine warfare, water depth, features of the ocean floor, the presence of shipwrecks, and other information can greatly determine what the best tactics might be.

In another, unrelated project, the Centre de Recherches Pour la Defence Valcartier, the research and development arm of the Canadian Armed Forces, has been developing tools that military planners could use to fuse information taken from conventional maps, aerial photographs, and other imagery to create 3D pictures. MultiGen-Paradigm (San Jose, CA) provided the technology to the project that converts information from geographic-information-system (GIS) databases into 3D images. The company noted in a research paper on the technology that the ability to turn GIS information into 3D imagery has been around for some time but that it required a number of different technologies, a lot of technical expertise, and generally took days instead of hours.

Real war is a lot more unpredictable and complicated than a game like chess, which doesn't have any pieces to represent things like aircraft, ships, or thunderstorms, but military planners do share with chess players one important thing in common: there's never as much time as they'd like to plot their moves. Major Ben Watson, an instructor at the US Marine Corps' Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS) in Quantico, VA, said that planning for an amphibious operation may or may not be done electronically depending on how much time is available. "When we do more deliberate planning, then a lot of times the tools we use are captured in spreadsheets and matrices," Maj. Watson said. "When time is short, if we don't have the time for that, we'll use a whiteboard and a dry-erase marker and a flipchart. It depends on what's more efficient in a given situation."

Speedy Delivery

Computers are supposed to speed up planning, but they don't always, especially when the operation is more basic, and the strategy and tactics simpler to grasp. In the business world, for example, consider the benefits of a PalmPilot versus an old-fashioned planner. A team leader may say to the assembled, "Everyone free next Friday at 1 pm?" Those with the planners can simply flip to the appropriate page. "Sure, I'm free," they say. Meanwhile, those with the PalmPilot may still be tapping at their screens, saying, "Just a minute."

Sometimes computers require an effort that is either not worth their benefit or that time does not allow. Creating a 3D, graphical picture of a mission plan, for instance, in which users can see the beach over which they plan to launch an assault, then run through the entire planned operation, taking into consideration various possible enemy responses and alternative strategies, may require more technical expertise and time than the leaders of the amphibious operation have.

"We use a lot of digital imagery to assist in visualization and relating things to, for instance, reports of enemy locations or particular pieces of terrain that are very important to us, to our tactics, and sometimes we go to the extent of using certain software to sort of fly the terrain and see the relief, the different changes in elevation. If we're going to take different routes, we can see ahead of time what that might look like as we're traveling along," Maj. Watson said. "But turning the plan into a digital wargame would probably require more in terms of time and technical support than we technically have when we're out at sea on an amphibious force."

But the EWS trains Marine captains in tactics for operations at the brigade level. For more broad amphibious operations involving the coordination of multiple brigades or regiments, along with Naval aircraft, supporting artillery, etc., the amount of detail is exponentially greater. Mission planning in this case may not involve 3D modeling, but it certainly helps to keep track of the timeline and tactics digitally. Whiteboards and flipcharts won't do. As Alfred Mitchell of SAIC's C3 Advanced Information Technology Group (San Diego, CA) noted, the old way of drawing up plans for amphibious operations required the creation of many, many messages containing the latitudes, longitudes, and grid references of the positions where vessels were supposed to be. Some coordinates represented where ships went, other numbers where a certain aircraft went, and so on. People on the individual ships or at individual operations centers, both Marines and Navy, would receive the messages and plot out on a chart where they and everyone else were supposed to be. "But there are inherent errors in that," Mitchell said. "The guy gets a position off. And you do that multiple times. The more times you do it, the greater the likelihood of making an error in the plotting."


When each ship is plotting out the common operational picture on its own, manually, all kinds of things may go wrong. Their paper charts may be of the wrong scale; the lead in their pencils could be of different thickness; their compasses or dividers might get accidentally moved. Then, suppose some change must be made in the mission plan. "There's nothing worse than to have to create a whole plan for an amphibious operation and then a day or even hours before you're going to launch, you find out some new piece of information which is completely detrimental to your operation," said Ashley Johnson, the Office of Naval Research's Marine Air-Ground Task Force Maneuver EC manager for littoral combat future naval capability. "Now you've got to re-plan the whole thing, because, while it may, in fact, be just one aspect of an operation that's affected, it's like a whole chain of connections, in that it affects everything else. In a lot of cases, it's just simply number-crunching and math, working a timeline backwards. But because it's done with pen and paper, someone may have to go back and check all of it by himself."


