Murphy's Law: February 15, 2005


U.S. Department of Defense research has uncovered some interesting aspects of military operations conducted during the last few years. The most useful finding was that it was the skill and training of American troops that accounted for most of their success. Adding more technology did not increase the success of U.S. troops as much as expected, because most of the existing success was due to high skill levels and, all-too-often, low skill levels among the opposition. This was the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in counter-terrorism efforts around the world. The media has not picked up on this, because your average journalist does not realize how important high skill levels are in military success. Like most people, journalists assume that better technology plays a larger role than it actually does. Moreover, the manufacturers of that technology, and their political allies, have a vested interest in giving the technology as much credit as possible for military success. But when you get researchers down where the troops are working, and examine the process carefully, you find that its the troop skill that counts the most.

Against more skilled opponents, new technology has a lower payoff than expected, because the other guy is smart enough to come up with some countermeasures. The smart and experienced enemy fighters that were sometimes encountered were quick enough, for example, to figure out how to fool night vision equipment, and overhead vidcams carried by UAVs. Even thermal imagers, which portray a picture of heat differences, could be fooled. In places like Fallujah, UAVs began to see many alleys covered with rugs, sheets and cardboard, so people moving beneath could not be seen. At night, a wet blanket would make you much less visible to a thermal imager. 

The use of roadside bombs (IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices), gave Saddams experienced and well trained  military and security personnel a chance to show off their skills. But the most effective countermeasures were equally clever American troops using whatever high, and low, tech solutions they could come up with. Again, new technology got the most media attention, but when you went into the details of why over 90 percent of IEDs are spotted and disabled, you found that it was brains, not gadgets, that was mainly responsible. 

The lesson learned from this is that more effort should be put into maintaining high levels of training, and more work must be done on examining what combat looks like from the viewpoint of a skilled, and less skilled, opponent. You want to know what the other guy can come up with before he can, so that you will have an idea of how to handle that new situation. 


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