Crowd reSource

by wjw on May 1, 2012

You can all go to war now.  You don’t even have to be of military age.  All you need is a Internet connection, and if you’re reading this, you’ve already got one of those.

Just pick what side you want to be on, figure out what you have to contribute, and get busy.

Technology Review recently documented several of the people who contributed to last year’s Libyan revolution.

. . . It’s a mid-April night in 2011, and Twawa’s men are frightened. Lightly armed and hidden only by trees, they are a stone’s throw from one of four Grad 122-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers laying down a barrage on Yefren, their besieged hometown. These weapons can fire up to 40 unguided rockets in 20 seconds. Each round carries a high-­explosive fragmentation warhead weighing 40 pounds. They urgently need to know how to deal with this, or they will have to pull back. Twawa’s cell phone rings.

Two friends are on the line, via a Skype conference call. Nureddin Ashammakhi is in Finland, where he heads a research team developing biomaterials technology, and Khalid Hatashe, a medical doctor, is in the United Kingdom. The Qaddafi regime trained Hatashe on Grads during his compulsory military service. He explains that Twawa’s katiba—brigade—is well short of the Grad’s minimum range: at this distance, any rockets fired would shoot past them. Hatashe adds that the launcher can be triggered from several hundred feet away using an electric cable, so the enemy may not be in or near the launch vehicle. Twawa’s men successfully attack the Grad—all because two civilians briefed their leader, over Skype, in a battlefield a continent away.

I posted some time back about how glory-seeking French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy helped jumpstart the NATO intervention in Libya.  He was only the most famous of those who contributed their time and effort to the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi.

A French naval officer mobilized 250 Libyans on the ground to provide intelligence.  A Lebanese-American radio producer arranged for two-way satellite feed for the rebels, and contributed value information on first aid,  An Egyptian intelligence officer contributed accurate information on the deployment of loyalist forces.  A Denver surgeon coordinated with NATO so that they wouldn’t accidentally bomb resupply convoys to Misrata.  A Georgia high school student provided vital information about weapons, land mines, disarming ordnance, and provided detailed medical handbooks.

Google Earth and iPhone compasses provided information about where the rebels’ shells and rockets were landing.

A single mom in Paris created a television channel showing videos and interviews from the rebel side, all in collaboration with a Libyan man who kludged together a satellite uplink.

The Libyan man, “Mo” Nabbous, was the one who died, shot by a sniper while broadcasting.

Gathering open-source intelligence is now ridiculously easy; feeding the stuff to the people who need it can be more difficult, but with 70% of the developing world on cell networks, it’s getting easier all the time.

The downside of all this technology is that wars are going to be a lot easier to start.  A single person with a 3D printer can create his own drone armada.  It’s possible to print weaponry as well, though I don’t know if anyone’s yet done it.  Open-source intelligence from Google Earth and other resources can lay out your route to the target, and tell you how well your bombs did.

Yes, you can all go to war now.  The question is: do you want to?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Urban May 1, 2012 at 8:56 am

There are people who have printed gun parts, so far I only think plastic like magazines. I don’t think you can with something that needs to be really hard, like the barrel, but if you can get lots of small parts ready made it will simplify manufacture a lot. And of course you can’t print cordite and primer, so that’s still a limitation.
So soon there will be another class of items which you can’t bring when travelling by airline: Stuff that can make stuff.

Just had a thought: If you can print cheaply, there are lots of things which need not be very hard as they can be disposable/recyclable. So when 3D printing becomes common, maybe it’s not going to be primarily used to re-create objects we already have but completely new designs which would be impractical with traditional manufacturing methods.

James May 1, 2012 at 8:58 am

> Gathering open-source intelligence is now ridiculously easy;


One project that I’ve recently become aware of:

Kind of neat to see the full biographies, home towns, etc. of the people building an NSA/CIA data center for domesting spying exposed on the web.

John Appel May 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm

“Open-source intelligence from Google Earth and other resources can lay out your route to the target, and tell you how well your bombs did.”

