Published: October 23, 2003
New York Times
WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 The Air Force and the Army are working on a classified project to use new combinations of surveillance aircraft and other sensors, along with intelligence on the ground, to try to detect and counter the increasingly deadly ambushes against American forces in Iraq, senior Pentagon officials said on Wednesday.
The surveillance effort could include a range of tactics and technology, the officials said, including equipping remotely piloted Predator aircraft with special radar or sensors to help find homemade bombs or suspected guerrilla activity.
Air Force experts are culling lessons from the New York City Police Department about helicopter surveillance techniques in urban areas. The Army is rushing to deploy new technologies aimed at detecting and crippling roadside booby traps, which have proven particularly effective in attacks on the occupation force's convoys.
In a newly disclosed memo to his top aides, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has questioned the Pentagon's ability to change quickly enough to be effective in the global war on terror, and has cited mixed results of efforts so far in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on surveillance and other new ways of fighting insurgents, Congress has been told. But senior military officials are wary of disclosing too much about the Air Force-Army surveillance project, saying they do not want to tip off Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters who are clashing with American forces as many as two dozen times a day.
"We want to find ways to help ground forces in Iraq not be ambushed," Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview. "The Army is building data all the time as they experience one episode after another. There are ways we should be able to have the persistence of surveillance that's available to us, and help us shortcut these guys before they are able to take action."
To some extent, the Pentagon is pursuing a goal that has eluded it in counterinsurgency operations since the Vietnam War, when the military struggled to track the movement of arms and troops from the North along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Advances in surveillance technologies since then make it possible to monitor the movement of people day and night, even through cloud cover, but senior Pentagon officials conceded that the latest devices were not a foolproof solution that would prevent more attacks.
"They're not going to be 100 percent solutions," Anthony Tether, head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, told reporters on Wednesday. "But when you're in a situation where you have no solutions, even a 25 percent solution is going to be great."
The new Army and Air Force program, called Project Eyes, is part of a broader effort by the Defense Department to arm troops against increasingly sophisticated attacks that reflect careful planning and coordination. A total of 203 American troops have been killed in Iraq since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1, including 104 by hostile fire.
At the urging of commanders in the field and lawmakers in Congress, the Pentagon is rushing to Iraq extra protective equipment, including body armor and armored Humvees, and in many cases, pulling antiguerrilla devices out of the laboratory and sending them to the field.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz last week directed the military to spend an additional $335.5 million to buy or speed up production of new countermeasures.
In a letter on Oct. 16 to senior House and Senate members, Mr. Wolfowitz said the spending would include $38.3 million for tethered blimps equipped with digital cameras to spy on guerrillas' movements, more than $30 million for electronic jammers to disrupt their remote-controlled bombs, and $70 million to develop and buy what the letter called other "rapid-reaction/new solution" technologies.
Some devices would help detect roadside bombs and booby traps that have been killing American-led occupation forces, Mr. Tether said. These countermeasures use a variety of approaches including lasers, acoustic sensors and electromagnetic technologies, he said. He said the devices would be shipped in the next three to four months or sooner, after accelerated, last-minute development and testing.
The urgency of the efforts reflect the vulnerabilities of America's vaunted high-tech arsenal against an enemy that uses hit-and-run tactics, and hides homemade bombs in soda cans, plastic bags or dead animals.
"What we all need to understand is that with some of these improvised explosive devices all that is required is someone with a paper bag or a plastic bag to drop it as a walk-by," Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top American ground commander in Iraq, said this month.
General Sanchez has repeatedly said that successfully countering the attacks relies heavily on tips from ordinary Iraqis.
The new project is being led by the Air Force's strategic and operational planning cell, called Checkmate, along with experts on the Army staff in Washington and at some Army field units.
An Army spokesman with experience in Iraq, Col. Guy Shields, said the Army has been analyzing the attacks for several months, and adjusting tactics accordingly. "We look at where the attacks took place, if there were recurring patterns, and if so, take appropriate action," Colonel Shields said. "It's a continual learning process."
The Army-Air Force project has succeeded in getting the two services to integrate the information from their different remotely piloted aircraft, to provide one common surveillance picture, officials said.
Using that information and other forensic data, analysts using complex computer programs try to identify patterns of behavior leading up to an attack. "Once you have some analytical pattern, you could then go out with a Predator that stares for 24 hours," General Jumper said.
General Jumper said detecting hostile forces mingled among civilians was one of the most difficult challenges facing American forces and military analysts. He said: "When you're dealing with people who are in a marketplace looking exactly like everyone else, and are pulling a weapon out, or are controlling a place where someone is shooting at you out of second-story window with rocket-propelled grenade, you've got to back off one layer and say: `How did that grenade get there? How did those people arrive at the places they were?' "