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US Navy looks to achieve spy-fi miracle-dork capability

'OK Brains, where's the secret enemy HQ?'

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The US Office of Naval Research (ONR), one of the Pentagon's many securo-boffin pork outlets, is having a timely look at dealing with the threat from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) - military speak for terrorist bombs.

It might seem a little odd for the navy to be funding anti-terror-bomb knowhow, but not when you think about it. After all, the USS Cole was badly damaged by an IED in 2001; and in fact the US Navy maintains a very large force of bomb-disposal operators (many of whom, curiously, are trained as parachutists. Go figure.)

This large interest in bomb disposal has led the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technology Division to become something of a lead authority in US military EOD-tech, so much so that it usually orders bomb-nobbling robots for the other three services.

Anyway, the ONR boffinry funding types say they have $37m or so to spread around over the next three financial years. They reckon on passing this out in the form of ten lumps of $250k annually. According to our calculations that makes only $7.5m, indicating that the ONR are actually planning to keep nearly all the cash, but they do say that these figures are "more or less."

The research money, according to their recent request for white papers is intended to enhance "detection, neutralisation and mitigation of explosive effects" and "prediction of the occurrence or potential for explosive events."

The ONR would be happy to hear about new ways to detect bombs and bomb-making materials; they'd also like to see methods which could alert them to bombs being planted or moved about, perhaps by "automating the sensor network operation for the purpose of discerning activities". They'd even like tech which could analyse "social networks" and human intelligence so as to "identify and localize bomb makers."

Wouldn't we all like that sort of thing. It calls to mind various spy-fi films or TV serials where the scriptwriters get a bit lazy and need to move things along. (For instance the bit in Mr & Mrs Smith where Brad Pitt finds a blown-up laptop and - merely by looking at it - a good-looking female geek in a junkshop is able to tell him a billing address for the company that bought it.)

Seems like the alpha parachute studs down at US Navy EOD fancy a bit of that too.

"OK Brains, where's the secret terrorist bomb-making facility? / Where's the next attack gonna come? C'mon, we need to have the mastermind in the bag before the next commercial break."

"Well, the computer analysis of the (pick one) previous attacks / millions of hours of CCTV sensor footage / GPS-tagged Flickr-esque intel mashup gives an 87.6 plus-minus 6.73 per cent chance that X marks the spot, guys."

"Ha ha, you dorks and your crazy computers. Come on guys, saddle up, we've got us some terrorist ass to kick."

"Hoo-ah, Master Chief!"

(Muscular black-clad operatives pump fists, cock weapons, charge out to board aircraft from which they will gratuitously parachute into action. Dorky computer guy looks after them admiringly.)

It misses out all that hateful staring at imagery, trawling through rubbish human intel reports that were probably made up to get cash or green cards, listening to hours and hours of intercept ... all that turning up at the bomb site too late with everyone already dead. No need to do all that, the dorks with the computer can do it. We can focus on snipping the blue wire and parachuting and cool stuff like that.

There's nothing wrong with trying for this sort of thing - wouldn't it be great if life was like that! - but in fact there isn't much sense that even the ONR really believes in it. They probably find $37m down the back of the sofa now and then; it's pocket change to them. If they thought this could work there'd be a lot more money floating about.

Also, the language of the ONR call for ideas very closely mirrors that of one issued two years ago, which suggests that things aren't panning out so far.®

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