DOD runs largest-ever battlefield simulation

Defense- and National Science Foundation-funded computer scientists recently completed the largest-ever battlefield simulation, in which more than 100,000 tanks, helicopters, missiles and other vehicles engaged in a computer-generated battle set in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq.

Researchers said the test, which the Defense Department had not expected to run for another four years, proves large-scale simulations are possible with existing technology. It is expected eventually to lead to practical tools that the military can use for training, testing designs for new weapons or planning battles in future wars.

"Naturally, much remains to be done before such a system could be fielded,'' said Dan Davis, assistant director with the Center for Advanced Computing Research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which is running the project. "But simulations like [this] one could be designed, created and run for analytical purposes if desired'' and could be adapted for civilian use.

The simulation, run for two hours on March 16, also set a record for the most processors distributed over the most locations dedicated to a single application. Eight federally funded supercomputing centers, along with Hewlett-Packard Co., linked 13 computers running 1,386 processors.

"We used to try to solve these problems by harnessing up computers under people's desktops,'' said Bradley Comes, director of the Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station (CEWES) Major Shared Resource Center, Vicksburg, Miss. "Now we're truly harnessing computing power across the nation.''

A 232-processor IBM Corp. SP scalable, parallel supercomputer at CEWES handled the largest chunk of the simulation, modeling more than 17,000 vehicles. The project, called Synthetic Forces Express, uses a model developed for the Synthetic Theater of War (STOW) program, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative to design advanced military simulations.

Originally, the software ran smaller simulations on a microcomputer network, said Rae Dehncke, the STOW program manager, but "we want to have the option of having the large-scale computing power from a [supercomputer] that we can link into the personal computers if we want to do that.''

The next step, Dehncke said, will be to run a more advanced version of the model that provides an interface to desktop workstations, making it possible for individuals to use the software in an operational setting by tapping supercomputers from their desktops.

The project has progressed from a 10,000-vehicle simulation run 15 months ago on a single Intel Corp. Paragon supercomputer at the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Last November researchers tied together computers at two sites, CEWES and the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to model a battle with 67,000 vehicles.

Caltech's Davis said researchers were able to top 100,000 vehicles last month because multiple supercomputing sites were ready to push the limits of their systems. Supercomputers usually run batch jobs for multiple applications, but in this case, the systems were dedicated solely to the battlefield simulation.

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