High-Tech Hunt for Hostages

Two high-profile abduction incidents in Iraq recently--three soldiers near Mahmoudiya last month and five British civilians in Baghdad this week--have focused attention on the U.S.-led Coalition's search and rescue operations. The Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at an air base in Southwest Asia--the nerve center for U.S. Central Command air ops--utilizes full-motion video captured by aerial drones and internal chat rooms showing communications at various command levels to help support the recovery of missing personnel. Although for security reasons he declined to disclose details of ongoing operations, CAOC's Col. Gary Crowder spoke on the phone with NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu about the use of air assets in such efforts. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Tell me about important innovations in your work.
Gary Crowder: First let me explain how personnel recovery efforts are organized. Each service branch is responsible for its own people. But each component does not necessarily have the maximum set of assets, so there could be a joint personnel recovery center for the theater. Our responsibility is to work with all components [using] standardized procedures. Among other things, we use and monitor chat rooms for Internet command and control, with communications open all the time. There might be a dozen or two dozen chat rooms going at various levels [of the command structure.] Here at CAOC we monitor these chat rooms to hopefully see things before people need to ask for help. Our communications tools and methodologies have grown just like the Internet has developed. I have six computers with five networks going at any given time.

What sorts of physical assets are used?
Each service branch has medical evacuation capabilities. However Air Force personnel--and I guess I'm biased here--are especially trained to fight their way into bad-guy land and pick up a pilot, so they're relatively better equipped. In the beginning, there's an immediate need for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance by UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. Marines have the Scan Eagle. The Army has Hunter and Shadow UAVs. The Air Force has Predators, which are flown beyond line of sight; although the craft might take off from places in Iraq, they're directed via satellite from bases in California, Arizona, New Mexico and so on. There are also signals-collection activities [monitoring] radio signals and the beacons used on ground vehicles.

When three U.S. soldiers went missing after an attack on their position not far from Mahmoudiya in May, a Predator was on the scene within 15 minutes of the assault. Is it unusual to be able to respond so quickly?
We generally maintain quite a number of Predators in Iraq at any one time. These are valuable collection assets, and every day--or even every hour--each has a prioritized list of requirements. Personnel-recovery efforts or troops in contact [with the enemy] are top priority. A Predator--which can at nearly 100mph--often gets to the scene very fast. And there could be 15 to 20 or more people on several continents observing what it sees.

The body of one of the missing soldiers has been recovered. What can you tell me about the search for the other two?
In the beginning it's important to respond as rapidly as possible. Later it becomes a more sustained activity, such as what you see now in southern Iraq. This is run by small units relying a lot on HUMINT [human intelligence], very much like cops on a beat in a big city. The air assets used are mainly signals and full-motion video from Predators that can be streamed right down to battalion or brigade ops centers.

When five British citizens were abducted from a Finance Ministry building in Baghdad this week, the kidnappers used as many as 19 vehicles. Could a Predator have recorded this convoy of SUVs?
In general, the likelihood of capturing something like that in real time is low. Full-motion video can "stare" at a site and that staring capacity helps develop knowledge and context. And there might be 20 or 30 Predators over Baghdad. But it's a city of 5 million people; it's huge. Now the effort is more like detectives on a hot case in a big metropolitan area, following lead after lead after lead.