Mike Fallon, the director of Marine Corps programs for General Dynamics Decisions Systems (Scottsdale, AZ), which has developed new Unit Operations Centers (UOCs) for the US Marine Corps that are easily transportable and can be fully set up and running within 40 minutes, noted that when everybody is looking at the same map or picture, it reduces confusion and speeds up command. In the old days, maps would be copied and then, in the case of land operations, be literally handed to a runner who either ran them to other units or jumped in a jeep or on a motorcycle to deliver them. Of course, radio communications, telephones, and email made runners obsolete, but the need for each unit or vessel to plot out their information manually remained. To address the problem, the Office of Naval Research, with the help of SAIC, is developing a system called the Expeditionary Decision Support System (EDSS), which uses existing command, control, computer, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance ([C.sup.4]ISR) systems like the Global Command and Control System-Maritime (GCCS-M) to accomplish the exchange of tactical and planning data. To date, the EDSS has been used in various exercises, including a NATO amphibious training exercise called Exercise Destined Glory '02 and some operational deployments that Mitchell declined to provide details about.

Modern-Day Blitzkriegs

But while the higher-level strategic planning of amphibious operations may still in recent years have been done in fairly inconsistent, non-digitized ways, with the aid of PowerPoint or Excel spread-sheets, military campaigns have nevertheless greatly benefited in recent years from the use of computers, especially in the speed at which the operations can be planned. Defense analyst Dr. Norman Friedman, author of Seapower as Strategy and other books on naval strategy, pointed to the fast development of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the planning for which began within days or perhaps weeks after September 11, 2001, and which was over by December. "That means, in a lot less than three months, we managed to plan, execute, and win. That's pretty impressive," Friedman said. "A lot of it wasn't amphibious. But the marine thing was, and that was planned and done in a month."

How much faster has mission planning become compared with operations in the past thanks to computers? Perhaps 20-times faster, Friedman said. For example, think of an amphibious operation in the past, such as Normandy in World War II. While that was a much larger operation than Afghanistan, the planning for it might be said to have begun in mid-1943, when Eisenhower arrived in England, meaning planning took at least an entire year, Friedman said. In planning for amphibious operations, as with military planning in general, the more tactical considerations, such as what ships will go where, come relatively late in the planning process. "Forget the ships; you have to figure out what you want to happen once you're ashore. It takes a long time. And, of course, you've got to realize that as the Normandy thing is being developed, all of these units are doing other things. So you may not have the units that you started with when the fight actually happens. You have to constantly redraw plans, and every time you redraw a plan, it has all kinds of implications. Well, the computers can take care of the implications."

The way computers figure out all those implications is through artificial intelligence--just like what Deep Blue uses to defeat Gary Kasparov. Much of the technology that is used for such decision-support systems employed by the military comes from ILOG (Gentilly, France). As a means of illustrating the highly connected elements that make up a military operation, ILOG spokesman Andrew Fox compares operations planning with scheduling tasks like National Football League (NFL) playing schedules or commercial-airline flight schedules, for both of which ILOG provides technology. "Its difficult to articulate, because you might say, 'Well, why can't you just sit down and look at all the different constraints to figure out the best way?' But when you're talking about multiple constraints interacting, it actually is much more successful to provide scenarios, and you can then choose the scenario that best fits with what you have to be able to plug in," Fox said. "For the first time ever, the 2003-2004 NFL season is being scheduled automatically. Before, the NFL would go into a room, sit down, and spend two weeks just hammering out the schedule."


