Almost immediately following the swift 2003 defeat of Saddam’s forces in Iraq, US and Coalition Forces were confronted with an adversary that brought an onslaught of overwhelming and indiscriminate violence never anticipated by even the sharpest military strategists.  Quickly becoming the number one killer of military personnel, the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) forever changed the way we would wage war.

Let me explain: The ability to shoot, move and communicate more effectively than our enemies has always given US conventional and Special Operations Forces a significant advantage when conducting combat operations.  The introduction of sophisticated and concealed IED emplacements on the modern battlefield immediately hampered the ability to “move” causing imbalance to the otherwise superior balanced trifecta of superior skillsets.

Whether on foot or mounted in vehicles, US Forces were now saddled with deadly uncertainty on every footstep taken or road traveled.  An otherwise inferior enemy now held the upper hand essentially forcing the good guys to shoot and communicate while “moving” deliberately labored on a figurative invisible balance beam for fear of the unknown terrain.


While the deployment and utilization of more advanced armored vehicles would eventually reduce the number of fatalities to friendly forces, it would not necessarily discourage the number of insurgent IED emplacements happening almost hourly against the same friendly forces in known areas of operation (AO).  Explosive Ordinance Disposal Units and Route Clearance Teams worked intensely to clear the highways and streets of IEDs but they were simply undermanned and overwhelmed.

The Department of Defense quickly realized if they wanted to reduce the number of fatalities caused by IEDs, there would need to be an aggressive push implementing a campaign utilizing both ground and air assets to provide multiple perspectives and vantage points when attempting find and defeat these lethal devices.  The result was a combination of manned aircraft and unmanned aerial systems (UAS), equipped with state of the art sensors capable of performing change detection were rapidly deployed to assist in the Counter Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) mission.

There are different types of change detection which have been successfully utilized in the C-IED mission with great success.  A couple examples of proven change detection capabilities are optical change detection (OCD) and coherent change detection (CCD).  Change detection utilizes imagery collected from manned and unmanned air assets to digitally overlay, compare and analyze changes in the pixels of time separated images to exploit any man-made disturbance such as new or moved objects, footprints, tire tracks or even faintly disturbed earth.

The specific technology and exploitation process is proprietary and/or classified.  The foremost difference between these two types of imagery change detection: OCD exploits high resolution photographic imagery and SAR CCD exploits synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery.  This (below) SAR CCD example provides insight to imagery processing and exploitation.  The referenced black areas represent disturbance assumed to be foot traffic resulting in pixel changes between two separated images.  The white areas represent zero disturbance or areas void of activity.

SAR Radar and Highlighter Technologies

The successful employment of change detection on the battlefield has made it the capability of choice for many other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions such as detection of enemy activity along vehicle routes, remote fields/ pastures, river banks, coalition base security perimeters, otherwise concealed enemy traffic routes and pattern of life analysis for potential areas of interest.  The primary advantage of OCD and SAR CCD is the ability to exploit all enemy efforts of concealment.  In other words, more deliberate concealment results in more significant disturbance identified through change detection (ex. 50 gallon drum IED/ deliberate concealment of tire tracks/ enemy personnel ambush lay-up points).

Identifying Areas of Probability (AOP) on known enemy traffic areas frequented by friendly forces is crucial to increasing situational awareness for convoy security/ patrols and gathering intelligence necessary to identify possible geographic IED structure, behavior and potential enemy vehicle traffic patterns.  This is equally effective in identifying enemy vehicle and foot traffic patterns over areas otherwise concealed from coalition forces to include potential ambush points. Through change detection imagery analysis of nominated areas, identified vehicle and human disturbance patterns can help assist in understanding enemy tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP).


After a geographically designated area has been imaged at least twice, change detection can highlight and pinpoint new objects utilizing OCD and areas of ground disturbance using CCD.  OCD identifies pixels which have changed between two time-separated but same area high resolution images.  This may indicate and/or validate relocation of suspicious objects or vehicles.  Although lacking OCD high resolution, CCD can identify more subtle changes within SAR image pixels than photographic pixels OCD, including excavation activity, weapons/explosives caches, suspect vehicle/ foot traffic on soft surfaces, and potential roadside ambush points.

Notice the Dark Lines that Indicate New Tire Tracks. The rest has been left unlabeled for OPSEC.

The varied terrain of the current AOs offer many unique and absolute challenges to the tactical mobility of Coalition and Special Operations Forces.  Due to harsh terrain of certain regions, some areas of operation offer few or singular options when plotting vehicle and convoy routes.

These operational obstacles have historically worked to the advantage of enemy forces when conducting surveillance and offensive operations against friendly forces.  The “bottleneck” or identified “choke points” in coalition road routes are routinely utilized by enemy forces as staging areas and/or initiation points for both IED emplacement and ambush operations.  When employed, change detection affords Coalition Forces the opportunity to preemptively identify areas of probability or potential lanes of contact prior to the advancement of Coalition and SOF movements.

From a tactical perspective, I feel obligated to mention that while nominated change detection in areas of interest can provide very compelling intelligence; what provides an analyst a more absolute story is the exploited areas containing zero disturbances.  The pixels don’t lie!  The ability to isolate and eliminate dormant areas in a specified AO affords the good guys the luxury of concentrating all of their resources on the nominated areas of probability.

The bottom line: The harder the bad guys work to hide their handiwork, the easier it is to find them.  Utilizing change detection is like putting carbon paper in the bad guy’s playbook…