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WolfPack 102: Sensors


This sensor was hidden in the middle of an Afghan village on 31 July 2011. It was positioned to spy over a dirt road intersection about 10-20 meters away. US casualties were occurring in this village. Six hours before this photograph was taken, perhaps a couple of hundred meters away, Brice Scott was shot and killed in a firefight. Weeks after this sensor was emplaced, on 11 September 2011, we were back in the village when an IED strike occurred no more than 20 meters away from the sensor location.

28 November 2012

War revolves around sensing.  But despite our technology, nothing replaces human senses, experience, and intuition.

The U.S. military historically fights enemies on their home field.  Many of our enemies are subsistence farmers.  The greatest optic that they possess will be scratched-up non-prescription eyeglasses that are sold beside shoes in the market.  Most will have no windows in their homes.  These farmers are rugged and tuned-in to their environments.

Movement that is slow for us is fast to them.  Villagers make terrible drivers. They do not have the time-versus-distance thing worked out, making them dangerous in cities.

img002-1000Afghan police accident, Panjwai, 2011

We buy vehicles for Afghan security forces, which they constantly wreck.  It is a bloodbath.

Afghan villagers are primitive, but they are clever.  On the macro-level, they cannot build a road or a bridge.  Yet within their thimbles of existence, they are not to be trifled with, unless we decide to bring full war, in which case they would be craters.  We hobble ourselves, waging limited war, creating the conditions that permit them to beat us, like mosquitoes tracking, tormenting, and overwhelming a blundering and clumsy beast.

On the scale of the mosquito, where we choose to meet our enemies, feud and conflict is woven into their many cultures.  Like mosquitoes, they do not need cars or electricity or hospitals to survive.  Afghans depend on their bio-webs.

Note: When I coined the term “bio-web,” a check revealed vague usage relating to biological entities integrated with computer networks. The term bio-web in these dispatches refers specifically to the interaction of organisms in their natural state, including men and their environment.

img003-1000Thermal sensor, rangefinder, camera and more. Despite all of our gadgets, the enemy enjoys bio-web dominance in Afghanistan.

When it comes to detecting human movements, electronics can be lifesaving and decisive, yet an amazing volume of biological communication occurs in the bio-web.  Researchers have learned that trees conduct sophisticated exchanges with one another.  Mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers have more tracking complexity stuffed into their bodies than do F-22s.  A biology teacher once taught me that all living things eat, breathe, and give off waste.  They also do one more thing: they sense.

Organisms have been tried as sensors for electronic devices.  During the Vietnam War, there was great difficulty sensing beneath the jungle canopy, where Americans employed ground sensors to detect the enemy on trails.  Some devices were airdropped, but early models could not discriminate between man and beast.

Mexican bedbugs specialize in human meals.  They go wild from afar when they sense humans.  One effort to overcome the sensing problem saw engineers attaching bedbugs to phonograph needles.  The program was not a success, but it was nevertheless a clever attempt to tap directly into the bio-web.

Similarly, there is a poorly charted field of research using what engineers call biosensors.  These include electro-antennogram research to employ insect antennas to sense everything from explosives to man.  This has nothing to do with the biosensors, bio-web, or tracking topics discussed here.

img004-1000There were many firefights in this village. Brice Scott was shot and killed just a few hundred meters away from this family compound. Besides the bombs and the firefights, and the MEDEVAC flying past, there is a major clue in this photograph that we are in enemy territory. Can you spot it?

In Afghan villages, noises that are soft to us are loud for farmers.  Smells that we will not notice – such as laundry soap – are a punch in the nose for villagers.  Some of our guys call Afghans “stinkies,” and Afghans say similar things about us.

Their smell is feral.  Ours is a corporate fireworks of soaps, skin products, insect repellants, weapon lubricants, and the foods that we eat.  Our smell is strong.  Hunters wash their clothes several times without soap, and sun-dry them to avoid odors.  Some of our Special Forces did this during the Vietnam war, but today nobody seems to pay attention to the powerful odor trails that we leave.

img005-1000That boot should tingle the survival antenna. The only Afghans in Zhari district that wear boots or athletic shoes are the enemy. All of the firefights, with no reports of foreigners, indicate that the smiling locals are shooting at us, and this compound had a worn out boot.

In Afghanistan, military laundry is done corporately on the bases.  The troops hand in their laundry bags to workers from the Philippines, from Nepal or from Africa, and they wash it and dry it, including dryer sheets.  These workers all smell different.  In Thailand, the Thai say that many foreigners stink, and they can actually smell us.  (The Thai usually only tell you this if you are a good friend, and if the subject comes up.)

