It is war unlike any other that has been fought. True, combatants meet on a "battlefield" where, for all appearances, they blast away at one another from tanks, airplanes and helicopters.
But fighting alongside the troops are robots. Invisible, ghostly observers can move back and forth in time, soar over the battlefield in "flying carpets" and infiltrate tanks, unnoticed by the vehicles' occupants. No one dies or even gets hurt.
Welcome to the virtual war, now being fought in high-tech simulators in the United States and Germany. Conceived and developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), this vast, multipurpose system subjects soldiers and pilots to the sights and sounds of warfare without endangering them, and lets officials study the effectiveness of a proposed piece of equipment without actually building it. "The microprocessor revolution of the 1980s has enabled us to create total-immersion worlds, where you can do things you can't do anywhere else," said Col. Jack Thorpe, special assistant for simulation at DARPA.
With defense budgets on the decline, the Department of Defense is preparing a master plan to expand the simulation network. Today, the Defense Department tests new weapons through expensive, potentially dangerous live-fire exercises. One way military officials hope to save money, according to a Pentagon source helping to draft the plan, is by acclimating the troops to the new equipment in simulators, and mounting shorter, cheaper testing programs focused on proving the equipment.
Military officials expect that simulators may also be used to support wars in more direct ways. During the war in the Persian Gulf, for example, a version of the DARPA simulator was earmarked for Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's headquarters in Saudi Arabia. Although the war's abrupt end canceled plans to send it there, the system was operated at Ft. Knox, Ky., where it was loaded with detailed databases describing the terrain and fed a steady diet of intelligence on Iraqi positions. Special software transformed the data into vivid, three-dimensional images of the landscapes and enemy positions, allowing strategists to study the positions as if they were floating above them.
DARPA and other defense agencies are working with Illusion Engineering Inc. in Westlake Village to re-create one of the pivotal battles during the 100-hour ground war in the Persian Gulf. After the war, a team of Army historians and simulator experts combed the southern Iraqi battlefield where one U.S. soldier and hundreds of Iraqi troops were killed in a fierce, 90-minute clash. The researchers noted the locations of destroyed Iraqi vehicles; they recorded the positions and orientations of missile guidance wires found in the desert sand; they listened to audiotapes of radio transmissions and one tape made by an 18-year old private, who shouted an emotional commentary into a pocket tape recorder during the battle. Extensive interviews were also done with dozens of participants.
If all goes well, by next spring the group will have a version of the battle, known as 73 Easting from its grid position on military maps, running on the simulators. Using a "flying carpet" feature, those seeking to study the battle will be able to put themselves into the fray--in the tank of one of the participants, or tethered to a helicopter flying above the battlefield, or even astride a missile arcing toward its target. Commanders will be able to return to the scene and moment of a fatality to try to understand why it happened. They will be able to change the initial conditions--by giving the Iraqis better tanks or positions, or air support--and see what difference it makes in the outcome.
"What has us absolutely captivated," Thorpe said, "is that if this works, we're talking about being able to revisit history. And it's not like Walter Cronkite's 'You Are There.' This is like a live, interactive world--an extraordinarily powerful, revolutionary technology."
Real-time battlefield applications are probably years away, however. Today, the DARPA-developed machines are used mainly by the Army for training and to test new ideas for military hardware. About 260 of the $250,000 simulators are divided among seven U.S. sites and four German sites. Perceptronics, a Woodland Hills-based simulation company, designed and built the simulators, and Bolt, Beranek, & Newman, a Cambridge, Mass., high-tech concern, produced the computer hardware and software.
Different simulators represent a tank, a helicopter, an airplane and an air-defense system. All are made of fiberglass and resemble metal and armor. Other exterior touches extend the illusion. For example, the tank door was purposely designed to resemble the armored, watertight hatches found on warships so that the massiveness of an armored vehicle would be suggested. Also, modern tanks are so well insulated that there is little noise inside when the gun is fired, but the crews see a bright flash and feel a powerful recoil.
Designers could not cheaply duplicate the flash and recoil, so they mimicked its psychological effects by enhancing the sound and using low-frequency "subwoofer" effects built into the seats. They also enhanced the sound of the track that propels the tank: embedded within its clanking are subliminal recordings of a lion's roar. "It just adds to the adrenaline," said Lt. Cmdr. Dennis K. McBride, manager of DARPA's Warfighting Simulation Office.
Climbing into these far-flung simulators, troops and pilots can fight each other--and "robot" enemies that follow the lead of the humans--on a synthetic battlefield that exists only in the network connecting them. Thorpe uses a "Star Trek" analogy: "Each simulator is its own little transporter room, and we beam to a planet where there's a piece of real estate, accurately modeled, where we meet friends and enemies. There, the battle takes place."
Inside the simulators, the troops perch in the same positions they would assume in the real vehicles. But instead of viewing the outside world through a portal or cockpit canopy, they see a simulated, detailed battlefield with hills, trees, clouds, streams, roads, buildings--and, of course, each other--on a full-color, high-resolution computer screen. When an attack jet streaks across the sky, tank crews below can look up and see the jet, and the pilot can look down and see the tanks.
Several battles can be fought simultaneously, and like denizens of different parallel worlds, combatants in different skirmishes are completely unaware of the other conflicts unfolding on the same network.
Using the "flying carpet" software feature, neutral observers can watch any battle like ghosts: Bullets pass through them, and no one can see them. In return, they cannot affect the battle in any way. As its name implies, the feature lets them see the landscape as though they were floating over and through it, like the prince in Scheherazade's tale. Steering is accomplished by moving a "space ball," a sort of high-tech joy stick.
So much detail is provided in the scenes and sounds that combatants "completely forget it's a simulation," said James G. McDonough, a principal partner at Illusion Engineering. "They sweat and they scream obscenities over the radio."
The largest "battle" waged so far involved about 1,000 simulated vehicles and aircraft "driven" or "flown" by soldiers and pilots scattered around the Eastern and Midwestern United States. Advanced software introduced unpredictability and the imperfect way that human troops might be expected to follow orders. The day is not far off, Thorpe said, when "you have bad guys roaming the network looking for a fight."
Every simulator stores a large, identical database containing everything needed to reconstruct the detailed digital battlefield. The database also has extensive information about the capabilities and appearances of tanks, aircraft and the like.
Underlying the whole simulation is the basic principle that every simulator is autonomous and responsible for updating the other simulators as the battle unfolds. "It's this common, consistent simulated world in which many different types of simulators can interact--that had never been done before," said Duncan C. Miller, vice president of engineering at Bolt, Beranek, & Newman's division on advanced simulation.
The only information transmitted between simulators decribes changes: when a tank fires a round, changes direction, or is hit and bursts into flame, for example. When a round is fired, a computer in the simulator computes the trajectory and determines whether the shot finds its mark.
Yet another use of the technology would be in a war zone itself, where commanders could employ it to consider tactics, and vividly show their intentions to key lieutenants.
In fact, though the Defense Department will not comment on it, there is speculation that the simulator may have been used in planning Apache helicopter attacks on Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites, which cleared the way for the massive allied air attack that began the Gulf War on Jan. 17.