BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, California – As a teenager, Jamie Christopher would tap instant messages to make plans with friends, and later she became a Facebook regular.
Now a freckle-faced 25 and an intelligence officer here, she is using her social networking skills to hunt insurgents and save American lives in Afghanistan.
Hunched over monitors streaming live video from a drone, Lieutenant Christopher and a team of analysts recently popped in and out of several military chat rooms, reaching out more than 11,200 kilometres to warn Marines about roadside bombs and to track Taliban gunfire.
“2 poss children in fov,” the team flashed as Marines on the ground lined up an air strike, chat lingo for possible innocents within the drone’s field of view. The strike was aborted.
“fire coming from cmpnd,” another message warned, referring to a Taliban compound. The Marines responded by strafing the fighters, killing nine of them.
Christopher and her crew might be fighting on distant keypads instead of ducking bullets, but they head into battle just the same every day. They and thousands of other young Air Force analysts are showing how the Facebook generation’s skills are being exploited – and paying dividends – in America’s wars.
The Marines say the analysts, who are mostly in their early to mid-20s, paved the way for them to roll into Marjah in southern Afghanistan this year with minimal casualties. And as the analysts quickly pass on the latest data from drones and other spy planes, they are creating the fluid connections needed to hunt small groups of fighters and other fleeting targets, military officials say.
But there can be difficulties in operating from so far away.
Late last month, military authorities in Afghanistan released a report chastising a Predator drone crew in an incident involving a helicopter attack that killed 23 civilians in February. Military officials say analysts in Florida who were monitoring the drone’s video feed cautioned two or three times in a chat room that children were in the group, but the drone’s pilot failed to relay those warnings to the ground commander.
For the most part, though, the networking has been so productive that senior commanders are sidestepping some of the traditional military hierarchy and giving the analysts leeway in deciding how to use some spy planes.
“If you want to act quickly, you’ve got to flatten things out and engage at the lowest possible levels,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jason M. Brown, who runs the Air Force intelligence squadron at this base near Sacramento.
The connections have been made possible by the growing fleet of remote-controlled planes, like the Predators and Reapers, which send a steady flow of battlefield video to intelligence centres across the globe.
The Central Intelligence Agency and the military use drones to wage long-distance war against insurgents, with pilots in the United States pressing the missile-firing buttons. But as commanders in Afghanistan mass drones and U-2 spy planes over the hottest areas, the networking technology is expanding a home-front that is increasingly relevant to day-to-day warfare.
And the mechanics are simple in this age of satellite relays. Besides viewing video feeds, the analysts scan still images and enemy conversations. As they log the information into chat rooms, the analysts carry on a running dialogue with drone crews and commanders and intelligence specialists in the field, who receive the information on computers and then radio the most urgent bits to troops on patrol.
Marine intelligence officers say that during the Marjah offensive in February, the analysts managed to stay a step ahead of the advance, sending alerts about some 300 possible roadside bombs.
“To be that tapped into the tactical fight from 7,000 to 8,000 miles away was pretty much unheard of before,” said Gunnery Sergeant Sean N. Smothers, a Marine who was stationed here as a liaison to the analysts.
Smothers saw how easily the distance could melt away when an analyst, peering at images from a U-2, suddenly stuck up his hand and yelled, “Check!” – the signal for a supervisor to verify a spotting.
Smothers said he and two Air Force officers rushed over and confirmed the existence of a roadside bomb. Nearby on a big screen map in the windowless room, they could see a Marine convoy approaching the site.
The group started sending frantic chat messages to their Marine contacts in the area.
As they watched the video feed from a drone, they could see that their messages had been heard: The convoy came to a sudden stop, 150 meters from the bomb.
“To me, this whole operation was like a template for what we should be doing in the future,” Smothers said.
Military officials said they are planning to repeat the operation around Kandahar.
The effort is a major turnaround for the Air Force, which had been criticized for taking too long to adjust to different types of threats since 9/11. During the Cold War, it focused mostly on fixed targets like Soviet bases. But commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq have often complained that it is hard to get help from spy planes before insurgents slipped away.
Marine and Army officers say that began to change as more planes were sent to Afghanistan in early 2009 and the Air Force got better at blending the various types of intelligence into a fuller picture.
And the new analysts, who were practically weaned on computers and interactive video games, have been crucial.
While Air Force analysts were once back-room technicians, the latest generation works in camouflage uniforms, complete with combat boots, on open floors, with four computer monitors on each desk. Large screens on the walls display the feeds from drones, and coffee and Red Bull help them get through the 12-hour shifts.
The Air Force, which has 4,000 analysts at bases like this and is hiring 2,100 more, has sent liaisons to Afghanistan to help understand the priorities on the ground. And some analysts pick up the phone to build closer bonds with soldiers they have never seen.
Andres Morales, a senior airman, said he often talked to a 24-year-old Army lieutenant, helping his battalion find arms caches and track enemy fighters.
But after four of his fellow soldiers were killed, “he didn’t really want to talk about intelligence,” Morales, 27, said. “He wanted to talk, more or less, about how life is in California, and how when he comes back, we’re going to go surfing together.”
Quentin Arnold, 22, another enlisted analyst, said he had been working so closely with the Marines that 15 to 20 had asked to be friends on Facebook. He just collected $1,500 from analysts here to send a care package, including a PlayStation 3 game system and an Xbox 360, to some Marines.
Still, three-quarters of the 350 analysts here have never been to the war zones, so a cultural divide can pop up. Several said they were a bit intimidated when Smothers, 36, who has had five tours in Iraq, strode onto the floor here in February.
At the time, the analysts were blending data from the U-2s and the drones to watch the roads into Marjah and fields where helicopters might land. But as Smothers looked over their shoulders, encouraging them to warn the Marines about even the most tentative threats, the analysts warmed up.
“It was like the shy house cat that wouldn’t talk to you at first and now just won’t stay out of your lap,” he said.
As the operation unfolded, the analysts passed on leads that enabled the Marines to kill at least 15 insurgents planting bombs.
Christopher, who loves to chat on Facebook with her family in Ohio, was so exhausted from overnight shifts during that period that she skipped Facebook and went right to sleep. And sometimes, she said, she ended up dreaming about what she had just seen in the war.