Air Force Col. Thomas J. Verbeck is the U.S. European Command's director of Command, Control, Communications Systems and Warfighting Integration Directorate.

Air Force Col. Thomas J. Verbeck is the U.S. European Command's director of Command, Control, Communications Systems and Warfighting Integration Directorate. (David Josar / S&S)

STUTTGART, Germany — Bombs, airplanes and troops may create most of the buzz in combat, but equally important are the communications systems, according to the U.S European Command’s head of communications integration.

“You need to be able to communicate,” said Air Force Col. Thomas J. Verbeck, director of EUCOM’s Command, Control, Communications System and Warfighting Integration Directorate. “You need to be able to share information.”

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, EUCOM played a major role in relaying information, including via video and voice broadcast, for the military. Verbeck said 80 percent of the communications in Iraqi Freedom was handled in some way by EUCOM.

By the next armed conflict, communications technology for the military will have made several more technological leaps, Verbeck predicted. A similar pace of change occurred in the 1980s, when computers began to be integrated into the military, he said.

Almost daily, Verbeck works with contractors to develop the hardware and software systems that will facilitate changes.

The biggest challenge, Verbeck said, is to persuade a company to develop technology that the inventor will allow to be shared.

The initial profit may not be huge, but a long-term payoff is likely, he said.

Verbeck cited the videocassette recorder as an example. Sony Corp. initially relied on Betamax tape, a proprietary design that only it produced; a second company developed the VHS tape but allowed anyone to use that technology. VHS became the standard, and Betamax disappeared.

Another analogy is the cellular phone. In Europe, manufacturers decided to forego company-specific designs and take a universal approach. As a result, Verbeck said, his cell phone works in Germany and in Jordan. In the United States, most cell phones work only there.

The military must find a system where every branch of the service and every department can communicate with each other seamlessly, he said.

“There had not been intentional integration,” he said.

He predicts the problem will be solved within the next three years.

The services had been “stovepiped,” he said, meaning that services and departments each had their own communications systems that were difficult to connect with another service or department.

Communications systems include computer networks, radio, satellite and telephone, Verbeck said.

Communications technology has exploded in the past decade. The telephone, invented in the 1800s, slowly improved and expanded, said Verbeck, who came to EUCOM in January from the Headquarters Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century, more than 50 years after it was created, that the telephone system became so reliable that its downtime per year could be measured in seconds.

Computers have evolved more quickly.

Computers and the technology they support weren’t used by the military until the early 1980s.

“But now most of every day for a flag officer is spent using a computer,” he said.

The next leap in computer technology will simply allow systems to provide even more information.

Verbeck likened the amount of information individual soldiers needed from computers during Desert Storm to the volume of water delivered by a hose. But in Iraqi Freedom, with information-hungry tools such as pilotless drone planes, the amount of information needed was comparable to the amount of water being delivered by a storm water pipe.

In 1993 Verbeck went to Russia and asked many times what led to the fall of the Soviet empire. The Americans had something the Soviets couldn’t stop, he was told.

“[The Americans] had information. We could get it out, and they couldn’t stop it,” he said.

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