Credit to Author: John Spencer| Date: Wed, 09 Oct 2019 13:00:00 +0000
Opinion: Without proper guidelines, smartphones on the battlefield may kill more soldiers than they save.
“We lost almost the entire patrol,” said the lieutenant. “It was horrific.”
“We walked right into an enemy ambush,” he continued. “They easily picked my men off, one by one, because they were looking at their screens.”
Thankfully, the young lieutenant was not describing an actual firefight from Iraq or Afghanistan. It was a recent live-action simulation that used laser tag-like equipment and new tablet devices that display maps, live drone footage, and other critical information. But if the military doesn’t recognize the threat of soldiers distracted by the buzzes and whistles of the latest technology, real lives could soon be lost.
John Spencer (@SpencerGuard) is the chair of Urban Warfare Studies for the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy.
As the US military pivots from people-centric counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are making historic investments in researching and testing new technologies. For the ground forces, many of these devices seek to help the Army soldier or Marine understand the environment around them, see the enemy before they see them, and connect them to vast amounts of weapons, eyes in the sky, and other real-time information. Experiments with new technologies are not new, but there is a renewed vigor to modernize the military with increased budgets, new threats, and new imagined battlefields against technologically equipped foes like China and Russia.
Never mind soldiers for a second. Pedestrians glued to their handhelds have become a public hazard in major cities, a distracted bulls-eye for cars in crosswalks. Since the ubiquitous explosion of cellphones in the US, emergency room visits for pedestrian injuries tripled between 2004 and 2010 alone, and some cities have gone as far as making texting while crossing the street illegal.
Imagine the peril one might face in a war zone. War overwhelms every sense in the body. Fighting in urban environments, “combat in hell,” is the worst place to make war. Soldiers are exposed to extraordinary environmental stimuli and potential threats that research has shown makes simple acts, such as walking down the street, extremely stressful on the mind and body. Every window holds a potential sniper, every pile of trash an improvised explosive device. Each soldier on a patrol is expected to be scanning for threats, observing the world around them. Now picture a group of soldiers walking down the street where most are looking into their chest- or wrist-mounted smartphones.
It is easy to see why the military would want soldiers to have smartphones. In combat, sharing and gathering information—an enemy location, the presence of civilians, availability of a precision weapon—could mean life or death. Some believe the smartphone could reshape the very character of the modern battlefield.
To be sure, handheld devices in combat aren’t new. Smartphones have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Initially they were tested with elite formations like Special Forces and then more general formations. New experiments are pushing the envelope of providing more and more soldiers with the latest supercharged smartphones.
Having served 25 years and two combat deployments to Iraq in the infantry, I’ve watched the societal impact of smartphones infiltrate the military. Now, whether new soldiers at a unit or cadets at the world’s preeminent military academy on a break in training, I see them reach for their phone and escape to a virtual world in any free moment—even though researchers have linked excessive screen time to declines in young adults’ subjective well-being. There’s no real harm in this besides a society becoming both more connected and isolated at the same time. But in war this will get soldiers killed.
The pursuit of technological advancements in the military is as old as war itself. Militaries are always looking for the next innovation to give them the edge. The ability of German troops to be reached by radio walkie-talkies is what allowed its Panzer divisions to wreak havoc against Allied forces. Yet many of today’s technologies are custom-designed to distract, not just provide real-time information.
If the Army follows up on experiments already being conducted, every US soldier might soon go into battle with eyes glued to a smartphone that can display everything from maps with their fellow soldiers’ or the enemy’s locations (think Google Maps for combat) and apps for ordering an artillery strike as easily as calling up an Uber, to a searchable library of military field manuals.
There’s even the potential to incorporate artificial intelligence to help soldiers make decisions or offer suggestions into their earbuds—Alexa and Siri go to war. But a distracted soldier that is supposed to be scanning for threats will be a dead soldier.
In addition, research has long showed that multitasking is mostly a myth. Each individual task a person does takes mental energy or contributes to what is called cognitive overload. Attempts to multitask only reduce a person's efficiency because their brain can only focus on one thing at a time. In the crucible of combat, when you give a soldier an additional task, bit of information to process, or new piece of equipment, it adds to their cognitive load and could reduce their ability to be self-aware on the battlefield or to fight.
There are many solutions. Major military experiments could include adding more soldiers to patrols whose job it is to monitor these new electronic aids, so that others can maintain security. Heads-up wearable technology may be safer than external screens. And stricter rules should be in place for when devices can be looked at—such as adopting the combat rule that when a patrol wanted to look at a map, it stopped, and one person looked at the map while other people pulled security. But the first step must be to acknowledge and measure the phenomenon. The military has to recognize that most soldiers they give smartphones to are the same people we see every day lost in their devices and oblivious to the rest of the world.
The military will eventually adapt to incorporating information technologies, AI, cyber warfare, and much more all the way down to the individual soldier. But as we move toward that goal, we need to be careful of what technology and information is given to who and when. I don’t want viral YouTube videos of distracted walkers bonking into light poles being replaced with videos of distracted soldiers walking into enemy bullets.
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