Magazine article National Defense

Finding the Enemy

Magazine article National Defense

Finding the Enemy

Article excerpt

The war in Afghanistan has exposed serious weaknesses in the Defense Department's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology. ISR is an area where the Pentagon is used to having a major advantage over the enemy. But despite an abundance of overhead collectors of electronic intelligence - including both piloted and unmanned aircraft - the physical environment and the nature of the conflict make it difficult, if not impossible, to identify enemy combatants on the ground without human intelligence that is gathered via interpersonal contact, says Army Brig. Gen. H R McMaster, director of concept development and experimentation at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command.

"There's been an assumption that technology can lift the fog of war," he says in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "But situational understanding cannot be delivered on a computer screen. It's something you have to fight hard to achieve."

The challenge has been especially tough in Iraq and Afghanistan, says retired Army Special Forces Lt. Col. James Gavrilis. "They don't wear uniforms, they are not in formation, they look just like any civilian."

In a counterinsurgency, the identity of the enemy often is known only to civilians in the area. Even simple visual cues don't work, he says. "If you say that anyone who has a rifle is a combatant, you could end up hurting the guy who's defending his block ... You won't be able to look at a crowd and pick out die bomb makers."

Most U.S. aerial sensors and surveillance systems were developed for flat ground, he says. The mountainous terrain punctuated by deep valleys creates nightmare scenarios for sensors that have limited range.

Some of the most valuable electronic intelligence comes from eavesdropping, Gavrilis says, such as "bugging the campfire where insurgent planning is taking place." As with visual ISR, eavesdropping systems are hampered by die terrain.

"We have to really start developing capabilities" in this area, he says. Promising technologies exist in the civilian IT and telecom industries. "We have to figure out how to use the technology that's already there and figure out how to get intelligence. …

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