Technology at war

Peacetime IT could learn from the military

Warfare drives innovation, even in IT. The first computers grew out of British and American code-breaking research during World War II. The Internet began as a Cold War defense network designed to survive even if key nodes vanished in a nuclear cloud.

But in recent years, the locus of innovation for IT has shifted to peacetime pursuits. This trend was especially evident in the latest Gulf War, as Eve Epstein points out in the introduction to this month’s fascinating cover story, “Battle-Tested Tech”.

“Historically, the flow of development has usually gone from the military to commercial,” says Epstein, executive editor of features who directed our 13-page special report. "But with IT, the military is using many solutions that are either available to enterprises today or soon will be, so you can really get a look at how they function in the ultimate stress test.”

Epstein and her team of six writers, led by Editor in Chief Steve Fox, looked at four key IT-related areas: communication, security and data mining, supply chain and logistics, and automation (including robotics). “We tried to include some technologies that could be immediately relevant to business problems, and others that were out in the future,” she explains.

For the here-and-now, Epstein’s favorite was the RFID (radio frequency identification) tags the military used to track shipments to, from, and within the battle zone. The shipper encodes the contents of a pallet or container into the memory of a plastic-encased chip sealed inside the shipment. The receiver uses a wireless device to query the tag, learn the shipment’s contents, and then upload news of its arrival to a Web-based tracking system. The RFID devices are similar to those that companies use to track peacetime shipments in the United States or to guide individual units through automated assembly lines.

As for the frontiers of technology, Epstein favored the robots that were used to scout dangerous hideouts, and so-called Smart Dust -- speck-sized computerized sensors that someday may be sprinkled over a battlefield to monitor enemy movements, among other uses.

Perhaps the most effective IT elements were the various secure communications systems. When my uncle Vance McKean landed at Iwo Jima two generations ago, he and his Marines had to lay wire through active battlefields to keep the units in touch -- a job that was often lethal. You can only imagine how those runners would have appreciated a Humvee-mounted Unix workstation that could paint a real-time picture of all friendly and enemy forces.

But just as the military has obviously learned valuable lessons from commercial IT, so businesses can learn by examining which solutions worked -- and which didn’t -- in the recent conflict. This report by Epstein and her colleagues provides an excellent starting point.