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Out of Control
Chapter 13: GOD GAMES

In an unnamed stretch of desert, in the spring of 1991, Captain H. R. McMaster of the U.S. 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment paced over the quiet battlefield. Hardly a month had passed since he had last been there. The rocky sand was quiet and still now. Iraqi tanks lay in twisted wrecks just as he had left them a few weeks ago, although now they no longer burned like an inferno. Thank God he and his troops had all survived; the Iraqis had not done as well. A month ago neither side knew they were engaged in the pivotal battle of the Desert Storm war. Things moved fast; thirty days after their fateful skirmish, historians already had a name for it: The Battle of 73 Easting.

Now Captain McMaster was at this desolate site again. He had reconvened at the behest of some crazy analysts back in the States. The Pentagon wanted all troop officers gathered at the battlefield while the U.S. still controlled the territory, and while their memories were fresh. The Army was going to recreate the entire 73 Easting battle as a fully three-dimensional simulated reality which any future cadet could enter and relive. "A living history book," they called it. A simulacra of war.

On the plains of Iraq, the real soldiers sketched out the month-old battle. They walked off the action as best their feverish memories of the day could remind them. A few soldiers supplied diaries to reconstruct their actions. A couple even consulted personal tape recordings taken during the chaos. Tracks in the sand gave the simulators precise traces of movement. A black box in each tank, programmed to track three satellites, confirmed the exact position on the ground to eight digits. Every missile shot left a thin wire trail which lay undisturbed in the sand. Headquarters had a tape recording of radio voice communications from the field. Sequenced overhead photos from satellite cameras gave the big view. Soldiers paced the sun-baked ground in hot arguments sorting out who shot whom. A digital map of the terrain was captured by lasers and radar. When the Pentagon left, they had all the information they needed to recreate history's most documented battle.

Back at the Simulation Center, a department at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, Virginia, technicians spent nine months digesting this overdose of information and compiling a synthetic reality from a thousand fragments. A few months into the project, they had the actual desert troops, then stationed in Germany, review a preliminary version of the recreation. The simulacra were sufficiently fleshed out that the soldiers could sit in tank simulators and enter the virtual battle. They reported corrections of the simulated event to the techies, who modified the model. Just about one year after the confrontation, following the final review by Captain McMaster, the recreated Battle of 73 Easting premiered for the military brass. McMaster laconically understates that the simulacra give "a very realistic sensation of being in a vehicle in that battle." Every vehicle and soldier's movements, gun fire, and fall were captured in facsimile. A four-star general, who was far from the battlefield but close to the human consequences of war, entered the virtual battle and came out with the hair on his arm on end. What did he see?

A panoramic view on three 50-inch TV screens at the resolution of a very good video game. The sky is jet black with oil-fire smoke. A floor of ashen gray desert, wet from rain earlier, recedes to the black horizon. Steel blue hulks of demolished tanks spew tongues of yellow-orange fire which lean and drift in the steady wind. Over 300 vehicles -- tanks, jeeps, fuelers, water trucks, even two Iraqi Chevy pickups -- roam the landscape. Late in the day a wicked forty-knot Shamal sandstorm kicks up, cutting visibility to a yellow haze of 1,000 meters. Individual infantry soldiers march on the screen. Likewise hundreds of Iraqi soldiers who scramble from their muddy spider holes to hop into their tanks when they realize the shelling is not a precision air attack. Helicopters show up for about six minutes, but the blowing sand shoos them away. Fixed-wing aircraft are deep into another battle behind Iraqi lines.

To enter the battle, the general can pick any vehicle and see what that driver would see. As in the real battle, a low hill might hide a tank. Views are blocked, important things hidden, nothing is clear, everything is happening at once. But in the virtual world you can mount every soldier's dream of a flying carpet and zoom around high above the action. Go up far enough and you get a maplike God's-eye point of view. The truly demented can enter the simulation sitting astride a missile madly arching toward its target.

It's just a three-dimensional movie right now. But here's the next step: allow future cadets to take on the Republican Guard by unleashing what-ifs into the simulation. What if the Iraqis had infrared night vision? What if their missiles had twice the range? What if they weren't out of their tanks at first? Would you still win?

Without the ability to what-if, The Battle of 73 Easting simulation is a very expensive and fanatical documentary. But animated with the tiniest liberty to run in unplanned directions, the simulation takes on a soul and becomes a powerful teacher. It becomes something real in itself. It is no longer just the Battle of 73 Easting. Tuned to different values, equipped with different powers, the model war begins in the same place with the same formation, but quickly runs into its own future. The cadets immersed in the simulation are fighting a hyperreal war, a war only they know about and which only they can fight. The alternative battles they wage are as real as the simulated 73 Easting battle is real, or perhaps even realer, because these battles have unknown endings, much as real life does.