After you have been away from soldiers, and “normal” smells (for us), the collective odor of soldiers is striking.  It is important to keep in mind that you will often not be tracking just one quarry, but many, and the same applies for the enemy.  The smallest elements that we use will consist of two soldiers, but normally it will be at least a dozen.  So if you can track one soldier, imagine how easy it can be to track ten or twenty men. Their collective smell can be significant, and in some environments it will linger.  I can often smell an Arab, for example. Many of them use sandalwood, which is easy to smell.

Soldiers who dip snuff tobacco leave scent trails and spit trails, while smokers are an olfactory signal flare.  Smokers might as well walk and toss stink bombs.  Only one soldier needs to be detected to compromise a unit.  (Speaking of which, our confounded press machine no longer allows embedded writers to wear camouflage when out with combat units. During my last embed, I ignored this rule.  Who thinks up stuff like this?  Nobody with combat experience would come up with that nonsense.)

Deep inside, we are all hunters and trackers.  It is no exaggeration that a unit can be smelled from hundreds of meters away, even when you can see or hear no other trace.  People who live in the bush say that they can smell others from miles away, depending on variables such as weather and terrain.  Your nose will work better on a dark night.  I am not a psychologist, so will not venture to speculate why.  From the standpoint of physics, scents settle on a cool night.

One time in India, I was walking in the jungle searching for cannibals and I smelled elephants.  I thought that they were close, but I was near a stream, so it is possible that their scent was flowing down the stream.  Smells can flow like water, and so cool parts of the jungle can be good places to pick up scent trails.

Dog handlers learn these things, so they are great resources. Handlers do not like to work their dogs on hot days when smells float upwards, and the puppy gets tired and goes to sleep.  I was on a mission during a hot day in Afghanistan and a dog walked right by a bomb.  An EOD specialist spotted it after the dog missed it.  This happens a lot.  If there is a choice between ten trained dogs or one EOD specialist, I would take the EOD sergeant.  Dogs are fantastic at times, but only a nut would choose a dog over a trained EOD expert for spotting bombs.

(Note: One way to lose a dog team is to physically wear out the handler and the dog.  Go fast and far and they get worn out and stop. Or ambush the team and shoot the handler. Do not waste ammo on the dog. Without the handler, the dog is useless.  After one British handler was killed in Afghanistan for example, his dog died, apparently of a broken heart.  It is not you against the dog, but you against the handler.  The dog is his sensor pod.)

When I have been away from women for extended periods, the first whiff of a female crackles the senses.  It hits like a wave.  It is more than a smell.  You smell a stinky man, but you sense a woman.  Her presence ripples through the skin. You look around, and there she is.

Not to digress, but this creates issues downrange where men can go months without seeing a woman, and a lot of these men are in their twenties and they see female forms when looking at trees.  There is no doubt that if I have not seen a woman in a couple of months, I can sense her presence in a jungle.  But on a day-to-day basis, where you might encounter hundreds of women, this sense is dulled.

In some areas of the world, villagers can smell snakes, or detect their presence by the cries of birds.   One of my Collie dogs in Florida was a snake detector.  She had a special bark for “Snake! Snake! Snake!”  My grandfather grew up as a swamp boy in southern Georgia.  He could smell rattlers, and he was a terrible driver.

Floridians often know when a cat or a serpent is slipping by, from the sound made by a squawking Blue Jay.  When my Collie heard the Blue Jay’s warning, she would run to see.  When there was a snake, she would bark for me to come.  So the Blue Jay (who may have been tipped by some other creature) would scream a warning, then my dog would run to confirm, and she only barked for me when there really was a snake.  All of this happened in ten seconds.  Bio-web.

Some birds, such as Honeyguides, make a living by guiding people to honey.  The bio-webs are thick with interwoven triggers. This is all part of tracking.

Who has the sensor advantage in Afghanistan?  Circumstance is key, but on the whole, for mature wars such as Afghanistan, the sensor advantage belongs to local villagers and their bio-web, which includes clusters of villages.

We use watches to tell time.  They use calendars.  They have watched us for more than ten years.  We send young soldiers to Afghanistan who have hardly traveled beyond their home county just a year before.  Some of our young soldiers might have six months of training. The enemy has a dozen years of war experience.  The enemy knows our habits, our smells, and our sounds, and we use statistics to try to predict theirs.

We call these statistics “tracking,” and to be sure, this is a form of new-school tracking that can be melded with the old-school, making a meta-school that is far deadlier than either.  Our statistics apparatus only works in mature wars that have taken on the tone of police work, where we fight over the same area for a long period and thus have time to collect data.  When you step into a new battle space, such statistics do not exist.

Statistics are often derived postmortem.  In the case of quick wars, or wars on the march, the sorts of statistics that we use to predict enemy actions in Afghanistan are useless.

(Stay tuned for Wolf Pack 103)

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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