CAMP DOHA, KUWAITIt's the same kind of technology teenagers use for their instant messaging. Now, men with steely eyes and very short hair are turning to virtual chat rooms to help them fight a war. Inside the U.S. ground forces command center here, officers gaze into flat-panel displays, their focus darting across a dozen or more classified chat room "windows." There are 418 different topic areas on the military Internet Relay Chat (mIRC) network, each dedicated to an aspect of the warsuch as time-sensitive targeting, air support for ground troops, and missile-launch operations.
Battle updates pour in from the field. "Can anyone confirm reports of sa-6 south of Kut?" reads a query about an Iraqi air-defense system. Responses can come from any of thousands of airmen or soldiers throughout the region, providing an extraordinary operational knowledge base. Even battlefield command posts in Iraq are hooked into the network through enemy-proof scramblers, field generators, and pop-up satellite dishes. "We used to do this with carrier pigeons, then telegraphs, and then telephones," says an F-15 fighter pilot code-named "Monk," the son of South American missionaries.
As with the civilian Internet, it can be difficult sorting out fact from fiction. "I have seen a report of '1,000 tanks rolling south' activate the entire command center into a frenzy," says an A-10 pilot code-named "Mo." In one instance before the war, he said, "a pilot report of vehicles moving towards the Kuwaiti border turned out to be a large band of hungry camels."
On a recent night, the mIRC buzz was about a purported radio intercept of an Iraqi soldier mentioning "poisonous rounds" of artillery. Before long, word that Iraq was "loading chemical rounds" was cut and pasted from one military chat room into another. The report was discredited only after a linguist stepped into the virtual mix to explain that the original Arabic was mistranslatedthe Iraqi ammunition had simply gone bad.
But legions of military chat room users are fans. One is Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper. "I consider this a major improvement for critical data to be shared in the course of an operation," he says. The best role for military chat rooms like mIRC is to serve as "connective tissue" between different military commands, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away, says Maj. Gen. Dan Leaf, the top air officer in Kuwait. But it shouldn't be permitted to replace "sneaker net" contact between officers across the same room, he adds.
Some officers activate a little wizard named "Merlin" in the corner of their screens. The animated character reads mIRC messages aloud in an automated voice and yawns if several minutes have passed without chatting. Senior military leaders have been seen grabbing gas masks upon hearing the wizard intone, "Incoming Scud launch, target Kuwait."