How Big Data Learned to Stop Worrying and Count the Bomb(s)

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by Jody Ray Bennett

Have you ever wanted to know exactly how many cluster bombs were dropped by US air missions over Vietnam in 1968? Are you curious about how many bombs were dropped on the German forces in World War II between 1942 and 1944? Are you curious to know how many bombs were dropped in the Near East in the 1980s?

For the last six years, the United States Air Force has been gathering and digitizing all the data it can find on every air mission it has conducted over the last century. Spearheaded by Lieutenant Colonel Jenns Robertson, the creation of this new database (called THOR – Theatre History of Operations Reports) will contain a list of every single bomb the Air Force has dropped since World War I. What started out as a hobby for Robertson eventually turned into a full-time job allocated by the US Air Force’s chief historian. Since taking on the role of his pet project, Robertson has been thrust into the world of Big Data to see THOR come to fruition.

Most of the detailed information on individual air raids was recorded by hand for the majority of the last century; therefore, Robertson has been tasked with the grueling job of digitizing those documents and formulating them into a database. According to reports, when Robertson began, he “unearthed 1,000 original World War I raid reports, and entered each by hand. For World War II, he scanned roughly 10,000 hand-written or typed pages. More modern conflicts meant combing a hodgepodge of conflict-specific databases.” The result would allow THOR to be searchable by specific air missions, specific countries, regions, dates, and type of bomb used. Robertson’s endeavor is the newest Big Data project created by the US military.

According to Robertson, researchers can use the THOR database to “pick any place [they] want and look at it in detail” and in real time. The data is layered over satellite images – similar to the Google Maps platform – in which users can zoom in on spots around the globe to find detailed information on specific bombing campaigns or campaigns that occurred over a range of time. Like any good old fashion Big Data-driven project, THOR requires an amazing amount of information to be acquired, digitized, stored, and then organized in such a way that it can be searchable and analyzed.

According to the Boston.com report on THOR:

“Bombing reports from more modern conflicts – in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq – were more readily available and in many cases already in digital form and needed to be converted using special software. Now all that information can be plotted using modern research and mapping tools. The data, which are unclassified with the exceptions of Iraq and Afghanistan operations, can also be depicted in motion, with particular missions or battles plotted over space and time.”

Nevertheless, the thousands of bombing campaigns that have been declassified are up for grabs and the data that has been allocated for the THOR project covers missions that span the globe. According to The Atlantic, “When plotted on a satellite map, the bombs — from the biplanes of the nascent US Air Service over France in World War I to pilotless drones targeting suspected terrorists in the war in Afghanistan — blanket many thousands of square miles from Europe to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Even tiny Kiska, Alaska.”

According to Robertson, who admits much of his project is incomplete and evolving, THOR can be searched in a variety of ways:

  • When – date, time over target, flying hours, etc.
  • Who – campaign, country, service, unit, call-sign
  • How – aircraft, take-off location, mission type
  • What – weapons used
  • Where – location of target, BE #, release height, speed
  • Why – effects, JTAC reports, Bomb Damage Assessment

The outcome of THOR will affect a variety of political actors. The US Air Force argues that THOR is not just for maintaining historical record, but helping the US government prevent casualties and save lives. According to The Verge:

“The database is proving useful in locating both dangerous un-detonated weapons in previous war zones — like the 456,365 cluster bombs dropped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia — and in finding the remains of missing pilots and air crew. Historian Chris McDermott said ‘many of the cases where we have success are in far-flung locations with hazy loss circumstances. Each clue that we can compile from the official records could be the key that assists our team to locate a site.”

From Yahoo News:

“[S]ince not all of the bombs actually exploded, the governments of [countries where bombings occurred] are working with the U.S. to examine the database in order to prevent civilian accidents and deaths. Overall, Robertson says he is still combing through more than a million records from Vietnam alone. The database is being used in ongoing conflicts as well. Bombing records are being used to investigate civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

To those organizations that are critical of even ongoing military bombing campaigns – by plane or drone or both – THOR will provide specific statistics and empirical evidence by the US government’s own admission. For Human Rights organizations involved in finding undetonated mines and bombs, THOR provides an additional resource for that research. Those recounting historical effects in International Relations to those concerned with the beneficiaries of such air power in military history or international political economy will also find the information useful for their own ends. As The Atlantic put it, “The database, in other words, provides a perspective on warfare that is telling and true to warfare itself: It takes aim at the weapons that take people’s lives.”

Quality control of the data allocated to THOR means that filling gaps and finding holes in previous military air missions will be a high priority. Indeed, the next objectives outlined for THOR will involve project managers and Big Data experts improving quality control by analyzing the millions of raw records (hand-written documents and newer, digital information) and spot checking the data. Boston.com notes:

“Robertson’s next objective is to improve the quality control process, both the conversion of the data and each datum itself; some of the raw records, for example, were subject to human error. One example he uncovered: The original mission report for the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in World War II was off by 552 miles; the latitude had a 9 where a zero should have been […] Using the information on World War II, he identified coordinates in the Tunisian desert that were struck seven times between Feb. 4 and March 26, 1942, by 118 B-25s and B-26s carrying a total 235,840 pounds of bombs. [Robertson] then pulled up recent satellite images of the area. Fifty-one bomb craters were still there.”

Hosted out of Montgomery, Alabama-based Maxwell Air Force Base, Robertson understands that the THOR project is an unusual way of looking at the world. Nevertheless, for a database to exist that records and makes searchable this sort of information will be fascinating for historians, activists, and Big Data geeks of all backgrounds and interests. THOR is indeed proving itself as yet another small step toward understanding a large and complex world through ongoing innovations in Big Data technologies.

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