Project Eyes

The New York Times Magazine
December 14, 2003

During the invasion of Iraq, the American military displayed amazing technological superiority, firing missiles that flew nearly 1,000 miles before hitting their targets precisely, with a margin of error of just a few feet. Once the occupation of Iraq began, though, the military faced a whole new array of challenges: car bombs, donkey-drawn rocket launchers and improvised explosive devices. And what did the Pentagon pull from its shock-and-awe cupboard then?

The answer, amazingly, is nothing. The cupboard was all but bare of tools to bulletproof American troops against low-tech attacks and other perils of urban warfare. The reason is not that such technology is beyond the reach of military scientists but that development of these technologies has been a low priority. Until recently, the U.S. military was not preparing to fight a guerrilla war.

“If you wanted money, you asked for tanks, you asked for battleships, you asked for jet fighters,” said Lt. Col. Cynthia Bedell, who is in charge of an Army program for developing soldier-carried sensors. “We’ve gotten a lot of money in the past year to bring everything up to speed, but a lot of these questions”–questions about guerrilla warfare–“didn’t start getting asked until we went into Afghanistan.”

In Iraq, the questions are still being asked. Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who heads the Fourth Infantry Division, which patrols the Sunni Triangle, made an unusual plea during an October press conference in Tikrit. “I’d like a technology that allows me to jam or prematurely explode these improvised explosive devices being used against us,” he said. So far, however, the Pentagon has no ready-to-use sonar or jamming or sniffing devices to locate and neutralize I.E.D.’s, which are some of the principal weapons of the insurgency.

Up above, in the lighter-than-air realm of spy planes and drones, the U.S. military has an astounding array of surveillance gear, but the data they collect have not been scrutinized in an organized fashion. That’s why last summer the Air Force created something called Project Eyes, run by the Checkmate Division, an elite strategy unit in the bowels of the Pentagon that is trying to find ways to better analyze the avalanche of information from existing spy devices in order to predict and pre-empt attacks against coalition forces.

Project Eyes is using one commercially available application, known as WebTAS, which stands for Web-enabled Temporal Analysis System, to scrutinize surveillance data that might otherwise be overlooked. Although details of what they’re doing with WebTAS are classified, officers at Project Eyes confirmed that some of their work uses WebTAS to compare surveillance data before and after attacks, so that patterns can be recognized in vehicle and human movements.

When an attack occurs, the system will examine the surveillance records for the site for the 24 hours before the attack took place. “You would have to do this a number of times to be able to predict” future attacks, according to the Air Force officer who is in charge of Project Eyes.

The use of surveillance devices is being ramped up, too. One program involves expanding the use of tethered blimps, known as Aerostats, which are loaded with sensors; an additional $38.3 million has been added to that program, according to a letter to Congress in October from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The Pentagon is putting $31 million into the purchase of 185 Raven Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which are far smaller and easier to operate than the well-known Predator drones. The Pentagon is also speeding up development of “pocket” U.A.V.’s that are no larger than paper gliders and can be deployed by soldiers as they chase insurgents down a street or into a house.

This whiz-bang technology, cool though it seems, is unlikely to tip the balance in the counterinsurgency war. Even if you had aerial surveillance of every square inch of Baghdad, how would you tell the difference between a covered truck that is filled with bread and one that is filled with explosives? In the cubicles of the Checkmate Division, some of the best minds of military intelligence acknowledge that victory in a guerrilla war requires, most of all, human intelligence–tips from local residents and spies in the ranks of the enemy.

“Yes, our technology is better, and yes, we have a technological advantage over the enemy, but the technology and warfare discussion has gone on for hundreds of years, since the longbow came along,” said the commander of the Checkmate Division. “Technology initially gives you an advantage, and then the enemy adapts and figures out a way to get around it. Hearts and minds–how are you going to win that with technology? It’s back to Mao’s theory of war: if the population is willing to disperse into the hills and fight to the death, one I.E.D. at a time, there’s not a technological solution to that.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.