Statistical firepower in Helmand

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

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

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.

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.

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.