Support: The Math Matters


May 20, 2010: Afghanistan has presented Iraq veterans with some new problems. Mainly, there are some interesting differences. For example, in Iraq, convoy operations became much more effective by having intelligence troops track where IEDs (roadside bombs and mines) and ambushes were happening, applying some math to predict where future attacks would take place, and routing convoys away from the hot spots. The bad guys would then shift, but the predictive analysis of the intel geeks was often able to predict that as well, and continue to keep the convoys away from them. But in Afghanistan, there are fewer roads, so you are often forced to use certain roads or, if possible (as in the desert flatlands) use a cross country route. Moreover, fewer hard surface roads make it easier for the Taliban, as the bombs can more easily be buried in the road, not on the side. New solutions had to be developed.

The math geeks also developed a special checklist for convoy commanders, where they could rate all aspects of a convoy operation (number and type of vehicles, weapons and cargo carried, air cover, including UAVs, available, the number and skill of the troops manning the convoy) and make a simple calculation for how the convoy should be run (how carefully to check to bombs and ambushes, how to brief the troops and generally what to expect.) This kind of analysis is often done beforehand by headquarters, and that determines whether the convoy gets air cover, and what kind (anything from a helicopter gunship to several types of UAV).

The best defense against IEDs (aside from alert people in the convoys) are techniques developed four years ago in Iraq. This involves using manned and UAV aerial reconnaissance aircraft, along with pattern analysis and data mining, to find IEDs (roadside bombs), and the people who plant them, before the convoys arrive.

To do this, the U.S. Army developed an image analysis system that's basically just another form of pattern analysis. However, it's been a very successful system when it comes to finding newly planted IEDs. The army named this system, Constant Hawk, one of the top ten inventions of 2006. The army names this top ten each year to give some of the more obscure, yet very valuable, developments some well deserved recognition.

Pattern analysis is one of the fundamental tools Operations Research (OR) practitioners have been using since World War II (when the newly developed field of OR got its first big workout). Pattern analysis is widely used on Wall Street, by engineers, law enforcement, marketing specialists, and now, the military. Constant Hawk uses a special video camera system to observe a locality and find useful patterns of behavior. Some of the Constant Hawk systems are mounted on light (C-12s, mainly) aircraft, others are mounted on ground structures. Special software compares photos from different times. When changes are noted, they are checked more closely, which has resulted in the early detection of thousands of roadside bombs and terrorist ambushes. This largely eliminated roadside bomb attacks on supply convoys in Iraq, which travelled the same routes all the time. But those routes were also watched by Constant Hawk. No matter what the enemy did, the Hawk noticed. Eventually, the Hawk, and several other efforts, morphed into a campaign that led to the death of over 3,000 terrorists caught in the act of setting up roadside bombs, or lying in wait to set them off and attack their victims with gunfire. Hundreds more terrorists were captured, and many thousands of roadside bombs were avoided or destroyed before they could go off.

All this geekery works, and the troops like tools of this sort mainly because the systems retain photos of areas they have patrolled, and allows them to retrieve photos of a particular place on a particular day. Often, the troops returning from, or going out on a patrol, can use the pattern analysis skills we all have, to spot something suspicious, or potentially so.

A related math tool is predictive analysis. This was widely used in Iraq to determine the identity of bombers, where they were, and where they were most likely to place their bombs next. This enabled the geeks-with-guns (the Army OR specialists) to offer regular "weather reports" about expected IED activity. The troops took these reports very seriously, especially those who ran the hundreds of daily convoys that moved people and supplies around Iraq. If your route was predicted to be "hot", you paid extra attention that day, and often spotted IEDs that, as predicted, were there. Usually, the predictions were used to send the combat engineers and EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams out to scout and clean the route. It's the feedback from these guys that has brought the geeks their reputation. If the geeks, and their tools (computers, aerial images, and math), say there is something bad out there, they are generally right. For the geeks, it's all pretty obvious. Given enough data, you can predict all sorts of things, or just about anything, really. But to many people, including most reporters, it's all still magic. Task Force Odin is the latest name for an effort that has been going on for over four years, and traces its origins back to World War II, and the invention of Operations Research in the decade before that.

Afghanistan is different from Iraq, in terms of geography and the psychology of the enemy. But this doesn't matter. The system still analyzes, interprets, and it tells you what the bad guys are up to and where they are.




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