U.S. "Red Dot" spy program hunts bombs in war zones

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. agency that operates spy satellites is helping the military spot homemade bombs before they kill American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A U.S. Marine from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines looks at a barrel which was used for an IED and its powder after it exploded, during a patrol in Marjah district, Helmand province, May 18, 2010. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

The “Red Dot” program started six months ago puts a red dot on a display in Humvee vehicles or command posts to alert military personnel to the location of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which are responsible for many of the U.S. combat casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The National Reconnaissance Office helps detect the bombs with satellites that hone in on the electronic signals from the detonator and that information is combined with imagery, the agency’s director Bruce Carlson said on Thursday.

“It’s incredibly difficult to take a picture someplace and fuse it with signals intelligence that you might have a million different pieces of,” Carlson told a defense writers group.

“To sort that all out and then geolocate it rapidly is a difficult process,” he said. “But in many cases we are able to do that and do it in minutes or less.”

Most IEDs are electronically detonated because they use shaped charges for more precision, Carlson said.

The NRO, which designs, builds and operates U.S. intelligence satellites, works with the Air Force, National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies by positioning the satellites and adding data from drones and aircraft.

IEDs have killed 2,205 and wounded 21,693 Americans in the Iraq war as of June, according to Pentagon statistics. In Afghanistan, IEDs have killed 719 and wounded 7,448 Americans as of June.

“Even though we still have an unacceptable loss from IEDs, we are catching a lot of them before they are detonated.”

Despite false positives, Carlson put the effectiveness of the program’s ability at locating IEDs at about 80 percent.

“We get a lot of false positives but we don’t report a lot of false positives,” he said.

“We try to make sure that we balance between conservatism and driving people crazy. If you just put a red dot every mile, nothing gets done,” Carlson said.

Other devices used by insurgents that the NRO is helping to locate are push-to-talk radios, essentially a transmitter and receiver, which are used extensively in combat zones and are “incredibly difficult to locate.”

But the science has improved exponentially over the last three years to do that, Carlson said.

“There was a time just three or four years ago where if you asked us to geolocate a push-to-talk radio we could probably get you within 3 miles,” he said. “Now ... we measure it in meters and that means it’s targetable.”

Editing by Anthony Boadle and Bill Trott