On an everyday basis, the U.S. military thrusts troops into the realm of the hyperreal. At a dozen U.S. Army bases around the world, top-gun tank and aircraft pilots compete in simulated AirLand battles, woven together by a military system called SIMNET, the same window through which the four-star general entered the recreated 73 Easting Battle. In the words of National Defense columnist Douglas Nelms, SIMNET "transports crews of land and aerial vehicles from planet Earth to a surrogate world where they can do battle without the constraints of safety, cost, environmental impact or geographical boundaries." The first place the SIMNET warriors explore is their backyard. At Fort Knox, Tennessee, 80 crews of M1 tank simulators drive through an amazing virtual reconstruction of Fort Knox's outdoor wargaming arena. Every tree, every building, every creek, every telephone pole, every dip in the land for hundreds of square miles is digitized and represented inside the three-dimensional land of the SIMNET model. The virtual space is huge enough to easily get lost in. One day the troops may ride their greasy real tanks over the real course, and the next day they may traverse the same terrain in facsimile. Only the simulation doesn't smell like burning diesel. When the troops master Fort Knox they can beam themselves to another location by choosing from the computer's menu. Up comes one of two dozen other immaculately rendered places: Fort Irwin's famous National Training Grounds, parts of rural Germany, hundreds of thousands of empty square miles of the oil-rich Gulf States, and (why not?) downtown Moscow.

Standard M1 tanks are the most common entity in the virtual land of SIMNET. Seen from the outside, an M1 simulator never moves: it's a big fiberglass box about the shape of an oversize dumpster that is bolted to the floor. A crew of four men squat, sit, and recline at their cramped stations. The inside is molded in plastic to resemble the gadget-filled interior of the M1. The men twirl hundreds of facsimile dials and switches and peer into monitors. When the pilot puts a tank simulator into gear, it rumbles, groans, and shakes much like the ride in a real tank.

Eight or more of these fiberglass boxes are electronically linked in the drab Fort Knox warehouse. One M1 can play against the other M1s in SIMNET-land. Long-haul telephone lines link the other 300 existing simulator boxes worldwide into one network, so that 300 vehicles can be hurling through the same virtual battle, even though some of the crew may be at Fort Irwin, California, and others in Graffenvere, Germany.

To boost the realism of SIMNET, military hackers devised vehicles steered by artificial intelligence which are loosely herded by one computer operator. Launching these "semi-automated forces" onto the virtual battlefield, the army can get a bigger, more realistic engagement of forces beyond the 300 simulator boxes built. Says Neale Cosby, who runs the Simulation Center, "We once had a thousand entities on SIMNET at the same time. One guy at a console can throw out 17 semi-automated vehicles, or a company of tanks. " Cosby explains the practical virtues of semi-automated forces: "Let's say you are the captain of a national guard unit. You're in charge of an armory of 100 guys coming in on Saturday morning. You want to run your company in a defensive posture, and you want to be attacked by a battalion of 500 people. Well, where are you going to get 500 people Saturday morning in downtown San Diego? So the idea is you can call up SIMNET and have three other guys, each operating a couple of consoles, run those forces against you. You send a message: tonight at 2100 meet us on the Panama database and be ready to go. You could be talking to guys in Germany, Panama, Kansas, and California, and we'd all meet on the same piece of virtual map-sheet. The thing about semi-automated vehicles is that you wouldn't know if they were real or Memorex."

He obviously meant you wouldn't know if they were real simulations or fake simulations (the hyperreal), a modern distinction the military is only now coming to appreciate. The slippery fuzz between the real, the faked, and the hyperreally faked can be used to some advantage in war. U.S. Forces in the Gulf War overturned popular opinion of the relative expertise of both sides. Conventional wisdom said Iraq's forces were older, experienced, and battle hardened; the U.S.'s were young, inexperienced, and couch potatoes with joy sticks. Conventional wisdom was right; only about 1 out of 15 U.S. pilots had previous combat experience; most were fresh out of flight school. Yet the lopsided victory of the U.S. could not be accounted for merely by the absence of gumption from Iraq. Military insiders point to simulation training. A retired colonel asked one commander of the Battle of 73 Easting, "How do you account for your dramatic success, when not a single officer or man in your entire outfit ever had combat experience, and yet you beat Republican Guards who were operating on their own combat training maneuver grounds?" The troop leader answered, "But we were experienced. We had fought such engagements six times before in complete battle simulations at the National Training Center and in Germany. It was no different than practice."

