Smartphones on the Ground: Ex-Green Berets Bring Tech to Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

The U.S. military is hampered by antiquated technologies that leave units all but deaf and blind as they try to hunt down insurgents and win hearts and minds. A team of former Special Forces officers is now building the tools to fix that.

U.S. Army in Afghanistan

In the battles to defeat insurgents—and win hearts and minds—in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most powerful weapon troops often need is not brawn. It’s information. Information about whether a certain village leader can be trusted or not. Information about whether there have been attacks recently on the road you’re about to travel down. Information about who’s likely to lie to you and who’s likely to tell the truth.

And yet, many of the units tasked with building relationships in the areas in which they’re operating--to bring stability and ferret out enemy fighters--are hobbled by antiquated intelligence systems incapable of serving up the information those units need as quickly and effectively as they require. That’s why a team of ex-Green Berets founded Aptus Technologies. They’re now building the tools they wish they’d had--tools that a U.S. Army colonel tasked with exploring new communication and information devices for the military says could one day turbo-charge troops’ ability to complete their missions, and save the lives of U.S. soldiers in the process.

Aptus’ core offering is the Threat Act Program, or TAP, a data-mining tool that quickly serves up the relevant information a unit needs.

For example, let’s say a unit has gone to meet with a group of village leaders about a project to shore up the area’s infrastructure. A new man shows up at the meeting, one the unit has never met before. A village leader tells the unit that the new man is critical to the project. Now the unit has to decide: Can they trust the man, or is he potentially a spy? Should he be included in the discussions or sent away? Do they task him with certain parts of the project? Do they give him money to get started?

Currently, such a unit would have no way of immediately tapping into any intelligence the military might already have on the man. Instead, they would have to wait until they returned to base to log into military computers. Then they would have to perform old-school queries on a slew of databases, queries that might return hundreds of reports in which the man’s name was mentioned. The unit would then have to sort through those reports one by one, searching for the relevant information on him. The most recent reports might not even appear in the results, because of the procedures the military follows to process and catalog new information.

In other words, it would be a long, arduous slog through mountains of possibly outdated information before the unit could make an assessment of whether the man might be a valuable addition to the project--or a potential threat. And in the meantime, days if not weeks that could have been spent advancing the military’s goals would have been lost.

TAP, on the other hand, can rapidly locate the relevant reports within a set of databases and, using artificial intelligence technologies, quickly sort through reams of information to serve up the relevant details in easy-to-understand visualizations. Because it can interpret unstructured information, it doesn’t have to wait for intelligence analysts to catalog new reports, but instead can scour the most recent ones on its own and identify relevant bits. And best of all, it can be accessed through handheld devices, like smartphones, that units can carry with them into the field. With a system like this, the unit in that meeting could quickly and easily figure out who the new man was and make an immediate decision about whether to include him in the project.

Aptus

“The old database systems were built around an old model of reporting, and of processing and cataloging reports,” Aptus co-founder and former Army Special Forces captain David Staffel tells Fast Company. “The reality in the field is that we need understand what our data is telling us right now. We don’t have time to be looking through a lot of reports and querying big databases to figure out what’s important to us.”

TAP has added benefits that similarly aren’t possible under the current system. It enables different teams to communicate with each other in real time. If the unit meeting in that first village learned something that could be valuable to another unit operating in a neighboring village, they could enter that into TAP and have it immediately surface to the second unit.

Meanwhile, intelligence analysts back at the unit’s headquarters can be monitoring what the various teams are learning and send them real-time instructions about further intelligence to gather, based on the incoming reports. As unbelievable as it might sound in an era when those of us back in the States have powerful smartphones sitting in our pockets 24/7, that kind of real-time information sharing and retrieval simply isn’t available to the units trying to work on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“TAP is changing the nature of the intelligence-to-operations cycle,” says Ben Collins, another Aptus co-founder and former Special Forces officer who served with Staffel. “In the past, it’s been a very symmetrical process: Intelligence is collected [by units in the field] and then pushed up to higher headquarters. Analysis is done up there, and it’s pushed back down to the unit level.”

“In the environment we’re in right now,” Collins tells Fast Company, “we need to have something that is operating in an asymmetrical organization. [TAP] is allowing us to collect better intelligence by having the analytical tools in our hands, so that analysis is being done real-time.”

The military seems to agree. The Army is currently examining how smartphones could be distributed to soldiers in the field. They’ve tested TAP, and they are in the process of bringing it into the fold. Col. Marisa Tanner, who is leading the Army’s investigation of smartphone utilities, says applications like TAP that bring intelligence down to the individual soldier are “small but critical capabilities” that are going to produce “a big jump in modernizing the Army.”

“The more we enable our soldiers to have situational awareness and early warnings about threats,” she tells Fast Company, “the better we can protect that soldier, the village chiefs, and the villages they’re trying to secure.”

[Images: Soldiers in Afghanistan: Flickr user The U.S. Army. Screenshots: Aptus Technologies.]

E.B. Boyd's coordinates: Twitter, email.

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