Evolving Predators

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Sept. 16 2008 7:39 AM

Evolving Predators

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

Yesterday, I asked about a supposedly new device, deployed on U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), that reportedly helped turn the tide in Iraq and may to be facilitating an

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along the Afghan-Pakistan border. As cryptically described in the

, the system enables "the tracking of human targets even when they are inside buildings or otherwise hidden from Predator surveillance cameras." It "gives remote pilots a means beyond images from the Predator's lens of confirming a target's identity and precise location."

Is this technology for real? If so, what is it? Since the government isn't telling, I poked around a bit and asked readers for ideas .

Here are some possible leads. First, Slate reader mark_925 flags a list posted Friday on Aviation Week 's Ares blog. The list includes several technologies that have improved U.S. efficiency at hunting and killing adversaries in Iraq. They include:

  1. Communications intercept sensors "so sensitive that they can pick up the low-power emissions of handheld cell phones."
  2. A targeting system called NCCT, which "instantaneously links the intelligence taken from several aircraft, ships or UAVs at once to locate, identify and target electronic emissions, including communications, and associate them with air, ground and sea radar targets."
  3. An "IDM communications module" that links communications signals to visible sources, such as cars.
  4. Software that facilitates "change detection" from spy aircraft.
  5. Helmet sights that immediately translate a physically viewed object into spatial coordinates that enable fast targeting and destruction.

Second: Walter Pincus of the Washington Post flags an article in the U.S. military journal Joint Force Quarterly , written by the general who, as of today, is replacing David Petraeus as commander of multinational forces in Iraq. It credits the upturn in Iraq in part to a "surge of ... full motion video (FMV) assets." Early in the war, "Commanders were rarely allocated more than an hour of FMV a week," says the article. "Since 2003-2004, FMV within the corps has increased tenfold. ... Today, the corps can count on daily support from at least 12 FMV systems," and each brigade combat team "has an organic tactical UAV platoon that provides 18 hours of FMV coverage a day." Drones are dramatically improving military performance, not by doing the killing themselves, but by providing instant, on-demand customized intelligence to ground forces.

Third: Pincus reports that last week, a Senate subcommittee appropriated $750 million for "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance initiatives." This compounds a $1.3 billion shift of money to ISR programs, approved by the Pentagon in July. According to Defense News , the programs include :

  1. "$262.6 million to buy digital data links for Raven UAVs, data links and laser designators for Hunter unmanned aircraft, and various improvements for other unmanned aircraft."
  2. "$168.5 million to buy eight Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance airborne systems, including with $52 million for three new Constant Hawk airborne surveillance and target acquisition systems."
  3. "$17 million to extend a contract for Scan Eagle UAV services, $15 million to buy a new Northrop Grumman-made Global Hawk UAV and associated gear and services, $26 million to purchase four Boeing-made Scan Eagles."
  4. Imaging systems and "sensor packages" for the Air Force.

So there are some possible clues to the recent turnaround in Iraq and the more recent escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan: more UAV deployment and video, faster integration of UAV data into ground operations, more acute communications sensors, and instant targeting data on visible objects. Some combination of these technologies might account for the key breakthrough attributed to the devices now being deployed to Afghanistan: nonvisual identification and tracking of targets. Or not.

Over to you, Danger Room .