Battling bytes

War is hell. Now virtual war games are, too.

The U.S. military may be on the verge of an epic adventure in modeling and simulation by creating a virtual battlefield that duplicates the hail of bullets and the smell of gunpowder of real warfare.

By giving troops a taste of combat in the safety of a virtual training center, military leaders hope soldiers will be better prepared for war. Training programs too often have left out the more visceral elements of the battlefield, so soldiers who honed their marksmanship skills in a training facility or field commanders who learned strategy in tabletop exercises frequently have found themselves out of their element when confronted with the real thing.

It's the difference between a would-be Olympic athlete running laps around a track in an empty field and racing against opponents in a packed stadium with everything on the line. But in combat, that difference—the human factor—can cost lives and lose battles.

"What is needed to train forces for future combat is total immersion of participants into virtual reality," said Lt. Gen. Paul Kern, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

Computer modeling and simulation technologies are used for training people and for testing weapon systems. The types and models vary widely, ranging from video games on personal computers to laser tag-like devices used on soldiers and vehicles—for a high-tech version of tag football — and from infrared sensors for simulating bullet trajectory to computer-based global wars for the military's top generals.

But military officials and other experts predict the emergence within the next five to 10 years of a "Star Trek"-like holodeck, where computer programs will replicate the sights, sounds, feel and smells of real combat to elicit emotions similar to those felt in combat.

"The modeling and simulation community is on the threshold of experiencing a great adventure of monumental proportions," said Army Col. Forrest Crain, director of the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office. He spoke at the 10th annual Executive Forum on Modeling and Simulation in the days before the department's supplemental budget was submitted to Congress.

Making Training Real

Clearly one reason this revolution in battlefield simulation is happening now is because of the ongoing revolution in the underlying technology.

Simulation has benefited dramatically from the growing power and shrinking size of the processor—from 108 KHz of processing power for Intel Corp.'s first processor in 1972 to 1.5 GHz for the current Intel Pentium 4, for example. Processor technology has taken a leap forward about every 18 months over the past three decades—a pattern called Moore's Law, named after Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel.

Each new generation of processors has driven similar advances in computer graphics, making it possible to create more and more realistic images, which has been a boon for computer game manufacturers. And now the same computer graphics that helped PlayStation 2 fly off the shelves and brought an ogre to life in the movie "Shrek" will bring new realism to the virtual sailors, jet fighters and tanks in simulators now being developed.

"Star Trek" fans recognize the holodeck as a virtual reality system that, thanks to interactive and realistic holographic images, can transform an empty room into any vista or scenario. Now, through innovative programs such as the Mission Rehearsal Exercise at the Army's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) in Marina del Rey, Calif., the military is harnessing similar technologies to cast "virtual humans" in training scenarios—eventually, they may even serve as military trainers.

Although new technology makes this training revolution possible, ultimately it is historical and political forces that make it compelling.

For one thing, the combat environment is more complex since the fall of the Soviet Union. After decades of training for the massive force-on-force battles envisioned during the Cold War, today's military services are more likely to deliver humanitarian assistance, face urban combat or fend off terrorist attacks—scenarios that require new training approaches.

The Pentagon also finds itself called upon to fight many smaller battles, rather than a large-scale war. Those situations require forces that combine land, air and sea capabilities yet are able to deploy quickly. So increasingly, military officials are turning to joint training and experimentation as a way to accelerate the transformation to a future force. Such joint exercises sometimes involve thousands of workers and hundreds of weapon systems.

Simulation naturally holds a strong appeal because it is less time-consuming and less expensive than traditional exercises, which send troops to a training center to fire live rounds.

In addition, President Bush has promised to skip a generation of weapons, and the military wishes to transform in part by purchasing sophisticated weapons systems such as the Joint Strike Fighter Program and the Army's Future Combat Systems. Every major weapon system now being purchased, in fact, will be extensively modeled in simulation before being built.

But besides the expense and complexity, live training—like that conducted at bombing ranges such as the one at Vieques, Puerto Rico—also draws the ire of environmentalists and private citizens, who are weary of noise, road and property damage, and fatal accidents. So the military is under increasing pressure to curb its live training exercises at home and abroad.

Many military officials—even those who make a career of developing simulation systems—admit computer simulations cannot replace live training, but with the opportunities for live training diminishing, simulation is a growing necessity.

"It is cheaper and easier to move electrons around than it is to move people around," said Navy Capt. John Sokolowski, chief of modeling and simulation at Joint Forces Command.

All of those factors should lead to an influx of dollars for simulation systems.

The cost of simulation is impossible to track because it is not an individual line item in the budget, said Ted Smith, president of Top Line Co., a defense market analysis firm in Falls Church, Va.

Development of advanced simulation technologies will likely come from the science and technology budget, but Bush lowered his request for the Defense science and technology budget from $9 billion in 2001 to $8.8 billion in 2002. Department officials acknowledge that the transformation has been placed on hold to focus on more immediate concerns, and future budget requests likely will include more funds for a broad range of advanced technologies.

Hooray for Hollywood

The advancements military officials believe will make a holodeck possible are happening in the entertainment industry among moviemakers and video game producers, and the military is signing on in a major way.

