Through Airmen's Eyes: Maxwell officer builds historical database

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Sarah Loicano
  • Air University Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

What started as a solution to an information collection problem six years ago has grown into a substantial database that documents air power through almost 100 years of conflicts.

The database, known as Theater History of Operations Reports, is the brainchild of Lt. Col. Jenns Robertson, who says the database provides a bigger picture of aerial bombing campaigns, demonstrating how useful air power can be, especially when combined with ground forces.

Still being developed and updated, THOR combines data from paper mission reports from World War I and digital databases from recent conflicts to create a central pool of bomb history. The database can be searched for certain criteria and output data can be integrated into charts, spreadsheets, graphs or even onto a map.

In 2006, Robertson was working at the Pentagon for the Air Force Operations Group. He and his team were required to put out daily briefings for senior Air Force leaders, including a bi-weekly report with current bombing activity. With no one localized source for information, Robertson said it was taking his team 20-40 man-hours a week to pull all the data together from the sources in the area of operations.

"I said there had to be a collective database out there," Robertson said. "'This is the 21st century, we are the Air Force, there has got to be a system out there where we have all this data.'"

After lots of searching, Robertson came up empty, so he set about creating one with the help of Ryan Burr, a computer programmer who also worked at the Pentagon. Initially, they were just concerned with using current bomb data from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, but after some time they wanted to be able to answer questions such as how many bombs have been dropped since the start of the war, or by specific aircraft. So Robertson began digging for more information, learning that much of the data prior to 2005 had been deleted in the area of responsibility as server space became an issue. They contacted the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base and were able to find all the copies of the old mission reports, filling in the bomb data gaps for OIF and OEF back to 2001.

"We were able to have the entire war from the start to the current date and just update it every couple of days," said Robertson.

In the research process, Robertson learned of another database with bomb and flight information collected during the air war over Serbia in 1999. Robertson and Burr were able to get copies of that database and import it into THOR.

"And then we started hunting around to see how far back we could go, because we thought if we had the current war, the previous war, could we get the first Gulf War?" he said.

And that's when they were able to locate the Gulf War Air Power Survey data at the Historical Research Agency, detailing every sortie flown in the Gulf War. It was at this point in his research that Robertson started to notice a pattern in the data he was collecting, which he says only emphasizes the importance of the information.

"The thing that I thought fascinating is that the databases they were creating were almost identical each time; so the same data, in the same format, in the same content is needed for each war," he said.

In 2008, after leaving the Pentagon, Robertson went to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as the 4th Space Launch Squadron operations officer. During his free time, he worked on decoding almost 4 million Vietnam War entries gathered from the National Archives in Washington. Then Robertson was assigned to the Air Force Research Institute here, where he was able to locate strategic bombing survey information from World War II and battlefield raid reports from World War I, again noticing similarities in the data collected.

Looking at the World War I carbon copies filled out on typewriters and the still classified digital reports from today's front lines, Robertson said the material is almost identical in terms of the format and content.

"If the information we are providing to our leadership has not changed in 100 years, there is probably something to be said that the information is important to the leadership to make decisions," he said. "Perhaps having the ability to reach back and look at what was decided in previous wars when faced with certain challenges, you can learn something from that and apply that before it happens now."

Robertson points to an example comparing a particular scenario in World War I and the Gulf War. In 1944, London and Antwerp were facing rocket attacks from Germany. Allied forces diverted 15 percent of all bombing missions to stop the attacks. Jump forward to 1991 when Scud missiles were being launched from the western desert of Iraq into Israel. Again, Robertson said it worked out to be about 15 percent of allied air power sent to hunt the Scuds. Both missions were unsuccessful at stopping the launch of attacks until the aircraft started targeting transportation systems -- the trains in Germany and the bridges and roadways in Iraq.

"It turns out that after (World War II), we find out that the liquid oxygen that the rockets needed to launch was being transferred by rail because it was the only way to move it fast enough before it boiled off," Robertson explained.

In Iraq, enemy forces were using roads to move around and hide after launching attacks, and if they couldn't escape, they weren't willing to launch because they knew they were drawing attention to their launch location, Robertson said.

"So your motivation is different in both cases, but the fact is that regardless of the technology of the time, (when) going after a mobile missile system, don't go after the missile, go after what makes it mobile," he said.

That is a lesson, Robertson said, the military can take forward into future conflicts, but added that the potential to learn from THOR's data is unlimited.

"I don't know what other kinds of lessons like that hide in this mountain of data," Robertson said. "Or how many questions people have that they don't even know how to ask and they don't even know if there is any value in asking because they can't get to the data. So that is part of what is driving me to dig up these older databases and put them all in one location. To be able to look at that comparison across history and see if you can find enduring truths that can help guide future leaders to make decisions."

Although THOR is not yet ready for public release, Robertson's primary goals during his time at the research institute are to finish collecting data from the Korean War and get the database up and running on the Internet.

"I don't know what the future holds, but I know I wanted to get this done so that the Air Force could make better decisions, make better informed strategies and educate the future generation of leaders to be able to know what air power can do, has done and the innovative ways we've solved problems in the past that could be useful in the future," he said.