WASHINGTON: Some Soldiers seem to have a sixth sense at being able to spot improvised explosive devices, researchers found, while others were unable to see the deadly weapons hidden in brush or buried in the middle of a road.
How and why only certain Soldiers could see IEDs was something the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization decided needed to be studied. So for the last 18 months a joint group of researchers has been striving to identify what particular skills, abilities and characteristics are needed to detect IEDs.
The study’s director, Jennifer Murphy, Ph.D., said JIEDDO leadership was hearing stories from the field every now and then that there would be a Soldier who just happened to be exceptional in his ability to identify IEDs, so she and the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences came into the picture.
“Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way we could identify people who have this skill before they deploy because it would save so many lives,” she said, “because right now the way it is, we have to wait for the tour to unfold to see who is good and who’s not.”
She said being able to identify who these sixth-sense Soldiers are in advance would allow the Army to strategically place them in various locations throughout a convoy. It would save time and lives since most IED casualties occur at the beginning and at the end of a Soldier’s tour – at the beginning because Soldiers are learning about their surroundings; at the end because Soldiers start to focus on returning home.
Murphy and her team first started to question the reasons why some Soldiers were particularly good at finding IEDs – what was it that made them good and why?
“If you talk to a Soldier about what he thinks makes him good, he’ll say, ‘I’ve got a spidey sense, a sixth sense and I can just feel something is wrong, I don’t know what it is, but something is out of place, not quite right,'” she said. “Obviously we can’t measure ‘spidey sense,’ but I can tell you that we can determine to a large degree how eyes and certain cognitive functions work together.”
The research team began studying the human factors such as measuring the light that enters the eyes to the information being passed to the brain, added in personality factors, through a variety of tests as well as the personal experiences a Soldier has in the field and what they might have had in earlier life. Things like, did the individual hunt or fish; were they familiar with their terrain? Those are all components of what could possibly make somebody good at finding IEDs, Murphy said.
Next the researchers identified core components, broke them down into basic processes, figured out ways to measure them, then began assessing IED detection ability. They assessed 800 warfighters, including Soldiers, Marines and Airmen who were each given a battery of 15 or 16 tests. Through statistical analysis, the researchers were able to filter out the most important predictors of performing well in finding IEDs.
Tests the warfighters went through included a training-lane criterion measure which provided a performance-based measure of visual IED detection skill. It comprised three factors: physical environment, targets and emplacement locations. Another was DARWARS Ambush, a virtual-reality game-based system that measured the ability to visually detect IEDs on a simulated route-clearance mission.
Vigilance performance was also studied using a computer-based assessment. Also included were Peer- rating tests that Murphy said are used by Fortune 500 companies to determine who should go where in a company structure.
Paper-and-pencil tests measured knowledge, skills and abilities that could be related to IED detection. They covered detection of hidden objects, abstract reasoning skills, knowledge of the IED threat and also personal and military background.
“We’re not just looking for an ability in someone, we’re looking for differences between people because that’s how we identify the ones who are going to be best at this task,” said Murphy. “Most Soldiers have vision that has been corrected, but there are some people who can see above and beyond that. I’m not going to know what ‘above and beyond’ is unless I know how everyone else performs.”
Murphy added that aside from having strong vision, there are skills the researchers were looking at which are inherent in Soldiers who can spot IEDs — certain cognitive capacity characteristics, working memory spatial representations Soldiers keep in their brains. These are things the researchers can measure, but they can’t train.
“Some of the things we’re looking at are skills that actually can be trained,” Murphy said. “Things like the ability to pay attention for a long period of time. We can train vigilance, that’s something research has show we can actually do to improve performance.”
What the team found is that Soldiers who are sensitive to various subtleties often are the same folks who go down the same route every day – such as in a convoy — are able to see and sense that something is missing or is new that was or wasn’t there the day before.
“These are people who notice extraordinary subtle changes in the environment,” Murphy explained. “They can recognize the tread marks of their vehicles and they can see where another vehicle has gone over and down the road that’s not theirs.
“The one thing that you’ll find is that the good route-clearance guys understand this and they’ll set themselves up so they can notice changes,” she said. “In their minds, they’ll proactively clear the area. It’s called desanitization, which is where they are able to get rid of all the trash, all the garbage, all the foliage, virtually everything along the side of the road and in the process they minimize IED hiding places. They’re able to segregate items from the background.”
Presently the research team is compiling its data and will file the results and recommendations to JIEDDO headquarters in the next month.
“What will happen if this all gets implemented is that the folks who have the most potential to be successful at IED detection will get extensively trained, then strategically placed so they can do the most good,” Murphy said.
“Now that we’ve identified the critical skills, such as vigilance, the question will be how do we train so that everybody improves in the detection process,” she said. “That will maximize our capability to detect and that will be a great weapon that insurgents can’t stop.”