Um, not really. Permit me to reach back about 30 (gulp) years and put my Cavalry Scout hat on.

There is a mythology about satellite and aerial reconnaissance, promoting the view that it gives some sort of perfect visualization of the battlefield. Now, not to completely write off the value of this kind of intelligence – and it can be very valuable indeed – the reality is that what one sees from the air and what one finds on the ground can be very different things. Strictly in the terrain department, the view from the air won’t usually tell you about the soft, sodden ground that won’t support the weight of your vehicles, nor about the 15-foot high sheer rock wall that is under tree cover, nor any of the other pitfalls I encountered when working from intel provided by air or satellite.

It’s also true that virtually every bomb damage assessment from 1915 on that didn’t feature the target ceasing to exist (say, the bridge clearly is gone, or fallen into the river) has dramatically overstated the actual effect of the bombing. There’s a fair bit of literature around about the findings after-the-fact in WWII, when Allied officers actually set foot in the targets of some of the strategic bombing raids. A similar burst occurred in 1991-92, when people who’d actually surveyed some of the strategic targets hit during the air campaign.

Is this kind of stuff valuable? Of course. Is it going to change the nature of warfare, especially insurgency and counter-insurgency? Damn straight. But there’s a lot more to conducting successful operations at every level above a single individual acting alone than just being able to have a map and guns.

(Soap box rant for another day: one reason so many wars in developing nations, and even some second-tier ones, go on for so long is that most of the people fighting them don’t have a freakin’ clue about what they’re doing.)

wjw May 2, 2012 at 5:53 am

John, that’s cool. And of course you’re right.

But I wonder how things will change once you get real-time returns from your drone swarm.

TRX May 2, 2012 at 9:44 am

> A single person with a 3D printer can create his own drone armada. It’s possible
> to print weaponry as well, though I don’t know if anyone’s yet done it.

There’s what’s real now, and there’s what the 3d enthusiasts believe is coming Real Soon Now, I Promise, Cross My Heart.

For fiction it doesn’t matter. For the real world, you can build a small drone more easily and cheaper using plain old foam and balsa. And you’re not going to be printing useable motors or electronics to go into your drone, no matter how you make the airframe.

As for weaponry… interpreting “weapon” as “small arms”… unless someone has come up with some processes that aren’t showing up through Google, you still need conventional machine tools to do finishing and heat treating, at which point the question is, “why bother?”

John Appel May 2, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Walter – real-time reports from drone swarms will definitely make a difference. Especially if they can do things like identify the fire ant nests covering the path you have been planning to low-crawl along.

All these things will help the soldier on the ground, as long as they remain easy to carry, easy to maintain and easy to operate. They can help narrow the gap between the trained and untrained. This will no doubt make a difference in some conflicts. In others, perhaps not so much. It’s also going to make countering asymmetric warfare much more difficult.

Bruce Arthurs May 2, 2012 at 11:15 pm

You don’t need 3-D printer techology to make weapons. There’s always the old-fashioned way to make weapon parts, with lathes and drills and milling machines.

The company I’m working for now does a lot of metalworking in the production of sports equipment. The main production equipment is large and costs thousands or tens of thousands per machine. But the R&D section has smaller versions for the production of prototypes, and they essentially have a complete machine shop in a space about the size of an RV. Give them accurate blueprints and appropriate stock material, and they could probably produce any weapons parts you needed.

(Not including parts like wiring, circuit boards, and the actual explosive material, etc. But 3-D printers can’t produce those either.)

Urban May 21, 2012 at 4:10 am
Urban May 21, 2012 at 4:12 am

Although supposed to be covert, the strike was reported as a “missile strike on car in Wadi Hadhramaut” within minutes. Furthermore, a series of tweets published in the day prior to the strike, about drone suspiciously circling in the area during daylight (as opposed to the usual night activity), gave a hint that could have spoiled the subsequent deadly attack.

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