Bayesian battlefield

According to court papers referenced in this VOA report, U.S. sniper teams in Iraq are using an interesting tactic:

[A] so-called baiting program developed at the Pentagon by the Asymmetrical Warfare Group….the baiting was described as putting items, including plastic explosives, ammunition and detonation cords on the battlefield then killing suspected insurgents who picked up the objects.

These claims are being made by men accused of murder, so bear that in mind. If true, however, this technique would seem very likely to suffer from a large number of false positives. Assuming the process was designed by someone intelligent, that either means they do not care about false positives, or that (contrary to my prior belief as asserted above) the likelihood of a curious true bad guy happening by is so large that the false positive rate is tolerably low.
Scary either way, I’d say.

12 thoughts on “Bayesian battlefield

  1. Based on all the evidence I’ve seen so far from the behaviour of American contractors and military in Iraq, I would hazard that the “do not care about false positives” option is the substantially more likely option. There seems to be a general move to dehumanising the perception of the Iraqi population among US personnel there, which is a usually a precursor to bypassing the Kantian Imperative.

  2. As a Marine Sniper I can tell you 100% that Marine Snipers assess their target before taking a shot. There are rules of engagement and these rules are followed. Certainly there are outliers but that is an unfortunate part of the battlefield.
    American Army, Navy, and Marine Snipers are some of the best in the world. The are trained to have the presence of mind to evaluate a target. Unless the position is being specifically engaged there is more than one person assessing the target, providing information and opinions, and then, if necessary, engaging the target.
    Diversions and distractions are a common tactic in war. It is used to gain an advantage over the enemy. It is being used by both sides in this battle as it has throughout history. This is not new, nor will it stop.
    Go forth and do good things,
    Cutaway

  3. @Nicko
    I usually do not respond in this manner, but as this IS Emergent Chaos…..
    [Editors note: This is Emergent Chaos, and we have a no personal attacks policy for the comments, and this one was over that line. As this is emergent chaos, I've cut the comment. Adam]

  4. For civilians it is very tough to sort out the scare stories in the press. For military it is still tough because of poor reporting, but better, because at least we can read between the lines and recall the training.
    As an ex-soldier, I can tell you that there is no hard line, only training, laws, circumstances and luck. What Cutaway writes is correct, but history is replete with “the best” crossing the line. We’ve plenty of evidence that the line was crossed in Iraq, as in all other wars. Is it being crossed here? We do not know.
    For security guys, it is possibly easiest to think in terms of the Iraqi insurgent facing the tactic. Can you think of a way around it? Here’s one: send kids to pick up stuff. If the kid gets shot by the sniper, that helps in one way. If the kid carries off the goods, that helps in another way.
    The question then is whether the tactic works well in the face of an enemy that can respond?

  5. Sir (@Admin),
    I understand and respect your decision to remove my comment. But I guess you feel calling the American Service men and women in Iraq “murders” is not a personal attack (he did not use that word but that is what is statement indicates). Perhaps I should have defended them in a better way, but I tend to reserve personally directed cuss words for the proper moment and that definitely fit the bill in my book. Perhaps this is the better approach.
    The rest of the comment that was also cut out had to do with the fact that these men and women are the cream of the American crop. They are the future of our country and they are doing the best they can in a very tough situation. They do not kill indiscriminately. In the instances that they do we are one of the very few countries who hold them personally responsible for their actions.
    Iraq is not a video game (even if the initial battle chaos was referred to as such a Marine Sergeant). These are people who make tough decisions everyday. They understand the permanence of their actions as they face it when they send their friends home in a box or race a wounded child to the aid station under fire. And they understand that they have to be aggressive to protect themselves and their brothers and sisters in arms. They are warriors, they are our warriors, and they are good at what they do.
    In order to change this policy, here is what I propose to Nicko and yourself. Enlist. As you are probably both college graduates you can become officers in the branch of your choice (I recommend the USMC). This is perfect as you will directly affect policy and tactics. You will help shape and guide the future of American and its defenders.
    Until then I would be a little more considerate of the accusations you make towards these people. Perhaps your focus (if you choose not to join) is better placed on the politicians. But, when it comes to the battlefield, unless you are sitting in the same positions as the sniper, do not judge their tactics and reactions.
    I would like to take this opportunity to refer you to a great resource for well reported coverage of the Iragi War. If you have questions about this and other tactics, I am sure that Michael Yon will be more than happen to shed some light on the subject.
    Thank you very much and I will attempt to be more considerate in the future.
    Go forth and do good things,
    Cutaway

  6. Please keep in mind that those accused of such behavior are NOT AMERICAN SOLDIERS. they are mercenaries hired by a private contractor who are not under the control of either our government or the Iraqi government.

  7. @Beri:
    I do not know what you mean be “such behavior”, but the claim about baiting, as reported by VOA, is quite specifically directed against US soldiers.
    Like I said, consider the source — soldiers accused of murder. However, IF the baiting does happen, then it says alot about the threat environment, for reasons I made clear.
    @Cutaway – FWIW, I’d have left more of your comment in.

  8. @Cutaway
    I’m very sorry if my comment read as an attack on all soldiers; this was certainly not my intention at all. My comment was directed at those who would instigate a baiting tactic such as the described above, which is a tactic I would never expect from the vast majority of the military personal (US or otherwise).
    Over the last four years there have been repeated, though isolated, incidents of US personnel stepping well over the line. As Ian G point out, this is not something specific to Iraq; history is indeed replete with these incidents.
    Based on the evidence, a tactic of firing on anyone who picks up munitions bait is more likely ascribable to the same mentality that gave us Abu Ghraib or Blackwater’s shooting of civilians than to a belief that the false positive rate is genuinely low. This is not at all to say that more than a tiny faction of the soldiers in Iraq would take up such a tactic, only that if they do take up such a tactic it seems more likely to come from a fringe “don’t care” mentality than a genuine belief that all scavengers are insurgents.
    Again, I’m sorry if my comment was open to misinterpretation. The vast majority of the personnel in Iraq do a splendid job given their circumstances.

  9. @Nicko,
    Thank you. From my side, the language I choose was to provide emphasis.
    We can argue tactics all day. What works on one battlefield would not work on the other. Persons who do not identify and confirm their targets are a problem. Fortunately we have troops , NCOs, and officers who police themselves. When those fail we have press as well (I just wish the editors would permit a more balanced story.)
    I wish you well, Nicko, and hope we can positively influence each other in the future.
    Cutaway

  10. Cutaway,
    I think your new response is leading to a much better discussion. Thank you for reposting and expanding.
    As to the question of enlisting, I don’t think the tactical commanders are the problem. I think there are problems at the top, from politicians who didn’t think through their actions to generals who didn’t clearly anticipate and communicate what could go wrong. I believe that the issues are strategic, and don’t blame the people on the ground for making poor tactical choices now and then–we can expect that some of them will make bad choices despite all the training and support we give them, when we put them in a bad enough situation.
    Brilliant tactical implementation or in-theatre activity might save some of the situation, but absent strategy there are limits.

Comments are closed.