Monday, January 21, 2008

Odin's Thunder

Wired has new details about a little-discussed Army outfit "in Iraq": Task Force Odin. In August, 2007, General David Petraeus related an anecdote to reporters:

OK, we've got a UAV overhead. It sees guys planting an IED, now what do you do? OK, well you have to be able to command and control: maybe attack helicopters, maybe ground forces, maybe armed UAVs, maybe F-16s. How do you tie all that together? ...We're really doing it here, in real detail. Three to five times a day that scenario is playing itself out, that one scenario right there.

It turns out this may have been a reference to Task Force Odin. Now it turns out that Odin was "a hundred-man Army unit is using an array of drones, manned surveillance planes, helicopters, and video downlinks" may have killed 2,400 bomb-planters and captured 141 more.

It was an exceedingly deadly small group of people. Yet Odin is remarkable in other ways. First for its composition. Unlike the combat units we are accustomed to imagining it fused a wide variety of skills. Pilots, analysts, technicians, computer specialists. And the other strange thing about it was probably it's location. The reason the words "in Iraq" are enclosed in quotation marks is because it's really hard to say from the reports where Odin "was" in the sense of a physical location. An article by Colonel A. T. Ball describing the workings of the system gives the distinct impression that a large number of people were cooperating in the task of "taking back the roads".

The task of integrating numerous non-standard aircraft, several exploitation systems, and dozens of civilian contractors while performing management and oversight for the contracts in place for TF ODIN is incredibly challenging for a unit deployed in combat and supporting brigade combat teams in the daily fight. This unique task force requires a systems integration officer, contract officer representatives, and government flight representatives in order to ensure that minimum infrastructure and oversight are in place to accept and assimilate all of the program office-provided, contractor-operated, and contractor-maintained material.

The real giveaway to the surmise the parts of Task Force Odin were geographically scattered is this paragraph. (Italics mine)

TF ODIN also faced complex technical issues pertaining to distribution of full-motion video transmission and broadcast throughout theater. In broadcasting full-motion video across the theater, bandwidth is always a limiting factor.

We live in a world where it's the virtual things that can kill you. Ruin your life's savings in a market crash involving derivatives. Fill the mind of a man in your shopping center with ideas culled from obscure Jihadi forums. Guide a bomb controlled by a computer on command of someone thousands of miles a way on an insurgent digging a hole in a road in Iraq. And it's all held together by bandwidth and computing resources.

Bandwidth. It's the invisible highway that ties things together. Communications and switches (and switches are nothing more than specialized computers) mean that maintaining information dominance has now become as vital as maintaining supply lines and retaining control of the seas. Not just figuratively, but literally. And this is why cyberwarfare -- that mysterious sounding, almost unreal branch of warfare -- has become a major branch of warfare. It's been recently reported that "The Air Force is in the process of standing up a Cyber Command, based on the infrastructure of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale AFB, La. Lt. General Robert Elder, commander of the 8th Air Force, will head up the new command. Cyber Command will be evolved into a major 4-star command, Air Force officials have said."

Recently Wired reported that "The nation's top spy, Michael McConnell, thinks the threat of Cyber-Armaggedon is so great that the U.S. government should have unfettered and warrantless access to U.S. citizens' Google search histories, private e-mails and file transfers, in order to spot the cyberterrorists in our midst."

Hyperbole? You be the judge. It's hard to know where the frontline is now. For that matter, where is "where"?


Blogger Pangloss said...

Real networkers don't talk about bandwidth. They talk about latency.

Let's take a highway as a metaphor for a network. Bandwidth is the number of lanes. Latency is the speed limit. Which one most affects how quickly you get home and how useful the highway is?

And the latency of networks is limited by the speed of light (actually, somewhere between .7c and .8c depending on the medium).

1/21/2008 08:43:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

America is pin-pointiong and killing terrorists over very long distancs with cyber-warfare.

Russia is trying to scarify Estonia.

China is (still) trying to hack American military secrets because they can't come up with their own.

