Statistical firepower in Helmand

Ana­lysts in Hel­mand are help­ing com­man­ders see through the fog of war. Tris­tan Kel­ly reports.

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Oper­a­tional Ana­lyst Char­lie Cor­lett at work in Hel­mand [Pic­ture: Steve Dock, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Mod­ern war is fought with infor­ma­tion as well as bul­lets and few in Afghanistan are in pos­ses­sion of as much sta­tis­ti­cal fire­pow­er as Char­lie Cor­lett.

An Oper­a­tional Ana­lyst with the Defence Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry (Dstl) it is Charlie’s job to crunch the num­bers to help make some sense of the infor­ma­tion over­load that often con­sti­tutes the fog of war.

Explain­ing his job Char­lie said:

“The def­i­n­i­tion of oper­a­tional analy­sis is the appli­ca­tion of sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis tech­niques to help peo­ple make deci­sions. And that is what we do.”

Put in layman’s terms it is Charlie’s job to con­duct analy­sis of oper­a­tional data and inform com­man­ders of any appar­ent trends from the bat­tle­field. Such analy­sis can be used to inform deci­sions such as where to deploy med­ical assets, iden­ti­fy areas for tran­si­tion to Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces con­trol and sup­port over­all oper­a­tional plan­ning:

“A lot of what we do is kinet­i­cal­ly focused, so we look at events that have hap­pened. For exam­ple, IEDs, where they hap­pen, when they hap­pen and what sort of IEDs they are,” Char­lie explained. “We try and look for trends and pat­terns.”

This can assist with mil­i­tary deci­sion-mak­ing:

“For exam­ple,” Char­lie added, “a com­man­der might say ‘we think we have noticed a change in our AO [area of oper­a­tions] such that we encounter IEDs in a par­tic­u­lar sce­nario and ask what’s going on. Is it that we are set­ting pat­terns with our own activ­i­ty?’

“Oper­a­tional analy­sis can help to answer that ques­tion.”

There are over a dozen Dstl civil­ians deployed to Afghanistan in a vari­ety of sci­en­tif­ic and ana­lyt­i­cal roles, and as part of a team of three based at Task Force Helmand’s HQ in Lashkar Gah, the cap­i­tal of Hel­mand province, Char­lie and his col­leagues use their sci­en­tif­ic train­ing (Char­lie is a trained physi­cist) to find such trends.

“There are 3,500 peo­ple back at home at Dstl for whom sup­port to oper­a­tions is the main pri­or­i­ty, so if we have a guy that has a par­tic­u­lar skill set they will pret­ty much drop every­thing and work to help us.”
Char­lie Cor­lett

He explained that a recent task was to look at pos­si­ble pat­terns regard­ing attacks on heli­copters:

“There had been a few cas­es of heli­copters being attacked, so again we looked to see whether our heli­copter activ­i­ty was becom­ing pre­dictable.

“The mil­i­tary don’t nec­ces­sar­i­ly have to change any­thing they are doing as a result of this analy­sis but it can help them make a more informed deci­sion.”

Despite being a small team the Oper­a­tional Ana­lysts are just the for­ward com­po­nent of a huge resource avail­able to com­man­ders back in the UK:

“We are very much the tip of the ice­berg,” Char­lie said. “There are 3,500 peo­ple back at home at Dstl for whom sup­port to oper­a­tions is the main pri­or­i­ty, so if we have a guy that has a par­tic­u­lar skill set they will pret­ty much drop every­thing and work to help us.”

So where does all the infor­ma­tion come from?

“We get things called ‘sitreps’ [sit­u­a­tion reports] from com­man­ders on the ground which detail every sig­nif­i­cant inci­dent,” Char­lie said.

“So if a shot is fired at a patrol or an IED is found, a base attacked, or a mede­vac [med­ical evac­u­a­tion] hap­pens, a short report gets writ­ten.

“What we do is suck all those up and we extract all the infor­ma­tion in them and put them in our own data­base.”

This infor­ma­tion is then digest­ed and analysed and usu­al­ly pre­sent­ed graph­i­cal­ly to the mil­i­tary ‘cus­tomer’, such as HQ com­man­ders or com­man­ders out in bases:

“At the moment we are help­ing the med team decide what the best med­ical lay­down will be for the next HERRICK deploy­ment and where they should put med­ical assets,” Char­lie said.

“A lot of what we do is kinet­i­cal­ly focused, so we look at events that have hap­pened. For exam­ple, IEDs, where they hap­pen, when they hap­pen and what sort of IEDs they are. We try and look for trends and pat­terns.”
Char­lie Cor­lett

“You base that on where the most events hap­pen that will cause casu­al­ties and how long it takes peo­ple to get to hos­pi­tal, that kind of infor­ma­tion.”

With all minds focused on the end of com­bat oper­a­tions in 2015, much of Charlie’s time is spent look­ing at the issue of tran­si­tion and what fac­tors sig­ni­fy that a dis­trict is ready for the Afghan forces to take over the lead respon­si­bil­i­ty for pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty in it.

Char­lie describes a sit­u­a­tion where he is ‘swim­ming in infor­ma­tion’ and that one of the hard­est tasks is decid­ing what to mea­sure in the first place:

“One of the things we are doing at the moment is decid­ing what we want to mea­sure to see if areas are ready for tran­si­tion,” he said.

“There are lots of peo­ple inter­est­ed in it and lots of peo­ple mea­sur­ing lots of stuff, so we are look­ing at what is already mea­sured. It is things like school atten­dance, traf­fic on roads, the aver­age price of goods in mar­kets as well as the num­ber of secu­ri­ty inci­dents.”

How­ev­er, in line with the old adage ‘lies, damned lies, and sta­tis­tics’, Char­lie is aware of what sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis can’t tell you:

“With things like IEDs you can only report them when you find them,” he said. “So we are affect­ing the sta­tis­ti­cal infor­ma­tion we have and it is very dif­fi­cult to unpick that.”

He also makes clear that, while unde­ni­ably use­ful, his analy­ses can only ever be one tool among many that com­man­ders can draw on dur­ing the deci­sion-mak­ing process:

“Obvi­ous­ly we are only advice,” he said. “At the end of the day it comes down to mil­i­tary judge­ment and we let them come to their own con­clu­sions and just sug­gest pos­si­ble rea­sons behind the trends.”

This arti­cle is tak­en from the Decem­ber 2011/January 2012 edi­tion of Defence Focus — the mag­a­zine for every­one in Defence.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK

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