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[infowar.de] Wired: The War Room
The War Room
By Steve Silberman
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,64643,00.html
02:00 AM Aug. 20, 2004 PT
This article will appear in the 12.09 (September, 2004) issue of WIRED
magazine, available on newsstands August 24, 2004.
Twisted rebar, concrete, and splintered furniture lay scattered across the
floor of this room. Our view through a jagged hole in the wall looks out
on the city, showing steady civilian traffic crossing a bridge over a
river below. Sparrows flap through the gray haze, and Arabic music and the
voices of merchants filter up from the street.
An Army major beside me, Paul Tyrrell, scans the high-rises on the other
side of the river through his laser rangefinder. He is the frontline eyes
of the coalition, responsible for calling in air strikes. A platoon
sergeant named Donald Prado tells Tyrrell that an office tower half a mile
to the west is an enemy stronghold.
In eight minutes, coalition soldiers will storm across the bridge. Prado
radios in for the Air Force to drop a smoke screen for cover. He's also
spotted snipers on the roof of a hospital to the north but cautions the
major that the civilian facility is off-limits to targeting.
Then Tyrrell sees something Prado missed: Three of the antennas on the
roof are tactical radio masts, a tip-off that insurgents are using the
hospital as a communications base.
"That's a high-payoff target, brother," says Tyrrell. He gets approval to
deliver a "limited lethality" fragmentation bomb to the hospital roof. The
office tower will receive the full treatment - a 1,000-pound GPS-guided
Seconds later, the missiles smash into their targets in perfect synchrony.
Smoke and dust billow out in bright plumes, followed by shouts and the
keening of ambulance sirens.
The air is thick with heat, but it's not the merciless 120-degree swelter
of Baghdad. It's late spring in Lawton, Oklahoma. We're in the battle lab
of an Army base called Fort Sill, and the air-conditioning is on the
fritz. The river, the bridge, the civilian traffic, the birds, the bombs,
and Sergeant Prado are all virtual - a simulation generated by flat-panel
displays on the walls, a subwoofer in the floor, and half a dozen Windows
and Linux boxes down the hall. Only the smashed furniture, the officer
standing beside me, and the adrenaline spikes are real.
This is the new way soldiers will train for battle. In September, a select
group of Army infantrymen, Marine corpsmen, Navy sailors, and Air Force
pilots at Fort Sill will become the first military personnel to learn the
art of combat and the rules of engagement from surround sound action
movies starring themselves. The installation is the brainchild of the
Institute for Creative Technologies, an Army-funded R&D group at the
University of Southern California. ICT brings together videogame
developers, f/x artists, research scientists, and Pentagon experts to
create faster, cheaper, and more effective ways of preparing recruits for
their jobs on the front lines. If all goes well, similar facilities will
go up at bases from Fort Bliss to Fallujah.
The military has been using flight and tank simulators for decades ("War
Is Virtual Hell," Wired 1.01), but the installation at Fort Sill is the
first attempt to duplicate battle conditions for troops by combining
wartime science and theme-park showmanship. The Joint Fires and Effects
Trainer System, or JFETS, is the product of an unprecedented level of
cooperation among the Pentagon, film and gaming companies, and Silicon
Valley - a synergy that Stanford history professor Tim Lenoir calls the
Virtual war will never fully replace the mainstays of boot camp life:
live-fire exercises and ass-busting field training. But as weapons systems
grow smarter, they become more expensive to deploy in real-world war
games. Now that consumer gaming engines like Unreal are able to render
cinematic-quality graphics in real time, even big-ticket munitions are
trivial to simulate. Launching a rocket in a live exercise can cost
$10,000 or more; the price tag for the Defense Department's Millennium
Challenge - a three-week exercise in 2002 with 13,500 participants - was
$250 million. By contrast, the Army's bill for underwriting ICT for the
last five years was $45 million. Rehearsing even a single mission in the
field also requires weeks of planning and construction. Using synthetic
environments like JFETS, the Army will eventually be able to code new
mission rehearsals incorporating up-to-the-minute intelligence in a single
For decades, the entertainment industry and the military were advancing
the science of simulation on widely divergent tracks. The Pentagon focused
on developing high-end proprietary systems like the Close Combat Tactical
Trainer - a networked tank simulator that costs about $1 million - while
game developers loaded $49 first-person shooters with enough pixelated
firepower to convey the dynamics of skeletal trauma and the physics of
explosions in ever-closer-to-real time.