I still don't understand why we're supposed to be afraid of either the Russians or the Chinese in comparing those efforts.

1/21/2008 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger xandohsa said...

Real milapp designers talk about bandwith. They don't talk about latency.

Let's take a soda straw as a metaphor for a network. I've got a 1600x1200x4 sensor image that I have to upload ASAP. Takes a long time to suck it thru that straw. I need more straws! I need BANDWIDTH.

1/21/2008 10:09:00 PM  
Blogger The Savage said...

Yes, latency is important. But so is bandwidth--and at this point, latency is generally short enough that it is more affected by bandwidth than by anything else. In other words, if you have a two lane highway with a 70 mph speed limit where it takes you 20 minutes to get on the on-ramp, it's going to be slower for a thirty-mile trip than a 55 mph highway with more lanes and no on-ramp wait.

They're talking about a system that has to handle multiple full-speed video streams interspersed with multiple control streams. communication streams and who knows what else. That needs bandwidth.

1/21/2008 10:20:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

The systems of systems integration approach described is the way we learned to do space launches – and then all but abandoned in the 90’s in search of a way to do it all simple – so that the “right” people could do the job.

The success of Task Force Odin proves once again that the only real constant is Competency. It’s good. The alternative is disasterous.

1/22/2008 05:44:00 AM  
Blogger davod said...

Now wouldn't it have been better if the ratbags thought that Allah was turning against them because so many of their fellow ratbags were being killed off. Now they know it is only the infidel.

These methods will have to be used against other, more sophisticated, enemies. I do not understand why we cannot keep anything confidential.

1/22/2008 07:32:00 AM  
Blogger buck smith said...

Latency vs. bandwidth is really decided in the context of continuous imporvement. If latency is constraining it is improved until it no longer constains. Then you up capacity until bandwidth constrains. At some point the mighty IED is defeated.

1/22/2008 07:58:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Nahncee: The reason we have to be scared is not because we are not better than it cyberwarfare than they are. It is because we won’t do offense and they will.

We are in a neighborhood with strict gun control laws and the criminals have proceeded from knives to handguns to AK-47’s and are starting to use .50 cal machine guns. Our response has been thicker and thicker bullet proof vests – and apparently to pay off the gangs to prevent getting shot.

A few years back a teenager in Germany released a worm that caused enormous problems worldwide. As near as I can tell when they caught him he got a stern “Don’t ever do that again.” The little piece of crap should have been put in jail for at least 10 years and after he got out been subject to private and public lawsuits that would ensure he never had two Euros to rub together for the rest of his life.

Shortly after the 9/11/01 attacks the Red Worm – traced to Red Chinese hackers – caused huge problems – and I am personally convinced that its timing was not a coincidence. I spent a whole weekend - unpaid - fixing our computers at work to get rid of that. By all rights, the place where those hackers live should be a huge smoking hole in the ground. Instead, they probably got an award for that act of terrorism.

We have a Cyber version of a 911 attack every day - probably every second - and the approach has been as pacifist as could be imagined.

1/22/2008 08:31:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

I do not understand why we cannot keep anything confidential.

Because there's an equally important imperative to, at least occasionally, let the taxpayer who's paying for everything know that the good guys are winning.

1/22/2008 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger Kamen said...

I do not understand why we cannot keep anything confidential.

How do you know that we aren't?

Regarding bandwidth vs. latency:
1. Bandwidth directly affects resolution and fidelity. In order to make good decisions, a commander needs reasonable fidelity in his sensors.
2. Latency is important in real-time control (as in "releasing a weapon"), however, what's even more important is that the latency be deterministically bounded, e.g. that the real-time control system guarantees that the weapon will be released within, say, 500 milliseconds of pulling the trigger. Real-time operating systems often sacrifice raw speed for determinism. You can engineer safety around a 500 ms deterministic latency. It is much harder to engineer safety around a non-deterministic latency, which is 100 ms 90% of the time, but may be as high as 5 seconds or more. The IP protocol is a "best-effort" protocol. It makes absolutely no guarantees regarding when or even whether a message arrives at the destination.

