The Apps They Carried: Software, Big Data and the Fight for Mosul

A soldier from the 1st Battalion of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces listens to an address by his commander after a training exercise to prepare for the operation to re-take Mosul from Islamic State militants.

A soldier from the 1st Battalion of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces listens to an address by his commander after a training exercise to prepare for the operation to re-take Mosul from Islamic State militants. Maya Alleruzzo/AP

A variety of digital tech tools aim to provide coalition forces some sense of the dangers around the next bend.

As Iraqi troops and their U.S. and coalition supporters move on ISIS-held Mosul, they can expect to face homemade bombs and booby traps. But they will have something U.S. troops patrolling the country’s second-largest city in 2007 did not have: new big-data tools to help detect and defeat IEDs.  

Many of these tools take the form of data analysis and visualization apps to help deployed forces instantly access information about IEDs they encounter.

Developed by the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Threat-Defeat Organization, or JIDO, they include Catapult, JIDO’s cloud data architecture, which ingests bomb data from more than 550 sources across all the combatant commands and the intelligence community.

Another, Horizon, allows users to plot that IED information on an interactive map. For soldiers in an environment with limited bandwidth and connectivity (like a modern urban war zone), the Voltron software suite helps troops retain access to the very most critical bits of signals intelligence. 

Another mapping app, BOOM, or Blast Origin Overpressure Modeler, can provide a Google Maps image showing how big an explosion from a particular IED will be. From a JIDO brochure: “BOOM is a web-enabled application that allows the user to define a blast model by four inputs-explosive, type weight, a [homemade explosive] mix (yield) and the center point of the last being modeled. The output is a Google Earth KML layer with eight overpressure and two fragmentation concentric circle rings.” 

National Security Agency Deputy Director Richard Ledgett said the ability to analyze intelligence at scale is helping analysts understand the IED threats just around the corner. 

One of the key capabilities NSA has provided is the Real Time Regional Gateway, or RT-RG. Ledgett described the role of RT-RG in the ISIS fight at the Defense One Technology Summit in June. The gateway functions like a big matching engine. If an analyst picks up a particular piece of data—a phone number, URL, email address or even a physical address on a piece of paper related to a particular ISIS bombmaker or device—that information can be combined with other relevant information and instantly shared. 

In 2007, Ledgett said, processing battlefield data took hours or even days.

“That’s not tactically useful to the forces,” he said. So “we set up an early version of the cloud, set up big data analytics to run against that data set, and now we get those correlations in near real time.”

Today, NSA analysts use the RT-RG to combine data and intelligence from hundreds of sources. That lets analysts tell troops about threats that are sometimes literally around the next corner, “as they [coalition troops] are going on convoys, as they are moving to operations, it provides them with a great deal of insight into, for instance, people on their route. There may be people on their route who are planning an ambush,” he said.

RT-RG, like any database, is only as good as the data it contains. Getting that intelligence from defectors, claimed territory and other sources is no easy task.

As forces attempt to take the city street by street and house by house, ambushes seem a certainty, along with other threats.

“ISIL does an incredible job of booby-trapping urban terrain as either they are still fighting in it or departing it, as has been proven in Fallujah and other places” Lt. Gen. Michael Shields, the director of JIDO, told reporters last week. The U.S. military hopes apps and cloud data will allow them to see those threats before it’s too late.

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