Those tracks converged at a 1996 workshop hosted by Michael Zyda, now the
head of the simulation lab at the Naval Postgraduate School. Former Disney
Imagineer Danny Hillis and Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull brainstormed about
"experiential" computing and electronic storytelling with representatives
>from Darpa, Intel, and Industrial Light & Magic, as well as the future
head of ICT, a Paramount TV exec named Richard Lindheim. The papers from
that workshop persuaded the Army to launch the Institute for Creative
Technologies in 1999.
The first hurdle, says Lindheim, was convincing the Pentagon that "not
everyone in Hollywood is a freak." By now the three-star generals who have
become a familiar sight at ICT seem comfortable discussing narrative
theory with f/x geeks. And even the scruffiest comp-sci nerds at the
institute "go green," adopting the acronym-heavy jargon of the Army as
readily as the arcane lexicons of hardcore programming. Institute staff
scrupulously avoid the word game in favor of cumbersome neologisms like
tactical decision aids. Instead of GAME OVER at the end of a virtual
engagement, a tactical decision aid will display the message mission
FAILED - TOO MANY US SOLDIER CASUALTIES. Still, researchers often refer to
soldiers as players and say things like, "When they're still talking about
it in the mess hall afterward, you've got a game!"
The executive producer of JFETS, Rob Sears, is an aficionado of old-school
war simulations with no more rendering apparatus than a cardboard
battlefield and a book of rules. The creator of the influential strategy
game Mech Commander, Sears is fascinated by logistics: How troops maintain
command structure under chaotic conditions, and how the decision to
increase the infantry baseload by a few pounds creates cascades of cause
"I keep two measures of success in mind for JFETS," he tells me. "Number
one, I want guys who have been to the Middle East to go into those rooms
and have their hair stand on end. And number two, to have the project be
an election-year trophy for Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz so they can
say, We're transforming the Army."
The backbone of military training for centuries was rote learning. The
goal of the punishing routines and endless drills was to replace thinking
with instinct so that at the sound of gunshots, a soldier would
automatically return fire. But this kind of schooling, the Pentagon now
believes, is inadequate to prepare soldiers for hot spots like the Sunni
Triangle, where it's not enough to be a good marksman. These days, grunts
fresh out of basic training must also be versed in the nuances of
street-level diplomacy with an increasingly hostile citizenry in densely
populated neighborhoods where allies can turn into opposing forces
To teach recruits how to navigate complex situations, ICT's virtual
training packages are built around the oldest form of immersive
experience: storytelling. "Instead of moving the classroom into the field,
we're moving the field into the classroom," says Randy Hill, the
institute's deputy technology director. An ICT software package for
desktop PCs called Think Like a Commander engages captains-in-training in
conflict scenarios derived from interviews with senior officers who served
in Bosnia or Afghanistan. In one story line, warlords descend on a
food-distribution outpost, and the trainee must quickly determine who to
trust and how to build alliances with the locals. The roles of the
coalition soldiers, tribal leaders, and villagers are played by lifelike
avatars programmed with megabytes of artificial intelligence, Army
doctrine, and speech-and-text recognition software.
ICT's realistic scenarios have also made an impact on the world of
mainstream gaming. A training package called Full Spectrum Warrior,
developed with Pandemic Studios, was the sleeper hit of last year's E3
gaming showcase, winning awards for Best Original Game and Best Simulation
- not bad for a doctrinally correct teaching tool intended for military
use. The commercial version, released in June for the Xbox, earned rave
reviews for its "shock-and-awe realism." Within days of its release,
gamers figured out the cheat code to unlock the Army-only version hidden
on the commercial discs, featuring less flashy graphics but smarter
What makes the breakout commercial popularity of Full Spectrum Warrior
particularly impressive is that it's not a standard-issue first-person
shooter. The game emphasizes tactics, strategy, and teamwork. The notable
lack of opportunities for an individual soldier to bust out the gnarliest
hunk of ordnance and let 'er rip reflects the changing nature of combat.
ICT's programs are designed to train the individual soldier in a
decentralized, networked model of warfare in which even the lowest-ranking
officer can call in an air strike or a tank battalion. The institute calls
its products "first-person thinkers."
"The bumper sticker version is, 'Everyone's a general,'" explains Jim
Korris, a veteran TV producer who is now the creative director of ICT.
"The Army decided that it needed to think less about educating people on
the physics of artillery tubes and start teaching them how to make smart
discriminations very quickly in close urban fights - training in cognitive
decision-making rather than skills."
