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A Technology Surges

In Iraq, soldiers conducting frontline street patrols finally get software tools that let them share findings and plan missions.
February 19, 2008

First Lieutenant Brian Slaughter wanted his comrades to learn from the insurgent attack that could have killed him on May 21, 2004. Before dawn, the 30-year-old had been leading 12 men in three armored Humvees along a canal in Baghdad’s al-Dora district when a massive blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) lifted his vehicle off the ground. Concealed attackers followed with a volley of rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. But the IED had been buried too deep to kill, a second IED detonated too early to hit the patrol, and a third failed to explode. When the brief battle ended, two insurgents were dead, and ten were prisoners. On the American side, one man had been injured, with a bullet to the leg.

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.

Slaughter knew that information about the encounter could help his fellow soldiers–especially green replacements arriving from Fort Stewart, GA–avoid getting killed or maimed. It might help them capture insurgents, too. So when dawn broke, he explored the blast site with a digital camera. He took pictures of the mound of brown earth concealing the still-unexploded second IED, and of a red-and-white detonator cord that led to the device. He took pictures of a berm and a copse of palm trees that had concealed the enemy. He took pictures of the improvised weapon: a 155-­millimeter artillery shell that had been drilled out and fitted with a fuse.

But his attempts to share the information ran into a technological roadblock. Back at Camp Falcon, a facility on the southern outskirts of Baghdad that’s one of a handful of so-called forward operating bases around the city, he typed up a document in Microsoft Word and appended his photos. The report went to a battalion intelligence officer swamped by two or three dozen such reports daily. The intelligence officer’s summaries went into a database called ASAS-L. A product of Cold War thinking, the database allows top commanders to monitor and coördinate troop movements–but it’s not easily accessible to patrol leaders like Slaughter.

So for practical purposes, his report didn’t exist. Even the version that stayed on his computer at Camp Falcon eventually vanished. “It went home with my unit. There was no server. No continuity. Nothing,” he says. The pictures survive­–on his laptop in Nashville, TN. He showed them to me, along with lots of other pictures that might have had some value to his fellow soldiers, including one of the smiling principal of a girls’ school in Baghdad and one of an Iraqi translator–later killed, Slaughter says–interviewing someone who Slaughter says was believed to be an imam with ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

But the days of patrol leaders operating half-blind on the deadly streets of Iraq are drawing to a close. After a two-year rush program by the Pentagon’s research arm, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, troops are now getting what might be described as Google Maps for the Iraq counterinsurgency. There is nothing cutting-edge about the underlying technology: software that runs on PCs and taps multiple distributed databases. But the trove of information the system delivers is of central importance in the daily lives of soldiers.

The new technology–called the Tactical Ground Reporting System, or TIGR–is a map-centric application that junior officers (the young sergeants and lieutenants who command patrols) can study before going on patrol and add to upon returning. By clicking on icons and lists, they can see the locations of key buildings, like mosques, schools, and hospitals, and retrieve information such as location data on past attacks, geotagged photos of houses and other buildings (taken with cameras equipped with Global Positioning System technology), and photos of suspected insurgents and neighborhood leaders. They can even listen to civilian interviews and watch videos of past maneuvers. It is just the kind of information that soldiers need to learn about Iraq and its perils.

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.”

Soldiers had no consistent way to submit reports; many carried old-fashioned “green books” for handwritten notes, while some tried to set up homegrown databases. And report writing varied from camp to camp. The need for something better was obvious. In 2005, DARPA started tackling the problem at Fort Hood, TX, with the help of returning soldiers from the First Brigade Combat Team. Programmers from companies that contracted with DARPA (including Ascend Intel, where Slaughter is now director of business development) interviewed soldiers to learn what they needed.

A prototype of the system was shown to soldiers for the first time during a training exercise at Fort Hood in April 2006, and in January 2007, it was introduced in Iraq. There, programmers observed how the troops used it; they collected feedback and quickly made changes. Finally–with help from the Rapid Equipping Force, an army unit devoted to quickly moving new gear into the field–the system reached the 1,500 patrol leaders using it now. Deploying it widely required dealing with two main challenges raised by Iraq’s spotty data connections: how to synchronize scattered copies of the same database, any one of which a returning patrol leader might modify, and how to give soldiers multimedia information without crashing the system. One solution was a network that carefully rations out bandwidth. For example, the default mode for any photograph is a thumbnail version. A soldier has to click on the thumbnail to see a larger version and will get a response only if bandwidth allows.

“This is something I’ve heard from a couple of generals: there are lots of technologies that get pushed out to Iraq because engineers want to help, but they are niche applications,” says Mari Maeda, the DARPA program manager in charge of the effort. “This application is broadly used by patrol leaders, on a day-to-day basis. I think the impact is very, very large.” O’Neal offers an even less restrained assessment: “Best technology I’ve seen for small units in the past 40 years.”

