May 13, 2010:
The increased use of UAVs, armed with Hellfire missiles, to attack targets in Pakistan's tribal territories, has led to the deaths of hundreds of Islamic terrorists. The question has often been raised about how the targets were found. Vidcams and electronic sensors on the UAVs, plus monitoring Internet traffic and recruiting local informants has played a role. But another key tool has often been ignored in the media (until recently, at least). This tool is predictive analysis, and the CIA, which runs this UAV campaign, has been using this for decades.
The way predictive analysis works is quite simple. With more data (from the vidcams, electronic eavesdropping and informants on the ground) it's possible to create a model (or simulation) of what terrorist activity on the ground looks like. Thus, if the CIA analysts see certain patterns of actions on the ground, they can accurately predict where the Islamic terrorists are, what they doing and, often, exactly who (like a key Taliban or al Qaeda operative) is down there. At that point, the Hellfire missiles are applied. The track record of the accuracy of these predictions has been striking. Few civilians have been attacked, nearly all the targets have been, as the predictive analysis indicated, terrorists.
A key factor in making all this work was the U.S. government changing its policy, in the last two years, of only attacking terrorists on a list (of up to 500) of named individuals. Predictive analysis cannot always guarantee that a target will be a specific individual, but it can, with near certainty, indicate that the target is an Islamic terrorist.
It all began back in the 1970s, when some CIA analysts discovered a new way to analyze the mountains of information they were receiving. The new tool was predictive analysis. What does this do for intelligence analysts? Predictive analysis was the result of a fortuitous combination of OR (Operations Research), large amounts of data and more powerful computers. OR is one the major (and generally unheralded) scientific developments of the early 20th century. OR is basically applying mathematical analysis to problems. OR turned out to be a major "weapon" for the Allies during World War II. OR, like radar, was developed in the 1930s, just in time for a major war, when whatever was available was put to work to win the conflict. OR is also, half jokingly, called a merger of math and common sense. It is widely used today in science, industry and, especially, in business (it's the primary tool of MBAs, where it's called "management science".) With predictive analysis, the most important OR tool was the ability to "backtest" (see if the simulation of a situation could accurately predict the outcome of something that had already happened, if the same historical decisions are made). For predictive analysis of contemporary situations, the backtest is, instead, a predictive tool that reveals likely outcomes.
Predictive analysis, like OR in general, creates a framework that points you towards the right questions, and often provides the best answers as well. Like many OR problems, especially in the business world, the simulation framework is often quite rough. But in war, as in commerce, anything that will give you an edge can lead to success over your opponents. A predictive analysis is similar to what engineers call "a 60 percent solution" that can be calculated on the back of an envelope.
The one form of predictive analysis that the general public is aware of is wargames, and these have been increasingly useful in predicting the outbreak, and outcomes, of wars. There have even been commercial manual (like chess) wargames that have successfully applied predictive analysis. The commercial manual wargames produced some impressive results when it came to actual wars.
In late 1972 a game ("Year of the Rat") was published covering the recent (earlier in the year) North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam. This game didn't predict the outcome of the war, but it got the attention of people in the intelligence community, especially those who knew something about wargames, for it was a convincing demonstration of what a manual wargame, using unclassified data, could do in representing a very recently fought campaign. There was even talk that these games could actually predict the outcome, and details, of a future war. The next year, wargames did just that, accurately portraying the outcome of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The game ("Sinai") was about to be published when the war broke out, but some people in the intelligence community knew about it. A member of the Israeli UN delegation had watched the game in development (he was a wargamer), and was assigned to camp out at the publisher's offices, while the war raged, and report what the game was predicting.
There weren't many wars to practice these predictive techniques on after that, until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Months before the Coalition counterattacked, a game appeared ("Arabian Nightmare"), that predicted everything, including the low Coalition casualties. This time, the media got wind of it, and the game was featured on "Nightline" in October, 1990. This didn't cause much excitement with the general public, it was just some more weird stuff on the tube.
What about the war on terror? From a wargamers perspective, it's not a difficult conflict to simulate. International terrorists are nothing new, and if you know how to work out the media impact on this, you've got yourself a wargame. Actually, you can do most of this stuff on a spreadsheet (which is a good vehicle for many types of predictive analysis). Same with the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan. Both countries are behaving as they have for centuries. Anyone familiar with the history of these two places, won't be surprised with what's going on there now, or how it's all going to turn out. Forget the media, they haven't a clue, and don't need one to stay in business.
Remember, wargamers are also historians. They look at things from a historical perspective, and immediately apply an OR approach to any event they are studying. First thing they think of is; who has what, what can they do with it and what are the goals of the different factions? The Afghan tribes have issues, always have, always will until the tribal system fades away. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority wants to be in charge, and some of them are willing to fight on to avoid war crimes trials and confiscation of the oil money they stole. Al Qaeda is yet another attempt by Islamic conservatives to conquer the world. The Turks kept them in check for centuries, but thousand year old dreams die hard, especially in a culture that has found so many ways to fail.
Wargames and predictive analysis put things in perspective. They force you to face reality. As a result, this kind of tool is not popular with politicians (who have a different kind of reality) and journalists (who want headlines, not reality.) But people in the military still use these tools to quickly get a grasp of fast moving situations. General Barry McCaffrey, CINC of SOUTHCOM, for example, was faced with a war between Peru and Ecuador in 1995. The Pentagon and the White House were looking to him for a quick analysis of the situation. Fortunately for him, the guy who designed Arabian Nightmare (Austin Bay, a reserve officer mobilized to debrief former Cuban soldiers among the Cuban refugees being moved through Panama, was in the area). LTC Bay came to the attention of a colonel on the CENTCOM staff, who remembered seeing some of Bays wargaming work at the Army War College, and asked LTC Bay if he could whip up a Peru-Ecuador wargame overnight, so they could put together an analysis for GEN McCaffrey. It was done, and, when McCaffrey briefed the Joint Chiefs, he used LTC Bay's game, and its analysis. It was noted that McCaffrey's tools were better than anything that Leavenworth or DC area analysts were able to come up with. McCaffrey gave Bay a commendation medal.
The CIA uses wargames to get a better sense of the big picture, but found that turning those predictive analysis tools to the problem of identifying Islamic terrorists hiding out among Pushtun tribesmen along the Afghan border, also worked.