Procrastination Nation

Things that Robert is thinking about that keep him from accomplishing anything.

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Monday, April 07, 2003
Technology or Management?
This whole "friendly fire" issue has been on my mind. During the lead-up to the war, many of the stories focused on how the US military had taken important technological steps to decrease such incidents. Some of this related to the coordination of computer systems within units. An important part in this effort was the 1"-square of material that would signal to coalition forces that the person was a friendly. The wag in me says, "Perhaps we need to make the entire uniform out of this material."

In spite of these improvements, many friendly fire incidents have still occurred, most notably this weekend's attack on a special forces/Kurdish defense convoy.

The conspiracy theorist in me thinks, "Well, I guess Colin Powell's meeting with Turkey turned out well for the Turks." But, I'm willing to assume no malicious intent on the part of the person's (and organization's) decision to fire.

What it has me thinking about though is whether "friendly fire" is a management issue or technology issue. The hope of the technology solution is that automation and systematic information gathering will improve performance. No human could gather and process so much information simultaneously, so computers could perform a host of redundant and tedious tasks and report information back to humans incredibly efficiently with positive results. And, perhaps the technological solution is still viable, but they are perpetually learning, improving code and decision rules for the systems. That seems to be the case with systems like the Patriot missile. One wonders though as to the official range of statistical error for such devices.

But, maybe these friendly fire incidents are in fact a result of the management and organizational structure of the US military. I wonder whether these incidents, which typically involve cross-military units (e.g., Air Force on Army), are a result of our emphasis on a hierarchical, top-down mode of bureaucratic organizational structure. Because information is rationed out and the branches coordinate in limited ways, maybe the system for information sharing and, indeed, military planning is faulty. I don't know how training occurs, but it would strike me that it would be important for Air Force and Army troops to train together in a systematic way to practice coordination.

My naive impression, however, is that, except in maybe a large scale war game scenario, the branches train separately for their own aspects of war and that coordination occurs only at higher levels (e.g., generals coordinate with generals on a given battle plan) and the results filter down to the lower ranks. That would certainly seem to be the case in the US-on-British casualties, as they probably don't train together to anywhere near the degree that units within a US branch or even across branches would. However, I'm happy to be set straight by anyone who can enlighten me.

Might a more distributed network model be more effective? Is this not what is implied by our greater reliance on Special Forces teams? Or by Rumsfeld's push for a lighter, faster armed forces?

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