Tag Archives: warfare

Predicting War and the Way to Win it: the science of warfare

Guerrilla warfare, however, is harder to model than open battle, and the civil insurrection that often precedes it is harder still. Which, from the generals’ point of view, is a pity, because such conflict is the dominant form of strife these days. The reason for the difficulty is that the fuel of popular uprisings is not hardware, but social factors of a type that computer programmers find it difficult to capture in their algorithms. Analysing the emotional temperature of postings on Facebook and Twitter, or the telephone traffic between groups of villages, is always going to be a harder task than analysing physics-based data like a tank’s firing range or an army’s stocks of ammunition and fuel.

Harder, but not impossible. For in the war-games rooms and think-tanks of the rich world’s military powers, bright minds are working on the problem of how to model insurrection and irregular warfare. Slowly but surely they are succeeding, and in the process they are helping politicians and armies to a better understanding of the nature of rebellion.

One of the best-known projects in this field is SCARE, the Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine, developed at the United States Military Academy at West Point by a team led by Major Paulo Shakarian, a computer-scientist-turned-soldier….Major Shakarian and his team have analysed the behaviour of guerrillas in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and think they understand it well enough to build reliable models.  Their crucial insight is the local nature of conflict in these countries. In particular, bombs directed at occupying forces are generally planted close to the place where they were made, and on the territory of the bombmaker’s tribal kin or co-religionists. That is not a surprise, of course. Kin and co-religionists are the most reliable allies in wars where different guerrilla groups may not always see eye to eye about objectives, beyond the immediate one of driving out foreign troops. But it does give Major Shakarian and his team a convenient way in. Using the co-ordinates of previously bombed sites, data from topographical and street maps, and information on an area’s ethnic, linguistic and confessional “human terrain”, SCARE is able to predict where guerrillas’ munition dumps will be to within about 700 metres…..Moreover, SCARE’s focus should soon become more precise. Major Shakarian’s latest trick is to include data on phone-traffic patterns in the calculations. An upgraded version of the program, employing this trick, will be created next month.

All of which is useful for dealing with a conflict once it has started. But it is better, if possible, to see what may happen before things get going. And for that, America’s navy has a project called RiftLand (pdf).  RiftLand is being developed on the navy’s behalf by Claudio Cioffi-Revilla, a professor of computational social science at George Mason University in Virginia. It is specific to the part of East Africa around the Great Rift Valley (hence the name). That this area includes Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda, each of which has been the scene of present or recent civil strife, is no coincidence. But the ideas involved could be generalised to other parts of the world, with due alteration for local conditions.  Broadly, RiftLand works by chewing its way through a range of data collected by charities, academics and government agencies, and uses these to predict where groups of people will go and with whom they may clash in times of drought or armed conflict. Dr Cioffi-Revilla gives the example (though he will not name names specifically) of a tribe of nomadic herders known for sharing its notions of veterinary medicine with others. This tribe, the model predicts, will reckon it safer to cross the lands of groups who also rely on keeping their animals healthy. Another point is that tribes who own a radio or mobile phone will steer clear of roads after news reports of government atrocities against their kin. A third is that much of the movement of herdsmen can be predicted from satellite data on the condition of pasture lands, modified by knowledge of what Dr Cioffi-Revilla calls “the complex network of IOUs” between tribes: which are currently hostile to one another, and who owes whom favours.mm The sort of conflict dealt with by RiftLand—a war of all against all in countries where central government is light or non-existent—has been particularly characteristic of this part of Africa in recent years.

Further north, where states are stronger, urban insurrection of the sort seen at the beginning of the Arab spring is a more common threat. Politicians faced with such uprisings may thus be interested in yet another piece of software, known as Condor, which has been developed by Peter Gloor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Gloor is certainly not in the business of saving the jobs of Middle-Eastern dictators. He is actually a consultant to the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s largest political party. But all politicians in power, whether democrats or dictators, share a distaste for demonstrations and protests on the streets.  Condor works by sifting through data from Twitter, Facebook and other social media, and using them to predict how a public protest will evolve. It does so by performing what Dr Gloor calls “sentiment analysis” on the data.  Sentiment analysis first classifies protesters by their clout. An influential Twitter user, for instance, is one who has many followers but follows few people himself. His tweets are typically upbeat (containing words or phrases such as “great”, “fun”, “funny”, “good time”, “hilarious movie”, “you’ll love” and so forth), are rapidly retweeted, and appear to sway others. In a nod to the methods developed by Google, Dr Gloor refers to this process as “PageRanking for people”.   Having thus ranked protesters, Condor then follows those at the top of the list to see how their output changes. Dr Gloor has found that, in Western countries at least, non-violent protest movements begin to burn out when the upbeat tweets turn negative, with “not”, “never”, “lame”, “I hate”, “idiot” and so on becoming more frequent. Abundant complaints about idiots in the government or in an ideologically opposed group are a good signal of a movement’s decline. Complaints about idiots in one’s own movement or such infelicities as the theft of beer by a fellow demonstrator suggest the whole thing is almost over.  Condor, then, is good at forecasting the course of existing protests. Even better, from the politicians’ point of view, would be to predict such protests before they occur. Not surprisingly, several groups of researchers are trying to do this too.

