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Army Math Geeks With Guns

Posted 12/12/2014

U.S. Army military analysts in Iraq. Most are from the Center for Army Analysis at Fort Belvoir, VA. Experts in Operations Research, computers, military operations, mathematics, and related skills.

One of the more revolutionary weapons developed in the last century is being widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is little known even within the military. It’s called Operations Research (OR), and it’s basically the application of mathematical and statistical tools to determine "optimal resource allocation." In other words, it's the use of math and common sense to solve seemingly unsolvable problems.  During World War II, OR was first used to solve military problems, and it had a major impact. Developed mainly by British scientists in the 1920s and 30s, it’s first major success was in developing the British air defense system used with great success during the Battle of Britain. OR was used to determine the most effective way to deploy the new radars, and where to put Britain’s outnumbered fighter squadrons, and when to send them off to fight oncoming German bombers and fighters. OR was later used to figure out optimal ways to deploy anti-submarine forces in the Battle of the Atlantic, how to best defend formations of American heavy bombers over Germany, and much, much more. 

OR continued to be used, operating in the shadows mainly because few people, besides the practitioners, understood exactly how it worked. Few college students study the statistics and advanced math courses needed to become an OR practitioner. While the U.S. Army has always been a big user of OR, only about five percent of army officers are trained in the use of OR techniques. This is changing as more computers are used on the battlefield, for OR problem solving routines is installed into the many computers that pilots, tank crews, sailors, and even infantrymen use. For example, OR capability will be available for the combat PDAs that hundreds of infantry platoon and company commanders will be carrying in Iraq later this year. 

What is OR doing in Iraq? A lot. Saddam Hussein was tracked down using OR techniques. Usually, the OR people like to keep their work secret, but in the case of Saddam’s capture, some of the techniques (collecting lots of information on those who worked for Saddam and building a picture of the relationships to determine who was most likely to still be working for him, and hiding him) did get some publicity. During the invasion itself, a lot of OR work went into the planning and execution of the combat operations. Logistics (supply) uses a lot of OR, and it was needed to keep too troops during the frantic two week march on Baghdad. 

While most of the OR experts are able to stay back in the United States, some are stationed in Iraq (and Afghanistan), where they supervise the collection of data (to make sure it’s as clean, or accurate, as possible) and doing a lot of the analysis. The OR people in Iraq are also needed to present their findings, and where they got them from, to senior commanders. This has to be done in plain English, because all the senior people know what regression or factor analysis is. 

OR has been used a lot since the Spring of 2003. Much of the fighting since then has been called like police work, and OR teams applied the same techniques that brought the New York City crime rate down over 70 percent. They called the tool "CompStat." But it was pure OR.  

OR is also becoming an invisible part of many civilians lives. Those “smart breaking systems” many new cars have were developed by OR people analyzing how people drive and how cars respond in accident situations. Having computers in a car, or a tank, is not enough. The computers have to be programmed to make a good decision nearly all the time, and it’s the OR people who make it happen.

There are some OR specialists in plain sight. These are the MBA crowd. Reviled as heartless bean counters, MBAs practice OR under a different name; “Management Science.” But the two disciplines are the same, and many business schools have one OR Department that teaches the tricks of the trade to the apprentice captains of industry. There’s nothing particularly evil about OR, except that all the math and geeky buzzwords tends to put off most people. However, life as we know it would not be possible without OR. Everything we touch, from the brake pedal to a new anti-cancer medicine, was made possible by OR. And modern war is no different. The two week march on Iraq was possible only because of brave soldiers, powerful weapons, and Operations Research. 

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