1/22/2008 09:24:00 AM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

About soda straws --- and I don't think I'm making any technical information here to our Jihadist enemies --- I have often observed that many situations can be compared to the problem of trying to suck a really thick milk shake through a straw... The harder you suck, the more nothing comes.

Actually, it is a useful metaphor. Bandwidth and Latency are beautiful terms and represent great insight by the people studying the problem. But there are still more factors... "the thickness of the milkshake" might be analogous to the complexity of the database being considered.

I imagine the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan: Camera-equipped UAVs examining the roads, each one requiring maybe a team to sit studying the images. F-16s circling in patterns (It's still combat air patrol, isn't it?) with aging tankers keeping them on station, and many tons of virgin ground coffee with government issue artificial creamer substitute and non-Cuban cane sugar packets in truck convoys relentlessly careering around the landscape, maintaining the alertness of the scores of observers, programmers, UAV pilots, and coordinating staff officers.

In a physical situation, viscosity, fluid dynamics, and friction in relation to the cross-section of the straws will point to an ideal combination of straw diameter & numbers. Seems like there are similar analogous factors in data analysis, transmission, filtering, and decision making. I am thunderstruck that we have people that can assemble an ad-hoc group capable of these tasks, and I am thankful for the people we have in the military to do these.

1/22/2008 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger peterike said...

Wretchard notes: "switches are nothing more than specialized computers."

True enough. And isn't it more than a tad worrisome that the great majority of them, the very heart of the internet and all telecommunications, are now manufactured in China? And much of the software that runs them is written in India?

I recall years ago when I worked at Lucent (in many ways a New Jersey crime family running a telecom outfitter), they couldn't ship work to India fast enough. And this was software that ran the telephone systems in the US. As easy as it is to compromise an insider in the US, how much easier to do so in India?

The fact that we have let critical communications infrastructure equipment manufacturing be almost entirely outsourced is criminal, and a huge failure of thought by the free-market crowd. But then, those involved care only about the strike price of their millions of stock options, and the rest be damned.

What if China just tells us one day they are no longer going to ship us any more gear or replacement parts? What about backdoors being written into code? We will probably only know the mischief done here when it's too late.

1/22/2008 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger dima said...

"The nation's top spy, Michael McConnell, thinks the threat of Cyber-Armaggedon is so great that the U.S. government should have unfettered and warrantless access to U.S. citizens' Google search histories, private e-mails and file transfers, in order to spot the cyberterrorists in our midst."

This is laughable. Any hacker group engineering this mythical Armageddon would have no problem bypassing this sort of control. Seriously, do these "spys" even realize that other search engines exist.. and they are outside US AND they are optimized to search for terms in the languages of the people that are our enemies.. /boggle

1/22/2008 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

The underlying principle to defending any network -- and by implication this must apply to the Internet -- is for the defender to understand the "normal" profile of the system. This is derived by statistical analysis. Major activities can be assigned 'fingerprints' corresponding to their characteristics. Of course, these fingerprints change over time, but there are techniques for taking this into account.

Unless the "normal" behavior of the system is understood to some degree, malicious perturbations cannot be readily detected, nor forensically stored for subsequent analysis.

Sometimes I wonder which agency or organization can perform at least a cursory monitoring of the major systems to the point it can at least realize that something unusual may be happening.

1/22/2008 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Kirk Parker said...


"criminals ... are starting to use .50 cal machine guns. "

Really? In what area? Got any links to news reports about this?

1/22/2008 09:59:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

Kirk Parker:

I was speaking metaphorically.

We were discussing Cyber Warfare, gangs with Cyber Big Guns on the Internet, not gangs with guns on the street.

1/23/2008 09:05:00 AM  
Blogger Tintin said...

TF Odin is headquartered at COB Speicher near Tikrit, where COL Ball's brigade was based last year.

6/22/2008 09:08:00 AM  

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