Aptima, a firm based in Woburn, Massachusetts, is one. Its program, called E-MEME (Epidemiological Modelling of the Evolution of MEssages) uses sentiment analysis to see how opinions and states of mind flow across entire populations, not just activists. It employs data from online news sources, blogs and Twitter, and attempts to rank the “susceptibility” of certain parts of the populace to specific ideas. According to Robert McCormack, the project’s chief technologist, E-MEME can determine things as different as which places in Egypt contain people who will care a lot about a border incident with Israel, and which parts of a country most need water in times of drought.

The Worldwide Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (W-ICEWS) project, led by Lockheed Martin, a large American defence contractor, goes even further. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Melinda Morgan of the office of the secretary of defence, in Washington, who is the government’s liaison officer for the project, it can crunch great quantities of data from digital news media, blogs and other websites, and also intelligence and diplomatic reports. It then uses all this to forecast—months in advance—riots, rebellions, coups, economic crises, government crackdowns and international wars. Colonel Morgan calls this process “social radar”.

Conflict forecasters are even joining the open-source bandwagon, in an attempt to improve their software. Last August IARPA, an American-government technology-development agency for the intelligence services, started the Open Source Indicators programme (pdf). This finances developers of software that can “beat the news”: forecasting political crises and mass violence in a reliable way. The programme’s manager, Jason Matheny, is now considering the proposals that have come in so far. These range from tracking Wikipedia edits to monitoring traffic with roadside cameras. The only proposals Mr Matheny will not consider are those designed to forecast conflict in America itself (the CIA is not supposed to spy on people in the United States), and those that rely on monitoring particular individuals, whether in America or elsewhere.

Rather than just foretelling the future, however, the best technology should concentrate on shaping it. W-ICEWS offers a bit of that. It has a “what if” capability, which allows users to change the inputs and see how things might develop differently given different events in the real world. But Venkatramana Subrahmanian of the University of Maryland proposes something more specific. The Temporal-Probabilistic Rule System, a program his team has developed using $600,000 of American-army money, looks at 770 social and political indicators and uses them to predict attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a guerrilla group based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. If it works, this process might be applied, using a different set of indicators, to other groups of rebels.  The crucial point about Dr Subrahmanian’s model is that it not only predicts attacks, it also suggests how they might be countered. Dr Subrahmanian is understandably cagey about the details, but he does give one example: if an attack requires complex co-ordination between group members, the software might recommend “stoking paranoia” by forging false communications between them.

On April 2nd President Barack Obama announced a $10m bounty on Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leader, Hafiz Saeed. It would indeed mark the coming of age of civil-strife software if that bounty, or another like it, were one day claimed on behalf of a group of programmers half a world away.

Excerpts, The science of civil war: What makes heroic strife, Economist, April, 21, at 93

How to Kill Better the Underdog, the XM25 and the computer inside the bullet

In war an outgunned force that manoeuvres to shoot from behind cover such as rocks or the rim of a ditch can often save itself from an otherwise nearly certain rout…[U]nderdog forces such as the Afghan Taliban continue to make deadly use of the art of concealment against technologically superior armies. But not, perhaps, for much longer. For a collaboration between ATK, an American firm, and Heckler & Koch, a German one, has come up with a rifle that negates the advantage of cover….

The XM25, as the new gun is known, weighs about 6kg (13lb) and fires a 25mm round. The trick is that instead of having to be aimed directly at the target, this round need only be aimed at a place in proximity to it. Once there, it explodes—just like Shrapnel’s original artillery shells—and the fragments kill the enemy. It knows when to explode because of a timed fuse. In Shrapnel’s shells this fuse was made of gunpowder. In the XM25 it is a small computer inside the bullet that monitors details of the projectile’s flight.

A handful of XM25s are now being tested in Afghanistan by the Americans. So far, they have been used on more than 200 occasions. Most of these fights ended quickly, and in America’s favour, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Shawn Lucas, who is in charge of the weapon’s field-testing programme. Indeed, the programme has been so successful that the army has ordered 36 more of the new rifles….

