Intelligence: The Combat Videos On YouTube


November29, 2006: Video cameras small enough to be attached to a soldiers helmet, and then turned on during combat, are becoming the hot battlefield accessory. Combat troops want to let the folks back home, and fellow soldiers, know what they are up against. With most soldiers in a combat zone having internet access, these videos can be sent home immediately (or, because of slow Internet lines, burned to a CD and mailed). This is beginning to bug the intel folks, and even some commanders. Finding out how things are at the front via YouTube is not something they were taught in military schools. The cameras use memory cards, so there no film to mess with, no moving parts, and often a rechargeable battery. The perfect battlefield accessory.

No one is sure who started carrying vidcams into combat, or just on patrols, and then reviewing the video later, looking for things that might have been missed. Most likely it was either some Special Forces guy, or a former SOCOM type working private security in Iraq. The concept predated Iraq, in the form of the "lipstick cam" (a video cam the size of a lipstick) that was worn by skiers, mountain bikers and the like, to record their thrilling heroics for later viewing. One intrepid journalist convinced at least one soldier to wear a lipstick cam during the 2003 advance on Baghdad.

The U.S. Department of Defense wants to take the concept further. This has arrived in the form of ASSIST (Advanced Soldier Sensor Information System and Technology). This project is testing a wide variety of sensors that soldiers in action, especially patrols, can just wear. The images and sound collected from the vidcams would not just be recorded, but, with a powerful enough wi-fi network and computers to process the data, the troops would get quick (near-instant in some cases) feedback. The computers could be located elsewhere, either back at headquarters, or, via satellite link, back in the United States. This sort of "reach-back" has been used for several years already. Most Predator UAVs flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, are piloted by people stationed at an airbase back in the United States.

The possibilities for a system like this are enormous. While many of the ideas, currently being tossed around, may not turn out to be practical, or useful, many will. The original idea, of just sticking a vidcam on the dashboard for patrols, or while transporting people, proved very useful. Looking at those videos later often revealed vulnerabilities, or even enemy preparations for an attack. You can always miss stuff like that while zipping down the highway. But with the replay button at hand, that happens much less often. But that's what worries intel specialists about all the combat video on YouTube. It's showing the enemy how combat looks through the eyes of the "infidel" soldiers.

ASSIST, like so many other high-tech systems, will probably enter service bit-by-bit. In effect, it was there when troops began using the vidcams. The crucial innovation with ASSIST is capturing the data on a computer, analyzing it, sending instant alerts to the troops, and building a database that would, over time, reveal patterns of enemy activity, or mistakes the friendlies are making. The current problem is that many of the troops are going out and obtaining combat video on their own, for sentimental and entertainment purposes. The army isn't ready to use this stuff for anything else just yet. But the YouTube vids can be useful for the shrewd observer, and some of those work for Islamic terrorists.

The computer assisted analysis of video and sound data is also nothing new, although it's only in the last decade that these theoretical capabilities have been turned into practical results. Tests in the past year have shown that this combination of wearable sensors and computer processing is practical. But it is expected to take until the end of the decade before a system is available for troop use.

Initially, ASSIST would be used to record useful data while troops are on patrol, or in combat. Each ASSIST sensor (basically a lipstick cam type unit) would include GPS and accelerometer (measuring movement). Thus if there was any contact with the enemy, there would be, like with the "black box" in aircraft, a record of who was where and how fast they were moving. Data on what patterns of movement mean what can first be obtained from training exercises. The computer would have a database of typical reactions of troops to different situations, enabling the software to alert commanders immediately when critical events occur (an IED going off, or other type of ambush).




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