ERP News

When Big Data went to war — and lost

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A multibillion-dollar project reveals the limits of data in a bureaucracy.

On October 1, 2017, a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad killed Spc. Alexander W. Missildine. The 20-year-old was the latest American soldier to die in a war that had lasted, in some form or another, since he was in kindergarten. And as much as the Iraq War had changed over the past 14 years, the weapon that killed Missildine — the improvised explosive device, or IED — remains just as potent, and just as vexing, as it was when the U.S. originally invaded Iraq.

For a few years, it looked like the U.S. was about to make headway against IEDs, using a combination of old military insights and new data-processing techniques. The project was called JIEDDO, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. Born on Valentine’s Day, 2006, for nine years it remained a central part of America’s wars in the Middle East. In the annals of the pre-surge war in Iraq, few acronyms conjure as many strong feelings among Washington’s national security establishment, or offer as clear a lesson about the challenges of quickly building smart new systems and keeping them on track.

The idea was appealing: IEDs were a new and unpredictable weapon, but the U.S. had had great success using data against an unpredictable weapon before. During World War II, the Allies faced irregular attacks from an unseen foe, the new German submarines preying on shipping in the North Atlantic. By analyzing the attack patterns, and developing new technologies that could spot and then destroy U-boats before they attacked, science and data secured safe passage across the Atlantic, and left the once-feared U-boat fleet strategically sidelined.

Counter-IED warfare was envisioned along the same lines: Find the limitations of the technology, find the patterns of attacks, and then fund whatever new tools were needed to defeat it. The first director of JIEDDO, retired Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, literally wrote the book on data and anti-submarine warfare. After leaving the service in 2002, he had been a professor for four years at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, publishing articles on asymmetric warfare before he returned to the Defense Department to apply what he knew to the most pressing battlefield threat the United States had seen in a generation.

Two improvised explosive devices are left unburied after insurgents leave the area of Arab Jabar, Iraq

By then, the idea of a specific force to stop IEDs had already accumulated both momentum and bureaucracy. Three years before JIEDDO formally launched, the Army had formed a small task force to find a “Manhattan Project-like” answer to IEDs. In three years, that team’s budget expanded from $100 million to $3.6 billion, when it was formally reorganized into JIEDDO. JIEDDO accumulated a massive amount of cash and a large staff, and started to acquire and develop tools.

IEDs are a nesting doll of problems: They’re a specific weapon made from a diverse array of materials — from gunpowder from cached artillery rounds to imported fertilizer. They are a tactic, placed to punish troops on patrol or civilians going about their lives. They are the end product of a network, the pointy end of the spear of an invisible insurgent force. And IEDs are an iterative technology, with designs shared between insurgents across countries and quickly adapted to defeat whatever countermeasures the Pentagon could come up with.

“Our opponents can go to the world marketplace in information technology and get literally for free off of the internet very robust codes, cryptographic means, instant communications” — retired Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs

To stop IEDs, JIEDDO had one fundamental asset: a massive fund of money devoted to rapid acquisition. With that money, JIEDDO could make new technology go from development to deployment in months, rather than the usual years of Pentagon research and development. That speed was useful, but sometimes meant fielding technologies that didn’t work right away, or didn’t work nearly as well as expected, or solved a problem that the troops were no longer facing. Like the IED bombmakers, it was an iterative process, but sometimes without feedback, or without feedback through useful channels.

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