Pierre-Henri Clouin, ILOG's industry marketing manager for government and defense, said some military officers can be reluctant to embrace the idea of using computers to help draw up mission plans, feeling that they take away control over the decision-making process. But Clouin argued that it simply helps planners sort through their priorities, based on the constraints of a particular mission. Certain policies regarding how long soldiers must rest between missions or regulations about how often ammunition must be replaced might be a couple examples of constraints that pertain to a mission and that would affect the timeline of the operation. So the decision-support system might recommend that a second phase of an operation not begin until a certain hour, because of certain constraints that, if the military planners choose, may be overridden. "You automate a lot of decisions in a way that you can still control. It frees you from thinking about all these little details," Clouin said. "It may say you cannot do this type of mission right now, because you need to make sure the troops have stayed at that base for six hours."

Origins of Automated Planning

The automated dissemination of mission planning first appeared with air forces, which obviously must cope with complicated scheduling requirements constantly, just like commercial airlines. Systems like Theater Battle Management Core Systems (TBMCS) that have been around for a number of years help officers electronically organize and disseminate air-tasking orders (ATOs). Lockheed Martin Mission Systems (Gaithersburg, MD) chief engineer of TBMCS Pat Murphy noted that his company's system provides a Web-based guide to overall strategic direction to which developers of ATOs can refer to make sure that their tasks conform to overall strategic aims, but he said that future versions of the software aim to provide more of an electronic trail between strategic planning and tactical planning. As it stands now, the officers who draw up the ATOs sometime have trouble relating them to the original strategic objectives, which can be a problem when the strategic objectives change, as they often do. A change in strategic direction affects the relative importance of ATOs, but reprioritizing them is difficult without that electronic audit trail, said lan McLean of Mil Spec Software (St. David de Falardeau, Ouebec, Canada), which developed military-campaign-planner software that BAE Systems (Farnborough, UK) recently acquired and is adapting for use by the UK Royal Air Force in a program called Project Swift. McLean, a major with the Canadian Air Force who developed the software on his own time, said he noticed the problem that arose from the lack of automatic strategic planning while serving as an air tasking officer within a Joint Force Air Component Headquarters in the UK.

"If you're not thinking about it from the overall operational objectives in the big campaign, you can end up hitting targets of no real strategic significance. You end up getting down to tank planking, where you're just hitting things for the sake of hitting something, and you're not really following the commander's intent," McLean said. "There was a disconnect between the overall strategic objectives and what we actually ended up targeting. There was a heavy reliance on Word documents coming out of the commander's office. Guys would end up with 72 tactical tasks in PowerPoint or Excel, and the problem would be matching what targets were going to satisfy what tactical task. A commander would turn around and say, 'Hey guys, how's it going in satisfying that tactical task?' And you'd get a bunch of guys looking at each other and saying, 'Well, it's pretty good, sir.'"


When each specific tactical task can be matched up with a high-level strategic objective, the connection between an action and its intended effect is clear, which makes reorganizing strategic goals (and the tasks that will satisfy them) easier. As McLean put it, this means the ATO officers can say, "These are the 100 targets that apply to the tactical task."

The connection line between strategic and tactical tasks also gives the military greater accountability, so that when they perform a specific operation, no one will lose track of why it was done--an important function for any kind of military operation, amphibious or otherwise, that systems like EDSS, future versions of TBMCS, and other software like that of Project Swift will be able to do. "This is a real bone of contention for the military guys," McLean said. "It gives you a clear audit trail for every target you're hitting and why you're hitting it. Think back to Vietnam. When people say, how come your military's hitting these targets? Well, we've got the audit trail. It lets you follow the clear audit trail per each day of the campaign."

Computers may be used to conduct military campaigns from start to finish, but that's not to say they will actually be used to run operations on their own, like Deep Blue playing a chess match. But they do aid top commanders communicate their wishes to leaders on the lower rungs and help associate specific operations with specific strategic goals. Maj. Watson of the Expeditionary Warfare School noted that computer systems that use technology like GPS to track the positions of friendly forces during an operation may not be of much actual use to a small unit during the course of a mission, but they help keep headquarters higher up in the food chain informed of what the supporting units are doing. But what happens if the computers go out of commission, if the generator fails or the team loses their electronic pictures? "We can always back up with manual maps, and stickpins, and stuff like that," Maj. Watson said. As every military planner knows in the back of his head, there's no telling what can happen.
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Comment:Best-laid plans: mission-planning systems help coordinate multi-faceted amphibious operations.
Author:McKenna, Ted
Publication:Journal of Electronic Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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