Participants of the Battle of 73 Easting were not unique. Ninety percent of the U.S. Air Force units in Desert Storm, and 80 percent of the leaders of the ground forces had intensive training in battle simulations beforehand. The National Training Center (NTC) polished a soldier's SIMNET experience with another level of simulation. NTC, a Rhode Island-size blank spot on the map in the western deserts of California, uses a $100 million hi-tech laser and radio network to simulate battle with real tanks in a real desert. Cocky U.S. veterans dress in Russian uniforms, fight to Russian rules, and occasionally communicate in Russian as they play the home team opposing force (Opfor). They have a reputation of being unbeatable. But not only did U.S. trainees play against mock Iraqi forces drilled in Soviet tactics, but in some cases they simulated specific battle tactics until "they were second nature." For instance, the attack program for the awesome air blitz against Baghdad's targets had been rehearsed in simulated detail for months by U.S. pilots. As a result, only one out of 600 allied aircraft failed to return that first night. Colonel Paul Kern, the commander of a Gulf infantry brigade, told the electrical engineer's journal IEEE Spectrum, "Almost every commander I talked to said the combat situations they found in Iraq were not as hard as what they'd encounter at NTC."

What the military is groping towards is "embedded training" -- training simulation so real it is indistinguishable from actual combat. It is no leap of faith for the gunner of a modern tank, or a modern jetfighter, to imagine gaining more combat experience in SIMNET simulators than in an Iraqi war. A real tank gunner in a real tank reclines in a tiny windowless burrow tucked into the bowels of a multimillion-dollar steel capsule. He is surrounded by electronics and dials and LED readouts. His only portal to the outside battlefield is on the tiny TV monitor in front of his face which he can swivel like a periscope with his hands. His only link to the rest of his crew is through a headset. For all practical purposes a real gunner in a real tank operates a simulation. For all he knows, the numbers on his dials and the picture on his screen, even the image of the explosion his missiles generate, could be fantasized by a computer. What difference does it make for his job whether the one-inch-tall tanks on his monitor are "real" or not?

For a combatant of the Battle of 73 Easting, simulations came as a trinity. The soldier fought the battle first as a simulation, secondly for real via the simulation of monitors and sensors, and thirdly in the recreated simulation for history. Perhaps someday he wouldn't really be able to tell the difference between them.

That worrisome notion came up once at a NATO-sponsored conference on "Embedded Training," convened to examine this problem. As Michael Moshell, of the Institute for Simulation and Training, recalls, someone read the punch line of a memorable 1985 science fiction novel called Ender's Game, written by Orson Scott Card. Card originally wrote Ender's Game inside the virtual space of the GEnie teleconferencing system, for an audience who appreciated the hyperreal aspects of online life. In this tale, young boys are trained from childhood to be generals. They play nonstop tactical and strategic games in a zero-gravity space station. Their military training culminates as serious computer war games. Eventually, the most brilliant player and born leader, Ender, supervises a group of teammates in a massive and complex video war game against his adult mentor. Unbeknownst to them the mentor switches the inputs so that the Nintendo kids in reality are commanding galactic star ships (full of real people) fending off real hostile aliens invading the solar system. The kids win by blowing up the aliens' planet. Later they are told the truth: That wasn't just practice.

A reality switch could be made at other points, too. If there is little difference between simulated tank practice and real war, why not use simulated practice to fight a real war? If you can drive a tank through simulated Iraq from a plastic box connected in Kansas, why not drive a tank through real Iraq from the same safe place? That dream, which meshes so nicely with the Pentagon number-one mandate to lessen U.S. casualties, flitters all across the military these days. Prototype passengerless roving jeeps driven by "telepresent" operators back at the base already zip down real roads. These robo-soldiers keep "humans in the loop" but out of harm's way as the Army prefers. Unmanned but human-piloted aircraft played an immense part in the recent Gulf war. Imagine a very big model airplane loaded with video cameras and computers. These remotely guided planes, steered from bases in Saudi Arabia, served as spy platforms or command relays hovering directly over hostile territory. At the back end, a human leaned into a simulation.

The military's forward vision is big but slow. The power of cheap smart chips is ballooning faster than the Pentagon can think ahead. As far as I can discern, as of 1992, military simulations and war games are only marginally advanced over commercial versions for the public.