WHATEVER happened to GI Joe with his basic fatigues and M-16?
United States Army Private Chad Wahinekapu is standing on the desert floor here, beneath a chromium sun. Is he live or virtual reality? It's hard to tell.
He is carrying an M-16, all right, but the gun is fitted with a sight the size of a scuba tank. There is the familiar Kevlar helmet but it bristles with appendages: an eyepiece that allows him to watch a computer screen, a miniature camera.
Lugging a knapsack with a laptop computer and radio transmitter, the soldier can tap into satellites, retrieve electronic messages, record enemy positions - do everything but play Pac-Man.
``This is a great leap forward for the Army, sir,'' he says.
Welcome to the Army of the 21st century where the only thing recognizable might be the ``sir.''
Private Wahinekapu, a fighting machine in wrap-around sunglasses, is part of the biggest change to sweep the service since World War I.
Piercing the `fog of war'
Faced with shrinking resources at home and changing military missions abroad, the Army is moving from the Industrial Age to the Information Age in an effort to field a more effective fighting force.
It is trying to harness sophisticated computer, communication, and other technology to produce units that are quicker, leaner, and meaner - more lethal.
It also wants to help pierce the ``fog of war'' - that mysterious combination of miscommunication, misinformation, and confusion that causes even modern armies to lose battles and kill their own soldiers, such as recently occurred in the skies over Iraq.
``We are placing our bets on this for the Army for the next century,'' says Army Secretary Togo West Jr., at a camouflage bivouac in the high California desert, where the service's latest high-tech force was recently tested in war games at this sprawling Army base. ``It is hard to overemphasize how important this is.''
At the heart of the shift is an attempt to improve battlefield intelligence and communication up and down the chain of command.
Using existing and emerging technologies, the Army wants to relay as instant and accurate information as possible, both digital and video, among all involved in war, from the scout on the front lines to generals monitoring the campaign a world away.
The theory is that, with improved command and control, US forces would be able to defeat enemies - even stronger enemies - with superior decisionmaking, maneuvering, and precise use of firepower.
``We are going from Industrial Age warfare to knowledge-based warfare,'' says Col. William Hubbard, who oversees ``Battle Labs,'' a program that brings together researchers and real soldiers to try out new ideas. ``It will fundamentally change how we fight, how we are organized, what our doctrine is.''
Both the limits and potential of the Army's transition to ``Third Wave'' warfare were evident at the war games here last month. The two-week exercise pitted a conventionally equipped force - tanks, artillery, missile batteries - against an invading militia that included the Army's first ``digitized'' battalion.
Among its elements:
* Flying scouts - tiny, pilotless aircraft that whir quietly over enemy positions. Fitted with miniature TV cameras, the drones allow their operators, who control them by radio, to see everything they see.
* Upgraded versions of the Bradley infantry vehicle and the Army's main battle tank, in which virtually every function is controlled by computer, down to the gun turret.
* A mobile command post brimming with telecommunications equipment that serves as the nerve center during battle. Officers see the location of all their units on a computer screen. When one tank comes upon an obstacle, like a mine field, a tap of a key sends its location to all other vehicles.
Enemy positions are similarly relayed, instead of the usual method of messaging by static-filled radio from a fixed command center, where everything is plotted by grease pencil.
* The ``digital soldier'' - in other words, Private Wahinekapu. Looking more like Robocop than the ``grunt'' of old, he operated as a scout in this battle. Using his ``helmet-cam,'' he could take digital pictures of enemy locations and send them back to his commander in a tank. He could also call up computerized maps.
The ``war'' began before dawn. The attacking force, bolstered by the high-tech battalion, swept through a pass in the saw-toothed Granite Mountains.
The opposition ``blue force'' was dug in among the creosote. Both were equipped with lasers and sensors that simulated kills.
Tanks fired. Artillery flashed. Smoke billowed up from the dun-colored desert floor. Minefields were laid and breached. Computers whirred.
High tech, mixed results
From an overlook amid the lava rock, generals, major generals, and brigadier generals peered through field glasses or squinted at a TV screen that monitored the movement of the ``digital'' battalion.
When the exercise was finally halted five hours later, the forces with the high-tech contingent had probably lost. Though no winners and losers were declared, the good guys hadn't begun to move the defensive forces from their redoubts.
``You aren't going to kill anybody with digits,'' said Col. John Caldwell Jr., a tank expert, at one point during the battle when the attackers seemed stymied. ``You have to create some confusion out there. The digital stuff may give you more information - but that could be bad news.''
The outcome was probably to be expected. The opposition forces, stationed at Fort Irwin, know the local terrain and, as one colonel put it in a throwback to Cold War terminology and hubris, ``are better than any Soviet division ever has been.'' They almost always win.
They also played the role of defender, which usually holds the advantage. The general rule of thumb: one dug-in tank is worth three attacking ones.
Even so, the exercise at the National Training Center here was a reminder that technology alone doesn't win wars. Pentagon officials stressed the importance of soldiers as much as silicon. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan put it: ``War is a human endeavor. Technology alone is not the answer.''
Nor did the enemy seem to quake at the sight of their ultramodern rivals.
``We have not had to do anything significantly different other than pay attention to deception,'' says Col. Patrick Lamar, commander of the opposition forces, of their battle preparations. There were irritants, though, such as the reconnaissance drones. They were ``our primary nemesis,'' he says.
Win or lose, it's the future
Still, the technology, much of which is experimental, did seem to do something. It allowed those on the battlefield to react more quickly and coordinate fire from tanks, artillery, and other units. The advanced brigade was just breaching the final minefield when the exercise was called off. More than anything, though, it was a magnifying glass on the future.
``What all this allows us to do is integrate this stuff on the move,'' says Lt. Col. Montaque Winfield, commander of the digital battalion, sitting in the ``battle command vehicle'' after the war games.
``[We can] rapidly change priorities. That allows us to get inside the enemies' decision cycle,'' he says.
Underlying the Army's move to a more high-tech force is a shift in its mission and purpose. Gone is the emphasis on winning a massive land war against the Russians in Europe.
The focus now is on moving troops rapidly to trouble spots around the world.
The Army also faces cutbacks in budgets and troop strength. It is on its way to having the fewest people in uniform since 1939.
Hence the attempt to use technology to make existing weapons more effective with fewer people.
``We have changed the Army in very fundamental ways since the summer of 1991,'' says Gen. Sullivan.
Keeping it simple
The Army plans to spend some $700 million on digitalization between now and 1999. It has a lot of bugs to work out before turning the battlefield electronic.
Not the least of them is figuring out how much information a soldier can digest and how to keep it out of enemy hands, or at least not vulnerable to electronic jamming.
``You can overload the soldier very quickly,'' says Col. Hubbard.
The young soldiers working with the technology here, many of them members of the computer and video generation, don't seem to mind mixing bytes with bullets.
Private Wahinekapu, his knapsack bristling with Information Age technology, his helmet protruding cameras and cables, is standing amid the desert dust after a morning of war.
Does he worry about information overload?
Does he feel like a walking video game?
Is he live or virtual reality?