Inside the Bridge: Behind the scenes of a strike into Pakistan
CTF Fury Liaison Master Sergeant Tramell Finch at Bagram Joint Operation Center.
Its looks are deceiving. It is just a large room, very utilitarian, filled with simple workstations covered with keyboards and multiple screens. Fluorescent lights keep the room bright 24 hours a day. The sheer amount of computer equipment is a striking feature. The workers dressed in uniform go about their business.
But inside this overhauled Soviet-era hangar on Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan's sprawling main hub for international operations, lies the heart of the effort to hunt Taliban and terrorist masterminds: The Joint Operation Center's operation cell, aka "the Bridge."
The Long War Journal's Phil Peterson had extraordinary access inside the Bridge during the evolution of the March 12 strike that destroyed a Haqqani Network safe house in Pakistan.
Inside the Bridge, five massive projected screens dominate the main wall, and stadium-style layout allows personnel manning the various workstations to view the screens with an unhindered view. Despite having a business-like workplace feel, the Bridge maintains a throbbing pulse, with personnel constantly monitoring, analyzing, and disseminating the intelligence pouring into their sections. The nature of the work performed in the Bridge plays a fundamental role in the Coalition's ability to target and disrupt insurgent activities and fugitive commanders.
Major Tim Williams of J2 OPS and Staff Sergeant Matthew Westfall going over a list of potential targets in the Bridge at Joint Operation Center. Click to view.
A flood of new intelligence regarding insurgent patterns and habits has been gathered through a series of operations called Winter Stand, the Coalition's aggressive winter campaign to establish footholds along known Taliban transit routes from their safe havens in Pakistan. Since many of the Afghan Taliban fighters seek refuge in Pakistan during the winter, intelligence efforts have focused on their activity and potential safe houses along the border. Winter Stand operations figured into the evolution of the March 12 strike against the Haqqani Network.
Critical intelligence gathered from the field is sent back to the Bridge where it is analyzed, reviewed, and if the opportunity arises, a strike is planned and ordered against high-value targets. Intelligence piping into the center comes from a plethora of sources: ground units in the field, informants in dangerous Afghan backwaters, the high-resolution video footage beamed in from one of the US military's most high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles, Warrior Alpha or Predator. Each nugget of information is thoroughly examined, weeding out enemy propaganda and misinformation, bad information from informants, and outdated intelligence from local officials and residents.
Intelligence personnel search the data for trends and patterns aiding them to connect the dots and complete the overall mosaic of the battlefield. Reports about suspected insurgent hideouts and locations of known insurgent commanders are aggressively pursued.
The March 12 strike originated from intelligence gathered on the ground from a subordinate unit seeking information on the Haqqani Network. After full-motion video and other "special intelligent collection capabilities" were performed, the Bridge confirmed this particular compound was indeed a safe house for insurgents. Analysts continued to scrutinize the area looking for any signs of life, the presence of women or children, and activity in neighboring structures. Other disciplines, such as law and weapons, are consulted as well. In this case, intelligence assets reported no presence of civilians in the area over the previous five days, making the decision to launch a strike urgent. Full-motion video captured and projected on to the center projection screen -- known as "Kill TV" -- several individuals performing sentry duty in and around the Haqqani Network compound's boundaries.
At 9:40 PM local time, Coalition forces declared an imminent threat from the compound and gathered in the Bridge to discuss the possibility of striking the compound. Due to its location inside Pakistan, the proposal was sent up the chain of command to US Central Command and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). After discussing the latest intelligence reports, rechecking and confirming their accuracy, the commanding general ordered the strike.
While everyone was working the "pre-strike," they gathered in groups of 2-3 people, larger groups at times, and in the minutes leading up to the strike, everyone was working to make sure their data and intelligence was correct. In the final seconds, all eyes were on Kill TV, some people were sitting while others were standing, to see the real time video of the impending strike.
There was no cheering or high fives; only a hushed "ohhh" from a few people when the strike was made.
The strike was completed and work resumed as usual. Personnel returned to their workstations and the designated section began the process of contacting Pakistan officials to let them know about the strike. Analysts continued studying the streaming video images looking for signs of life in and around the area while other teams at offsite locations were doing the same and then feeding their conclusions to the Bridge commander.
Phil Peterson contributed to this report from Bagram, Afghanistan.