Battle-tested tech

As IT takes center stage in the war theater, the military becomes the ultimate enterprise lab

Imagine you wanted to devise a stress test for a new supply-chain-management solution. Perhaps you'd start with a harsh desert terrain. Then you'd add some mind-boggling requirements such as the ability to deliver real-time information from diverse points to track the overseas distribution of everything from 7 million sandbags, to 337 million gallons of bulk fuel, to 40 million packaged meals. Sound like the ideal lab environment? It was the actual battlefield of the recent Iraqi war, as you probably guessed from these Department of Defense figures.

IT has become key to modern warfare, guiding everything from Humvees to troop supplies; and the U.S. military has helped develop, refine, and test IT solutions. In the sections that follow, we examine how the military has battle tested critical components of modern IT: communications, supply chain and logistics, security and data mining, and automation and robotics. Many of these technologies, most recently deployed for war, may already be available for the enterprise; others may soon be retooled for business use.

In the past, the Defense Department has traditionally been a pioneer in technologies that later found industrial uses (for more on this history, see "Military's past meets IT future"). But in recent years, the military has increasingly relied on off-the-shelf commercial IT applications.

Most technology companies grew up independent of military funding, says Lewis Branscomb, emeritus Aetna Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Management at Harvard University. "There is no military-industrial complex for IT."

The military's current approach to adopting commercial solutions reverses past practice, which had established unique military standards for contractors. It also coincides with the military's growing reliance on IT to run and win wars. "The difference between the U.S. military in the first Gulf War and the second wasn't … its use of tanks, boats, and Apache helicopters," says Peter Singer, John M. Olin Fellow of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, and the author of the recently published book Corporate Warriors. "It's how [the pieces] were linked together that made the U.S. so much more effective."

This change should prove to be a boon for enterprise users who can see how solutions performed on a massive scale under rugged conditions. The Defense Department's needs "tend to dwarf commercial equivalents, even for very large enterprises" says Dawn Meyerriecks, CTO of the Defense Information Systems Agency and InfoWorld's CTO of the Year in 2002.

In addition to pushing the boundaries of size and scale, the military "will push the complex side of this more than the commercial world is willing to," says Harvard's Branscomb. He adds that the military's real-time capabilities are generally more developed than those in the commercial world. Modern warfare is driven by "very complicated collections of information [about] the human decision-making process, integrated in a way that really works. That's very tough to do."

As enterprise and military IT decision-making tools converge, enterprises may turn increasingly to the military arena to test out new technologies. And the military just may find new ways of following the Biblical injunction to beat swords into ploughshares.

(View other stories from our special report on Battle-tested Tech, including reports on communications, security and data mining, supply chain and logistics, and robotics and automation.)