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Back to Archives | Back to September 2011 Contents 

Shining a Forensic Light on the Warfight

By Rick Tontarski, Chief, Forensic Analysis Division, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, Forest Park, Georgia; and Blake Rowe, Chief, Expeditionary Forensic Division, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, Forest Park, Georgia

ince 2004, the Department of Defense (DOD) has been using forensic science tools on the battlefield. Traditional law enforcement techniques are being used to attack improvised explosive device (IED) networks; gather intelligence; strengthen force protection; and identify and prosecute terrorists, criminals, and other adversaries. It is the same forensic science practiced throughout the United States and the world each day. The one significant difference is that the tools are being applied in an expeditionary environment: on the battlefield.

The conflicts that individuals and countries around the world are engaged in today—and for the foreseeable future—take place on the counterinsurgent and counterterrorism battlefield. Asymmetric warfare has replaced most traditional battles in which armies wear uniforms and square off using conventional forces. Today’s enemy blends into the indigenous population and uses anonymity as a weapon against soldiers and civilian populations. Evidence from forensic examinations such as latent print and DNA analyses shine a light on the enemy, removing their most coveted advantage: anonymity. Removing anonymity gives commanders and the host nation options to pursue identified criminals, terrorists, and other adversaries. Once their identities are known, the DOD has many options to attack and dismantle the networks with which they are associated. Success is often achieved in criminal investigations by following the forensic evidence; that adage applies here as well. Identifying personnel responsible for making and placing IEDs in a war zone is similar to identifying criminal and terrorist networks responsible for the same actions on U.S. soil. Forensic science results are only one portion of the solution that relies on a partnership blending technical information, forensic findings, and tactical needs to produce sufficient information for the joint commanders or prosecutors to use.

How is forensics applied on the battlefield? The DOD forensics concept of operations defines forensic science as “the application of multidisciplinary scientific processes to establish fact.”1 The implementation of expeditionary forensics has been evolving since forensic science was first utilized on the battlefield. The DOD has seen the value forensic science brings to the fight and has begun to institutionalize the expeditionary capability along with reachback operations to ensure a forensic science tool set is consistently available to the DOD. Institutionalizing the expeditionary capabilities at the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory (USACIL) benefits the DOD and the interagency, local, state, and multinational community, since they all share technological developments and best practices.

Forensic functions applied on the battlefield include recognizing, preserving, collecting, analyzing, storing, and sharing.

Figure 1. Latent examiner students begin phase III
training: supervised casework
Figure 2. Forensic material examination downrange
Figure 2a. Forensic material examination downrange
Figure 3. Deployed forensic shelters
Figures 4 and 4a. Diagrams of the latest deployable shelter
Recognizing focuses on determining which items have potential forensic value. Forensic value can vary based on a commander’s priorities at the time. Items can be forensically examined and used to support more than one requirement, such as tactical needs and prosecution. Preserving is ensuring that materials are not contaminated and are properly documented as to chain of custody. Collecting on the battlefield is similar to the collection process in criminal investigations; however, it is normally completed within 15 minutes because there is often limited time on-site. Examiners in expeditionary environments use the same science laboratory that examiners in the United States utilize in analyzing evidence collected by any criminal investigator. Storing the information focuses on using standard procedures that will enable sharing forensic results appropriately within the DOD, with other government agencies, and with international partners.

While the traditional use of forensic science has been successfully employed by the DOD at the USACIL for over 60 years, expeditionary forensics is just beginning the transition from an ad hoc reactionary capability to an enduring capability able to support multiple theaters and contingencies. This transition to an enduring capability starts with training both examiners and collectors for deployment to the expeditionary environment. At the USACIL, professionals have created academies to train examiners in their disciplines and to prepare them for their roles as examiners in expeditionary environments. The three-phase training program consists of an army and a USACIL orientation; technical training; and, finally, hands-on examination training with experienced examiners (see figure 1). The capstone is a competency assessment for examiners to demonstrate proficiency before being authorized to perform examinations. Collector with mobile training teams whose instructors travel to military units to teach soldiers to recognize, collect, and document materials.

Currently, forensic examiners are deploying to the expeditionary environment and processing and examining forensic evidence found in the war zone in near real time. The forensic materials collected range from weapons and explosive components to computers and cellphones (see figures 2 and 2a). The collection techniques and forensic processing methods have continuously evolved with experience and lessons learned.

Like collection techniques, the forensic laboratories placed in theaters of operation have been constantly evolving. The first deployed forensic laboratory in Iraq was housed in an old British nuclear-biological-chemical trailer. Today, examiners work in mobile laboratory shelters or in fixed facilities that have been modified into laboratories. The substantially modified new mobile shelters are fully conditioned and link together in a modular design to provide flexibility to expand or contract as the mission or space requirements change (see figure 3). The latest iteration was custom designed at the Edgewood Arsenal to meet forensic requirements (see figures 4 and 4a).

The forward examiners in the expeditionary environment are not isolated. They are supported by experienced examiners in a reachback operations center. These USACIL examiners are an extension of the forward examiners. They conduct data analysis remotely, perform technical reviews of examinations, and analyze forensic material that has been shipped from the war zone, conducting forensic examinations not available in the forward environment.

A final component needed to project and leverage forensic science is constantly evolving science and technology. The DOD has extremely robust science and technology components, and the department’s investment in technology has consistently given the U.S. military a competitive advantage; the same advantage is emerging for forensic science. The DOD has identified the USACIL as the focal point for developing new forensic technologies to support the soldier. Several technological applications are expected to come to fruition in the coming months, including more rapid DNA analysis, improved fingerprint development techniques, and the ability to do microscopic comparisons from sanctuary, outside of the area of operation, using modified comparison microscopes and high-resolution imaging. As techniques and applications mature, they are readily transferred to the traditional forensic community.

Expeditionary forensics in the DOD will continue to evolve to meet the department’s diverse missions. Forensic solutions will need to be tailored to fit the mission requirements. Expeditionary forensics success will depend on the same precepts that have been the foundation for forensic applications in law enforcement: training, experience, and good science.

For more information about the DOD forensic expeditionary programs, contact the authors at or at ■


1Department of Defense, Capstone Concept of Operations for DOD Forensics, July 2008.

Please cite as:

Rick Tontarski and Blake Rowe, "Shining a Forensic Light on the Warfight," The Police Chief 78 (September 2011): 48–51.

Click to view the digital edition.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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