Intelligence: Timely Loops


September 29, 2005: As a result of experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, American military intelligence units have had to change the way they do business. In the 1990s, intel depended on aerial reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping for 80 percent of their information. Now, information from people on the ground supply about two-thirds of the useful data. HUMINT (human intelligence) is the key source when you are fighting terrorists and irregulars. The old system worked well when you were fighting an army. But to nail individuals, it's more like police work. You need tips. While the U.S. Army has trained, and put to work, several thousand new HUMINT intelligence operators, they still depend more on the hundreds of patrols conducted each day by the infantry and armored units, and action caught by the growing number of digital security cameras.

After spending decades developing tools to more efficiently handle increasing quantities of aerial photos, and electronic data swept up from enemy radars and radios, the rush is now on to deal with an equally massive avalanche of reports from people, about people. This is either reports about who is doing what among the locals, to descriptions of what patrols saw, or thought they saw. Computers, networks and new software have been the most successful tools in handling this. This has made the army even more anxious to get networked computers into the hands, or clothing, of all the combat troops.

Originally, this sort of thing was not expected to arrive for another decade or so. But the troops need their networked PDAs, or "wearable computers" now, and they are getting them fast. But not fast enough. Getting all the data to the analysts is hard, filtering it for useful bits is difficult, and getting important stuff back to the troops, in time to be useful, is a very tough job. Because it's war time, the failures to complete the loop (get data, analyze it and provide the troops with useful info) in time is pretty obvious. This makes it easier to get the money and backing for new tools. Meanwhile, journalists will have plenty of scary stories of when the system does not work as fast as it ought to.


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