Coming to grips with thin wartime information

Nov. 1, 2001
American armed forces are marching off to their first war of the 21st century, and I personally am torn about how events are playing out.

By John Keller, editor-in-chief
Military & Aerospace Electronics

October 15, 2001
American armed forces are marching off to their first war of the 21st century, and I personally am torn about how events are playing out. It's been more than a month since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As we put the November issue of Military & Aerospace Electronics to press, U.S. forces reportedly have achieved air superiority over Afghanistan, with promised ground action probably not far behind. By now you probably know better than I what has unfolded since.

Or maybe not.

That's because publicly accessible information about the Afghanistan War, to put it mildly, is awfully thin. CNN gave me my first solid clue that substantial daily information is not forthcoming on the second day of allied air attacks inside Afghanistan. Amid rumors of special forces operations and reports of allied bombing attacks at virtually every point of the compass inside Afghanistan, CNN ran a puffball feature, complete with simulated computer graphics, about the C-17 cargo jet and its ability to drop food to that country's needy. I knew then that this one is going to be different.

When the Persian Gulf War opened 10 years ago in what Pentagon leaders called "Operation Desert Storm," CNN ran footage of smart bombs taking out targets, of triumphant combat pilots returning from successful missions, and of anti-aircraft artillery tracers lighting up the nighttime sky over Baghdad. Then it was bomb bursts; now it's computer-simulated food drops. I think we have a trend here. President Bush is right. This war will be fought in the shadows, and no one in the government is passing out flashlights. The rules are changed, and we simply will not get the kind of information we have become accustomed to over the past decade.

With apologies to my fellow journalists, I must say I do not fault U.S. government leaders for withholding information. This is war. Lives are at risk every day, and it's pretty obvious that CNN is one of the terrorist enemy's best intelligence sources. I wouldn't be surprised if military leaders are feeding CNN misinformation to confuse the foe. I wouldn't blame them if they did. As the second half of the 20th century teaches us, the last thing our nation needs is a war carried out in ambivalent fashion. Fight it all-out, or keep the troops at home. Having said that, President Bush has it right to treat these events like a war and not like a rehearsed press conference.

But on the other hand, I am having a lot more trouble than I used to in getting information I need from the defense industry. Word has come down from the Pentagon for all defense companies to be particularly cautious about the information they release about their contracts. Executives at any defense company that has been around a while correctly read this admonition as "button your lip. Period." That kind of guidance certainly doesn't make our jobs any easier as we try to serve you, the readers, each month in the pages of Military & Aerospace Electronics.

Still, we understand that wartime makes it hard on everybody. We must dig deeper for stories of significance. And, admittedly, relevant facts sometimes will be missing. That's the price we all pay for carrying out a winning war. So to our readers, I ask for your patience and understanding as we operate under new rules of disseminating military information. I also appeal to everyone in the Pentagon and in the defense industry to be reasonable as you decide which bits of information to keep secret. A vigorous exchange of electronics-design information is important for our industry and for our community. We work better together than we do in isolation.

I can be patient when it comes to thin wartime information. I think most Americans can also be patient, as long as we eventually see a return on our investment. Every day the technologies of concern to our readers — commercial off-the-shelf — as well as custom-designed — circuit boards, sensors, avionics, communications equipment, electronic warfare gear, and other components are going to war. I'd like to think that we'll hear the compete story just as soon as we can.

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