26 March 2002
Beaming the Battlefield
Live Video of Afghan Fighting Had Questionable Effect
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 26, 2002; Page A01
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, March 25 -- During fighting this month between U.S. troops and al Qaeda forces, Predator drone aircraft gave generals and civilian leaders back in Washington something they had never seen before: a continuous live view of Americans in ground combat in the mountains of Afghanistan, 10 time zones away.
Cameras on the 27-foot drones beamed back dramatic scenes from the heat of battle in the Shahikot region, notably the killing of a Navy SEAL commando. Never before had an extended battle by U.S. forces been piped into U.S. command centers around the globe in hour after hour of real-time video that made distant officials feel unusually close to the battlefield.
And that was one of the problems, according to U.S. commanders here. In a review of the Predator's role in the biggest U.S. ground assault in a decade, soldiers involved in the battle said the live video links gave them little useful information and were sometimes a distraction, encouraging higher-level military staffs to try to micromanage the fighting.
"Tactically, I don't think it affected what I did on the ground," said Army Col. Kevin Wilkerson, a 10th Mountain Division brigade commander who led the regular Army forces in the battle. "To be honest with you, I didn't watch it a lot," he added. The reason, he said, is that "the Predator can be mesmerizing -- like watching TV."
Maj. Louis Bello, a fire support coordinator for the division, said the video tends to be seductive, fixing the attention of its viewers on whatever it shows. "The danger is you get too focused on what you can see, and neglect what you can't see," Bello said. "And a lot of the time, what's happening elsewhere is more important."
For example, he said, the Predator may beam back an image of two tanks moving, capturing the attention of people watching -- but it might not notice several hundred enemy troops hiding nearby who are more threatening. Bello called Predator video "fraught with both blessings and curses."
Another 10th Mountain Division officer, who asked not to be identified, went further, dismissing the Predator as "entertainment for division staff," the people at headquarters.
Since the dawn of warfare, military commanders have felt they lacked the proper information to direct their forces. In ancient times, everything over the next hill was often a mystery; now, Predators can let them peer over that hill and the one after that, and the problem is how to sift through the information quickly and find what is useful.
Among the first troops that the U.S. Central Command dispatched to Central Asia after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were Predator teams sent to Uzbekistan and Pakistan. These drones were operated by the military and used purely for reconnaissance; the CIA controlled a separate set of Predators that recorded another first in military history, the firing of weapons by an unmanned aircraft.
Pictures from the military-operated Predators have been distributed to a variety of command posts around the world, including the air operations center in Saudi Arabia, Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and the Pentagon and CIA headquarters in the Washington area.
Army Maj. Gen. Franklin L. "Buster" Hagenbeck, the commander of regular U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview that from his perspective, the biggest problem caused by the Predator was that its transmission of real-time images made staffs above his own division's staff feel they were in a position to get involved in the battle.
"It proved at first to be disruptive" to his headquarters when levels of command above -- in the Persian Gulf, at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa and at the Pentagon -- watched Predator imagery and called with questions about what they saw, he said.
During the first days of the Shahikot battle, Hagenbeck recalled, "People on other staffs at higher levels would call all the way down to my staff and get information and make suggestions, or they were pulling information for details that they presumed their bosses would want to know."
The answer to that micromanagement problem, he said, was to anticipate questions and answer them by posting detailed battle reports several times a day on the military's own secure, internal computer link. After his staff started doing that, he said, the higher staffs "started backing off."
The initial conclusion of officers here is that the Predator, in its current configuration, is probably better suited to narrow tasks, such as shooting missiles at small convoys of al Qaeda leaders, than at helping commanders manage a far-flung battle.
Military experts said problems are to be expected as part of the settling-in process during the introduction of any radically new technology. "This happens frequently when new . . . technologies like Predator are introduced," said Michael Vickers, an expert on military innovation at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington research organization.
Wilkerson emphasized that he sees some uses for the Predator, especially in planning attacks. "What it did do is prepare us -- when we went into that valley, we knew where to go," he said. This allowed ground forces to maintain a faster pace of operations when they moved in -- a key advantage in keeping an adversary off balance.
"We had pinpointed the caves, so we could do in a day and a half what could have taken a week and a half," he said.
Several people involved in overseeing the battle also said the Predator would be far more useful to them if they could communicate directly with its operator, as they can with the pilots of attack helicopters and fighter jets.The Predator operator can be sitting hundreds or thousands of miles away.
If the Army can "figure that out, it would be a great asset," said Maj. Brad Herndon. "There's no doubt it's a good system. But we need to refine how we use it."
For all of the problems, said Sgt. 1st Class Roger Lyon, a 10th Mountain Division intelligence specialist, the Predator is still a nice thing to have in combat. "It's a comforting sound on the battlefield, when you're going to sleep and you hear that sound of the Predator engine, somewhere between a propeller airplane and a lawn mower, knowing it is looking out for you."
Staff writer Bradley Graham in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company