Fingerprints are so 20th-century. When special forces operators are deep behind enemy lines in the middle of the night in Pakistan or Syria, they need to know who they’ve found and they need to know fast.

Rather than rely on fingerprints, the troops are now using rapid DNA profiling technology.

This past Wednesday, the U.S. Special Operations Command revealed that they are testing two rapid DNA readers in the field. The soldiers feed in a DNA sample, and the reader compares it against a database of DNA tied to identities.

The machines are early versions, weighing over 60 pounds. They are also expensive: each costs about $250,000. But in 90 minutes they can get a result where the old process takes weeks.

“These things are downrange and we’re spending a year gathering data — on the utility, on how well is it working, the match rate, how well are the operators keeping them up and running,” stated Michael S. Fitz, manager of the Sensitive Site Exploitation Special Reconnaissance, Surveillance & Exploitation program at U.S. Special Operations Command.

The devices being tested are the RapidHIT 200 from IntegenX, of California, and the DNAscan from NetBIO, of Massachusetts. Both are the size of a photocopier, but compared to an entire DNA lab, require less manpower and are more portable. Just one operator can get quick results. “In the past, when we captured DNA, the guy would put it in an envelope, send it back to the States and two or three weeks later, he would get a result on who it was that he had. By then, he moved on to other missions and he had forgotten who the guy was,” said Fitz.

The major use case? Verifying the identity of targets, such as Osama Bin Laden, either before raids or after. “Our whole program is built around follow-on targeting. We don’t gather biometrics for criminal prosecution,” Fitz said. “Our primary objective is actionable intelligence for follow-on targeting.”

The Bin Laden raid actually used this approach, but with traditional processing methods that took weeks. The hope of the Defense Department is that all missions in the future will use such technology to improve both mission accuracy and speed.

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