For example, the Army—the service that tends to use the word "holodeck" the most—is spending $45 million for the ICT (see "Hollywood, Army join forces for war games," Page 24).

The Hollywood script currently being used at the ICT casts a player in the role of an Army lieutenant who is to rendezvous with troops for an important mission. On the way, he discovers an accident involving an Army vehicle, a distraught mother and an unconscious child. The trainee must decide between rendering aid—thus putting the mission in danger—or continuing the mission, putting the child in danger and leaving the soldiers involved in the accident facing an upset crowd.

"They have already demonstrated training scenarios with real humans interfacing with virtual reality humans that can interact and respond based on a set of artificial intelligence," Kern said. "This partnership was established a little over a year ago, so we are just beginning to see some of the innovations coming from this endeavor."

The entertainment industry is expected to use the technology to improve the special effects of its motion picture, video and virtual reality arcades. James Skurka, program manager for the Joint Simulation System, said earlier this year that Sony officials have been talking to DOD leaders about using some of the high-resolution terrain imagery used in military simulations.

The Army has another effort known as the Advanced Collaborative Environment, a virtual reality laboratory for designing the service's futuristic weapon systems.

The laboratory includes virtual technology that enables people in remote locations to simultaneously view and interact with a virtual model of the Future Combat Systems program, seemingly passing tools back and forth and communicating as if in the same room. It uses a Web-based information network to allow different participants to collaborate.

The Army's Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command, which hosts Navy and Air Force elements, also is embracing the entertainment industry. The command has adapted for its own use some computer games with cutting-edge graphics. Among other things, the command has linked Spearhead, a commercial tank combat game, to the service's new command and control software known as Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below, and is sending the combination to its digital division at Fort Hood, Texas, to train the troops on the command and control software.

And Skurka suggests that the use of commercial games for military training could become more widespread.

"We may have ourselves in the future an incredibly powerful delivery system for content that we could build on game CDs. Give every soldier in the world a Sony PlayStation2. He can do games, and he could train airplanes, tanks, anything," Skurka said. "You may have a [holodeck] product in five years, but in 10 years, it will be tremendously more realistic."

Any epic adventure story worth telling, though, is fraught with obstacles, and the road to realistic simulation has many.

The big question, of course, is how real can simulation get?

Michael Dominguez, the Navy's deputy director of space, information warfare, command and control, said during the executive forum that much of the technology is just not yet ready for prime time. Computer-generated virtual humans, for example, often are unrealistic, nonadaptable and predictable in behavior and lack sensitivity to such factors as stress, risk aversion, fatigue, training and fear. And they lack the capability to generate self-awareness and the ability to assess a situation.

"Bottom line is, the holodeck isn't here yet, and the type of systems we need are only affordable in labs," Dominguez said.

Judith Dahmann, a principal senior scientist at Mitre Corp. who specializes in modeling and simulation and is a "Star Trek" fan, agreed that the technology is moving in the direction of a holodeck, especially now that the Army's ICT and others are incorporating the power of storytelling. She also said, however, that some challenges remain, especially in the area of the human/computer interface, which remains awkward.

Furthermore, even current technologies—the Joint Simulation System, for example—can be difficult to build successfully and to put in the field.

The Joint Simulation System is designed to provide a simulated environment for the military regional commanders, the individual services and joint organizations. It has been in development since the early 1990s to the tune of about $1 billion, and although Skurka and others say it shows great promise, some have their doubts.

"Everyone is anxiously anticipating, and getting impatient for, [Joint Simulation System] fielding. There is great hope out there that it's going to do all it's touted as being able to do, but there's also a healthy — and I think deserved—dose of skepticism," said Lt. Gen. Lance Lord, Air Force assistant vice chief of staff.

Lord presented a series of challenges to lifelike simulations, including a lack of focus, budgetary constraints and a shortage of bandwidth.

"I think our focus has been diffused and diminished somewhat, away from the needs of the operational warfighter," Lord said. "Every command thinks our current modeling and simulation arsenal is too costly to operate. In terms of money, manpower and time, it's simply too complex and expensive to put on exercises and mission rehearsals with our tools."

And the more sophisticated the simulation technology, the more likely it is to suck up bandwidth.

The military is currently battling the private sector for existing bandwidth. Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified June 28 before the House Armed Services Committee that 247 MHz of radio frequency previously reserved for federal use had been reallocated to the private sector, with businesses clamoring for even more.

Of special interest to businesses is the 1755 MHz to 1850 MHz band, which the military uses for tactical data links; satellite telemetry, tracking and control; precision guided weapons; air combat training systems; and the delivery of voice, video and other data.

Military officials say the shortage of available bandwidth also hampers training at the combat training centers. A Defense Science Board study released earlier this year found that, until 1991, the Army's first battle of each war was a disaster.

The training centers, such as those at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev., are sorely lacking the IT infrastructure—fiber-optic cable, high-speed computers, digital radios and usable bandwidth—needed for more sophisticated virtual training, military officials say.

Without investments in the combat training center infrastructure and a focus on simulation technology, the Defense Science Board study suggests, "the training edge is ours to lose."

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