Technology lessons from the Iraq war.
5. Communications technology is accelerating the enemy's adaptive speed. Atkinson notes a Marine's complaint that in Iraq, "The Flintstones are adapting faster than the Jetsons." The complaint is misconceived. Today, the Flintstones are the Jetsons. In fact, they're the Jihadsons. Insurgents use the Internet to share bomb recipes, emplacement methods, and updates on U.S. countermeasures. They advertise IED services on Web sites, complete with video of previous blasts. They distribute bomb-making manuals on CDs. One recent Web-posted manual was titled "How to Disable U.S. 'Joint IED Neutralizer.'" Another was "Military Use of Electronics Prepared by Your Brother in Allah." Flintstones, meet Jetsons.
American military strategists originally thought they could snuff out IEDs by rounding up the bomb makers. That might have worked if the insurgents operated like the Pentagon. But they don't. Their simple technology is easy to teach, and they don't need to bring you to a camp in Afghanistan to do it. Just click "download," and bang, you've got better intel than Dick Cheney. According to Bush, the enemy's turnaround from discovering new U.S. anti-IED technology to posting instructions on how to defeat it is down to five days.
Bush thinks the lesson of this reaction speed is that we should suppress information about our technology. But maybe the lesson is that we can't stop the spread of destructive technology and information, in which case we'd better concentrate on reducing the number of people who feel motivated to use it against us. As Atkinson points out, when we closed Moqtada al-Sadr's newspaper in the spring of 2004, Shiites joined Sunnis as IED bombers, and the number of attacks almost doubled.
6. Humans are still better than machines. To begin with, we're more agile and discerning. Insurgents can disguise IEDs as rocks, curbstones, corpses, and car parts. Our machines can't find these bombs. Slight variations in flight trajectory or wind-blown trash confound our efforts to digitally identify IED-related activity in aerial images. The best IED spotters, according to an Army report, are soldiers who have hunted or fished.
Humans are also far better at adapting. By watching the weather and our drone takeoffs, insurgents deduce when it's safe to move. By observing our convoy precautions, they learn how to work them into bombing plans. When we jam their detonation frequencies, they monitor our jammers and switch detonators. Our jammers don't evolve fast enough to keep up with their innovations.
Some of our best countermeasures have been random or ad hoc. We've reconfigured obsolete jammers, put "hillbilly armor" on our vehicles, and used truck-mounted toasters and leaf blowers to clear out IEDs. Our most effective anti-IED technology is a vehicle-mounted bomb decoy whose distance from the chassis is designed to vary by whim. If the enemy can't predict our behavior, he can't plan.
7. Human limits also limit technology. Some of our technology fails because it asks too much of us. We designed a drone to be operated remotely by troops in a trailing vehicle, only to discover that riding in one vehicle while virtually driving another made soldiers carsick. We built an IED armor kit that made vehicle doors so heavy soldiers can't open them. We developed digital surveillance programs that capture so many precise images that the officers assigned to monitor them become overloaded and zone out.
The enemy's simple technology suits human limits; our complex technology defies them. Our crazy menu of jammers confused our troops, making them think they were jamming the right frequencies when they weren't. Our tutorials in wave propagation flummoxed them. When the $800,000 IED neutralizer flunked real-world tests, the company that built it blamed operator error, denying that the machine was "a failure in any way." But if humans can't operate your machine, your machine is a failure.
8. Here come the cyborgs. If humans are too precious to hunt IEDs, and if machines are too obtuse, there's a third option: animals. In fact, the analog dexterity of animals can be combined with the manipulative power of digital technology. In the last few years, the military has explored the idea of bomb-detecting bees monitored by miniature cameras. It has sought remote control of IED-sniffing dogs through radio receivers attached to their collars. The bomber operates his IED from a safe distance. Why not do the same with your dog?
Alas, dogs will be dogs, and bees will be bees. The bee idea fell through because bees soon died, wasting their training in explosives detection. The dog project never achieved stardom because, as Atkinson explains, "a working dog grew easily distracted after 30 minutes, not unlike a soldier watching an aerostat monitor." To overcome these limits, we'd have to take the cyborg concept a bit further, putting silicon technology directly into the bodies of animals and, eventually, soldiers. But that's a story for another war.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of soldiers by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images.