Walter Perry, a senior researcher at the Rand think tank in Arlington, VA, and a Vietnam-era army signals officer, also welcomes the new system. Perry works with a Pentagon-wide task force that has been trying to combat the scourge of IEDs through advanced intelligence gathering and new kinds of sensors and detectors. “One of the very first things we did in looking at the IED problem was to recognize that the army is trying to fight an insurgency with a pretty blunt instrument,” Perry says. “This is about 90 percent police work and 10 percent violent conflicts. Patrols–the cop on a beat–fill out a report saying, Here is what I did. You get situational awareness.” And that is of key importance in fighting IEDs, he says.

Data center: The new software documents the fabric of life in Iraq. In this mock-up (which does not reflect accurate data), a Baghdad neighborhood is set off by a purple boundary, and places, people, and events are marked by color-coded icons. Soldiers can click the icons and scroll through lists for more information. For example, thumbnail photos showing the aftermath of an IED attack appear next to the list. Thousands of photos are stored in the application’s database.
Courtesy of DARPA

Technology Gap
With the new DARPA technology, soldiers are getting more and better information. But some experts say that for the soldiers to be truly empowered, military doctrine and organization will need to change too. “I have seen one after another of these interesting networking technologies come along, and none of them has made a dent in the institutional resistance to organizational change or doctrinal innovation,” says John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, who is a progenitor of the concept of network organization in the military. Yes, he says, patrol leaders can now enter information into the system more easily. But “we still have divisional-, ­brigade-, and battalion-level structures, mostly on supersized forward operating bases, with the number of smaller outposts relatively few. If we are going to talk about a networked warfare, we need to put the network front and center in our thinking.” One way to do that is to deploy soldiers in smaller groups with more authority to make decisions.

That’s what happened in 2001, when special-operations forces were chasing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. When a team identified a target, it did not have to send a report up the chain of command and wait for a decision before acting. It could call on comrades and even call in air strikes. “If you believe that the real implication of the Information Age is the empowerment of small groups–and if there is any lesson from 9/11, that is it–we are really talking about information that allows small groups of people to do striking things,” says Arquilla. The Iraq counterinsurgency should fight the same way the special forces fought in Afghanistan, he says.

Still, even without the kinds of organizational changes that Arquilla is advocating (see “Network Warfare”), DARPA’s new software system is empowering frontline soldiers and shaping operations. For example, in a telephone interview from Camp Falcon, 28-year-old Captain David Lively described how TIGR once helped soldiers track down a pair of mortar attackers. One night, Lively recalled, soldiers on patrol radioed back to base that they were being shelled. At the base, other soldiers tapped into the database and quickly found earlier reports of mortars coming from an intersection of two canals in the vicinity. “TIGR provided some real-time history to where we could look back where a common source was coming from,” Lively said. The soldiers at the base radioed the findings to their comrades and to a circling Apache helicopter. The pilot headed for the spot and was able to pursue a fleeing pickup truck with mortar tubes in its bed.

Michaelis says such anecdotes are not uncommon. “I can’t name the number of times that patrol leaders and company commanders have turned to me and stated [that] their most important tool they have to fight this fight has been TIGR,” he wrote. “I’ve had … time-sensitive operations that were able to make associations between the target being handed to them and local residents, [allowing the soldiers to find insurgents who otherwise would have escaped]. I’ve had patrol leaders avoid potential IED hot spots or pass on IED tactics to their fellow patrol leaders.”

And the technology is poised to expand. For now, it is accessible only at military bases. The next step, says Maeda, is to install it in Humvees and other military vehicles, allowing soldiers to download and act on new information in real time. Some of these vehicles already have some low-bandwidth connections, and Maeda says DARPA is working on ways to make the software work using these thin pipes. In addition, the system may soon deliver new kinds of information. In the next two to three years, it could offer surveillance pictures from circling unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or other sensor systems. It could store biometric information, so that a soldier could see if a civilian being interviewed was a known insurgent suspect. “There is a whole list of enhancements that users have requested that we want to fill,” Maeda says.

If those enhancements are realized, the result will look a lot like a deployed version of what the Pentagon’s big R&D programs have been pursuing. But TIGR is growing organically, in response to the needs of soldiers on the ground. It might be going too far to say that this technology will be the one to force doctrinal and organizational change; perhaps not everyone will embrace it. “No doubt it causes discomfort in those comfortable in traditional intel development,” Michaelis writes. As O’Neal points out, however, everyone involved in fighting the Iraq insurgency is motivated to save soldiers’ lives by every means possible. In some cases, it’s quite personal. “I’m focused on contemporary technology for the current force,” O’Neal says. “It’s all for my son.”

David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.

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