July 29, 2009:
The most powerful American weapon in Afghanistan is one you won't hear much about (intentionally so). It's the intelligence forces. The tools, techniques, and some of the troops, that were used in Iraq, have been arriving in Afghanistan for over a year now. The intel troops prefer to work in the shadows, lest the enemy learn anything about how they are watched and analyzed. Such knowledge can be used to deceive the intel efforts, which is always a potential problem.
It was only three years ago that the U.S. admitted "Task Force Odin" existed in Iraq. This outfit used manned and UAV aerial reconnaissance aircraft, along with pattern analysis and data mining, to find IEDs (roadside bombs), and the people who plant them in Iraq. Similar organizations tracked Iraqi terrorists in general, along with their finances and smuggling operations. The techniques used can be traced back to World War II. Most people didn't understand it all back then, and still don't.
Task Force Odin was reported in the media mainly as aircraft and UAVs watching the roads for signs of IEDs, and UAVs, while helicopters and gunships opened fire on terrorists trying to set up roadside bombs. Explosions and dead bodies are more of mass media staple than massive use of math, no matter how critical the number crunching was to the undertaking. The real story was the geeky stuff, that no headline hungry reporter would go near.
Task Force Odin, and its Afghan counterpart, is really about two very different technologies. On the one hand there was the effort to provide Internet like access to live video feeds from aircraft and UAVs. The U.S. Air Force and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have been particularly keen on this, and has shared the technology with the other services, and friendly nations.
The less publicized effort was Constant Hawk. This was a U.S. Army image analysis system that's basically just another pattern analysis system. However, it's been a very successful system when it comes to finding newly planted IEDs. Two years ago year, the army named Constant Hawk one of the top ten inventions of the year. The army does this 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 by bankers, 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 has largely eliminated roadside bomb attacks on supply convoys, which travel the same routes all the time. But those routes are also watched by Constant Hawk. No matter what the enemy does, the Hawk will notice. Eventually, the Hawk, and several other efforts, morphed into Task Force Odin. The Task Force Odin 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 geeekery 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 has been widely used in Iraq to determine who the bombers are, where they are, and where they are most likely to place their bombs next. This has enabled the geeks-with-guns (the Army OR specialists) to offer regular "weather reports" about expected IED activity, and enemy activity in general. The troops take these reports very seriously, especially by those who run the hundreds of daily convoys that move people and supplies around Iraq. If your route is predicted to be "hot", you pay extra attention that day, and often spot IEDs that, as predicted, were there. Usually, the predictions are used to send the 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.
Afghanistan is different from Iraq, in terms of geography and the psychology of the enemy. But this doesn't matter to the math machine. It analyzes, it understands, and it tells you what the bad guys are up to and where they are. The air force is bringing in dozens of additional intel collection aircraft (like the C-12s the army used in Iraq) along with more UAVs. Afghanistan is different, and the intel people are adapting.