When disciplined organisations lose control

Contemporary military web sites are a surprising reminder of what can go wrong when the ‘top brass’ in an organisation allows online development to march to a different drummer.

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The web is a well-established battleground for ideas – it is a wonderfully low cost way to get views across, which is why anti-war sites are springing up all over the place. What about the people who fight real battles – armies, navies, airforces? Like every other large group they use the web. But I am amazed that organisations that live and breathe discipline should lose it so spectacularly online.
What can a military organisation use the web for? Recruitment for one, both to provide practical guidance and to stir up interest, excitement even, in young people. The second audience is the general public. If there is a war, many of us will turn to the web to find out details about ships, aircraft, regiments and so on. The web is also useful for distributing non-sensitive information to personnel. Mobility, geographical spread and security issues make it tricky for armed forces to give wide access to closed intranets. The public web, on the other hand, is a widely accessible noticeboard.
I looked at the US and UK armed forces pages. And yes, they all tap these three uses to a degree – sometimes powerfully. But the lack of central control astonished me: I was taken back to the mid-1990s, when many corporate bosses knew nothing of the web and let the boys in IT build whatever took their fancy. The commercial world has discovered that leads to lack of functionality and a disastrous image; the military has yet to get there.

Confusion in profusion


The United States Army site has a terrifying number of links on the home page, clustered round a news story. Names of people, places and units in this story are hyperlinked and take us off to other sites, with no way back except by backspacing. Clicking on the Operation Enduring Freedom link, I found myself on a page with a badly misaligned picture caption, 28 pages of images but no way of locating relevant ones, news headlines that included the same item four times, and yet more links. Soon I was miles away from the main army site, and had to start again.
Hundreds of services, units and facilities have their own sites, all quite different from each other and unconnected to the centre. The good news is although they are often amateur, many of them radiate enthusiasm – good for recruitment and image building – and have useful information.

Intelligence gathering capabilities


So, in the rather plain Third Infantry Division (Mechanized) site, I found (out of date) “worship opportunities”, a chirpy article about a new anti-tank missile and bubbling praise for the weather in its Californian base. Meanwhile ‘An Army of One’, the U.S. Army career site, blurs the distinction between fiction and reality to stir the testosterone of youth. It has a profile of a special forces sergeant who skis down mountains, talks about his exciting life and has an age and home town that are “classified” (only the Bond theme tune is lacking). The Army has even produced its own free computer game – though at 300 megabytes, it is a monster to download.
There is plenty of material aimed at serving personnel on the Army site. The “well-being” section has practical information about housing and health. Were I an NCO serving in Europe, I could download a new handbook – but only if I had a digital certificate proving my identity. And I could also listen to Soldiers Radio Dot Com – music, mostly.

Strong points bolster weak positions


I have described this site at length because it well illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of most military sites. The British Army is at least as poorly controlled, and has fewer flashes of brilliance. Almost every click takes you to a separate site, with nothing binding them together. A typical site belongs to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. It tells us that “the regiment is due to return to Kosovo in 2001”, it has a home page that puts its core information below the bottom of the average screen, but its career material is rather well-pitched. If you answer no to the question “Are you ready to command the world’s best tank?”, you are called a big Jesse.

Quality among the chaos


This mix of the quality and chaos is typical. Most of the US Air Force sites are poor, but if you dig down to the Rhein-Main Air Base, you will find helpful information for people about to be posted there. The United States Navy has a wonderfully naff home page, with modern ships superimposed on a full rigger, and a link to NavyOnLine. This gives promise of central control – with stern instructions that all websites must follow its rules – but apart from the tagline “This is an official US Navy website”, I could find nothing in common between them. The Royal Air Force is another strange effort, with a huge and pointless banner knocking much of the usable space out of each page.

Benefiting from central command


I know that military sites can be much better than this, because I found one. The Royal Navy has an attractive and well-organised site that tells you all about its ships, its operations and its job opportunities. It also reproduces Covey-Crump – a collection of naval terms and slang. If you do not know who Jimmy-the-One is, this is the place to find out.
The big difference with the RN site is that it is run from the centre – individual ships and units are not allowed to create their own efforts. The rest of the military could benefit from learning that discipline is as useful online as it is in real life.

First published 29 January, 2003
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