Know the Enemy: Mathematical Models: The Latest Weapons against Urban Insurgencies

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Know the Enemy: Mathematical Models: The Latest Weapons against Urban Insurgencies


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


War planners for decades have used computer simulations to prepare for future battles.

The Iraq experience, however, convinced commanders that they need new and improved ways to cope with the complex social environments and insurgent behaviors that were poorly understood before U.S. forces invaded Iraq.

"The Defense Department is asking for models of social agendas, of social behaviors," said Rob Goff, manager of defense operations at Alion Science and Technology Corp. The company develops simulations and models for military war games.

"A lot of work is going on in that area," said Goff.

Simulations that require accurate representations of foreign cultures are tough to do, he said. The challenge is even harder when the models have to predict the interaction between different cultures in harsh conditions, Goff noted.

Military leaders, for example, may want to know what happens when two cultures are thrown into a poverty stricken city--how they would relate to each other based on religion, economics, ethnicity and other factors.

"The hard part is defining the social behaviors among cultures," Goff said. To make simulations believable, they have to truly reflect the characteristics and nuances of specific ethnic and religious groups.

A recent example of the difficulties of modeling social behaviors is a pandemic simulation that Alion created for the Office of Naval Research. "We didn't think it would be that hard, but it is turning out to be quite a chore" because of the complexities of human behavior," Goff said. "Lots of things go into modeling the effects of a pandemic episode other than people catching the bird flu.

"When you try to lay all that out, and make it come true in a simulation, the multiplying effects are just so hard to predict ... We know people may die. But what will happen to the water supply, the food supply, the availability of hospital beds? It's a tremendously tough database to build."

Simulations that can help military commanders anticipate how foreign cultures react to specific actions are in high demand, said George Stone, Alion's senior scientist. "The Defense Department is setting aside funding for these technologies," he said. "A lot of the work is pretty new and everyone is just trying to understand it."

Many experts view these projects as yet another example of the Defense Department over-relying on technology to solve every problem, but military officials argue that these tools are valuable aids and not a substitute for human judgment.

"We want to help commanders evaluate courses of action, and the reactions and perceptions of the population," said Navy Rear Adm. Dan W. Davenport, director of joint experimentation at U.S. Joint Forces Command in Suffolk, Va.

A team of analysts from the command recently was sent to Afghanistan to collect data, not only for future models and simulations, but also for current operations.

"Having the right expertise and the right information is absolutely essential," Davenport said in an interview. In addition to simulation experts, the Joint Forces Command team included anthropologists and sociologists, he said.

Models and simulations, no matter how accurate, will only go so far, Davenport cautioned. "They are just to help inform the commander. They can't make decisions for us."

The simulations that are being used by U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are helping them better understand the potential consequences of their actions, said Dave Ozolek, executive director of Joint Forces Command's experimentation directorate.

Unlike traditional simulation technologies that focus on predicting who will win the war, these newer models are far more sophisticated because they can fairly quickly deliver "what-if" scenarios and help commanders anticipate outcomes based not just on military tactics but also on political, economic and social circumstances. …

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