[How the XM25] works is  a guarded secret—though judging by the number of failed attempts to hack into computers that might be expected to hold information about it, many people would dearly like to know. Certainly, the trick is not easy. An alternative design developed in South Korea, which clocks flight time rather than number of rotations, seems plagued by problems. Last year South Korea’s Agency of Defence Development halted production of trial versions of the K-11, as this rifle is called, and announced a redesign, following serious malfunctions.

Excerpt, Magic bullets, Economist, Jan. 14, 2012, at 76

Preparing for Cyberattacks: Cross-Border Cyberdrills

Mass web destruction, spam and malware infection were among the scenarios involved during the first cross-border cyber drill organized by the United Nations and an international partnership against online threats in South-east Asia that aims to build cooperation and improve response measures to cyber attacks.  The drill, launched by the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Multilateral Partnership Against Cyber Threats (IMPACT), was a coordinated exercise to assess the security and emergency readiness of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam, also known as the CLMV countries.

Each country had a team participating in three simulated cyber security emergency incidents. Teams were required to identify the origin of the attacks, identify possible solutions and mitigation steps, and rectify the damage.The one-day exercise then simulated a cyber attack response linking the response systems of the fours countries known as Computer Emergency Response Team/Computer Incident Response Teams (CERT/CIRT), as well as experts from ITU and IMPACT.

“Cyber attacks are borderless, so it is vital for every CERT/CIRT to share information and experience on cross-border incident handling, in order to refine and test points of contact and procedures, to enhance the effectiveness of their response to active cyber threats,” said ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré.  According to a news release issued by ITU, the exercise was intended to help build greater cooperation and improve communication among the countries, and it took into account real-life constraints such as the disparity in the countries’ capabilities and developments.

The drill, which was held yesterday, did not aim to criticize capabilities or a particular network, system or infrastructure, but instead sought to emphasize the need for continuous communication channels between neighbouring countries, as well as enhance each country’s incident response capabilities.  “The ITU-IMPACT ALERT (Applied Learning for Emergency Response Team) achieved several positive outcomes, including identification of readiness of each country’s CERTs/CIRTs team, establishing the need for proper contingency plans, improving the familiarity with tools and other related software and communicating the importance of maintaining logs and having adequately trained personnel in place to handle cyber threats,” said Datuk Mohd Noor Amin, Chairman of IMPACT.  “This was a great opportunity for countries to put their contingency strategies to the test. This cyber drill serves as the prototype for upcoming larger global exercises being designed for 2012.”

First UN-backed simulation of cyber attack takes place in South-east Asia, UN Press Release, Dec. 2, 2011

Electromagnetic Weapons, kill me please

Boeing Growler, uses electromagnetics as offensive weapons. The Growler, which first saw action in Iraq in 2010 and has been extensively (though discreetly) deployed during the NATO air war against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, is a souped-up version of the Super Hornet. It…can be used either to spy on enemy communications or to destroy them; to suppress anti-aircraft fire; to disable the electronics of ground vehicles; and to make life so hazardous for enemy aircraft that they dare not fly (and probably to shoot them down electronically, too, though no one will confirm this)….America has ordered 114 of the planes, and has taken delivery of 53. By land, sea and air Nor are aircraft the only vehicles from which destructive electromagnetic pulses can be launched.

BAE Systems, a British defence firm, is building a ship-mounted electromagnetic gun. The High-Powered Microwave, as it is called, is reported by Aviation Week to be powerful enough to disable all of the motors in a swarm of up to 30 speedboats. Ships fitted with such devices would never be subject to the sort of attack that damaged USS Cole in 2000, when an al-Qaeda boat loaded with explosives rammed it. A gun like this would also be useful for stopping pirate attacks against commercial shipping.

Land vehicles, too, will soon be fitted with electromagnetic cannon. In 2013 America hopes to deploy the Radio-Frequency Vehicle Stopper. This device, developed at the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in Quantico, Virginia, is a microwave transmitter the size and shape of a small satellite dish that pivots on top of an armoured car. When aimed at another vehicle, it causes that vehicle’s engine to stall. This gentle way of handling the enemy—stopping his speedboats, stalling his tanks—has surprising advantages. For example, it expands the range of targets that can be attacked. Some favourite tricks of modern warfare, such as building communications centres in hospitals, or protecting sites with civilian “human shields”, cease to be effective if it is simply the electronics of the equipment being attacked that are destroyed. Though disabling an aircraft’s avionics will obviously cause it to crash, in many other cases, no direct harm is done to people at all.

The logical conclusion of all this is a so-called “human-safe” missile, which carries an electromagnetic gun instead of an explosive warhead. Such a missile is being developed at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and will soon be tested at the White Sands Missile Range….