For some units, anyway, the database is becoming the technological fulcrum of the counterinsurgency. More than 1,500 junior officers–about a fifth of patrol leaders–are already using the technology, which was first deployed in early 2007. The first major unit to use it–the First Brigade Combat Team, First Cavalry Division–returned to the United States in late January. A few days before leaving Camp Taji, northwest of Baghdad, one soldier in this unit, Major Patrick Michaelis–who had many better things to do–paused to write an effusive 1,000-word e-mail to Technology Review. He said that the technology had saved the lives of soldiers by allowing them to avoid IEDs, and that it enabled them to make better use of intelligence, capture insurgents, and improve their relationships with local people. “The ability … to draw the route … of your patrol that day and then to access the collective reports, media, analysis of the entire organization, is pretty powerful,” Michaelis wrote. “It is a bit revolutionary from a military perspective when you think about it, using peer-based information to drive the next move. … Normally we are used to our higher headquarters telling the patrol leader what he needs to think.”
Baghdad route planner: A new map-based application allows patrol leaders in Iraq to learn about city landmarks and past events and enter new data. In this mock-up provided by DARPA (the map does not reflect actual events), the purple line shows a possible Baghdad patrol route. Past events in a 300-meter buffer are noted. Hostile actions, such as IED attacks or shootings, appear as various red icons; friendly actions, such as visits to schools, appear as blue icons. Clicking the icons brings up text, photos, even videos.
Courtesy of DARPA
A Granular Environment
The Pentagon has long talked about empowering soldiers with information. Some new networking technologies were deployed during the Iraq invasion, albeit with mixed results (see “How Tech Failed in Iraq,” November 2004). And back in the United States, the Pentagon has been pursuing multibillion-dollar R&D programs with names like Future Combat Systems. These programs anticipate a day when aircraft, ground vehicles, robots, and soldier-mounted sensors collect masses of information; new software makes sense of it all, detecting changes and identifying targets; and wireless networking technologies link fighting units and even individual soldiers, who might have digital displays mounted to their helmets. Such technologies are part of the military’s long-term plan to introduce what is sometimes called “network-centric warfare.”
Generally, however, these high-tech visions have not meant much to the soldiers and marines patrolling dangerous streets in Iraq. U.S. troops conduct more than 300 street patrols around the country every day; those patrols make up one of the war’s principal fronts. But for the most part, the leaders of the patrols have found it difficult to access digital information about their routes. Intelligence dissemination was stuck for years in another era. “We have a tendency in the army and marines and air force to build systems, first of all, that are platform-centric [built to ride on, say, a tank or a plane] and second, to build them for the higher echelons,” says Pat O’Neal, a retired brigadier general who acts as an advisor to DARPA–and whose son is currently serving in Iraq. “Because that’s where we felt, in the Cold War, the emphasis had to be, for the coördination of forces on a very large scale. That didn’t set us up for success when we found ourselves in Iraq. It is a very granular environment, a very block-to-block environment.”