In a graphics lab at ICT headquarters two blocks from the boatyards of
Marina del Rey, California, researcher Paul Debevec is developing
techniques that will enable the Army to re-create the harsh glare of the
Iraqi sun. He laser-scans a page from a 15th-century monastic manuscript.
The D in Domine is embossed in gold leaf, and the reflectivity of the
metal plus the roughness of the paper present a complex set of technical
puzzles involving albedo and specular scattering. By figuring out how to
represent these lighting conditions accurately onscreen, Debevec will
ensure that the landscapes and people rendered in JFETS appear authentic
enough that recruits will feel like they're really in the middle of the
"If you jump out of a tank at midday in the desert, your eyes are hit with
a 20,000-fold increase in light levels," he explains. "We need to teach
people how to move around in that five seconds of blindness."
Bearish and self-effacing, Debevec is an old hand at crafting digitized
environments that pass for the real thing. The Bullet Time sequences in
the original Matrix were inspired by his achievements in architectural
modeling and rendering, and his algorithms are hardwired into the new
generation of Nvidia and ATI graphics cards.
A floor above Debevec's lab, programmers are developing a crucial part of
the JFETS process known as the after-action review. When recruits emerge
>from the simulated battlefield, they'll sit down in front of videoscreens
on which avatars representing senior officers will grill them on the
specifics of their performance, debrief them on the rules of engagement,
and answer questions. Troops will also be able to pose questions to enemy
officers, represented by darker-skinned avatars with vaguely Middle
Eastern accents. The institute touts JFETS as the first military-grade
The tech for running the wall-sized displays at Fort Sill was developed in
a warehouse a few blocks from ICT headquarters. The director of this
project, known as FlatWorld, is Diane Piepol, a Hollywood f/x veteran
whose film credits include True Lies and Tank Girl. She explains that the
military needed to come up with its own display technology because the
headmounted virtual reality future that everyone expected didn't arrive
quickly enough. Her solution was to embrace hardware from the most mundane
fixture of corporate life - boardroom presentations. A set of Proxima
conference projectors and a handful of Dells enable the screens of
FlatWorld to be populated with a cast of characters rendered by a Gamebryo
3-D graphics engine. "In the morning you could be training in Baghdad, and
in the afternoon you could be in Korea," she says.
Or on Mars. One moment, the windows of FlatWorld look over a simulacrum of
the Iraqi desert; when Piepol dials in stereoscopic images from
Pathfinder, the flood plain of Ares Vallis extends to the red horizon. Her
off-the-shelf approach ensures that the technology for synthesizing
elaborate battle environments will run on the armed forces' heap of legacy
antiqueware at bases anywhere in the world.
Suddenly a translucent 3-D rendering of a robot walks into the room,
pauses in front of me, and walks back out. When a more sophisticated
version of this 3-D projection is fortified with artificial intelligence
and bathed in Debevec's virtual lighting, the mechanical invader will
become a Fedayeen soldier or coalition commander.
The Martian landscape is appropriate: When ICT was founded, one of its
first directives came from Army chief scientist Mike Andrews. "Build us a
holodeck," he said, referring to the room-sized device on Star Trek
employed to simulate the environments of alien planets.
Returning to ICT headquarters, I notice an unexpected aftereffect of
spending an hour in the holodeck. Glancing out a window, my brain no
longer trusts that I am seeing the real world. The freeway traffic and
tract houses of Marina del Rey seem virtual.
After Flatworld, the sight of Oklahoma senator James Inhofe buckling on a
virtual reality helmet at ICT headquarters seems positively old school. A
technician shouts "Load the flying bats!" and the senator is transported
to a damp tunnel near a farmhouse that may be an enemy hideout. Insects
whir and water trickles in surround sound while digitized bats swoop and
dive overhead. Inhofe is impressed. "It's the closest thing to reality
that I've ever experienced," he says. "My feet felt wet."
The senator is the institute's most powerful advocate in Congress; he
cosponsored the clause in the 2003 Defense Appropriations Act that gave
ICT $7 million to build the Fort Sill installation. Last spring, the
institute locked down another five-year contract with the Army.
A Republican who ran on a platform of "God, guns, and gays," Inhofe revels
in making statements that don't play well in the liberal precincts of
Blogistan. "I look wistfully back to the days of the Cold War," he says,
resting his cowboy boots on a chair after doffing his VR helmet. "Now
someone very small can pose a greater threat than the Soviet Union."
Not all of Inhofe's colleagues share his enthusiasm for the Defense
Department underwriting what some dismiss as "playing videogames."
Navigating in virtual worlds, however, turns out to be a very effective
way to train. Studies by academic researchers have shown that immersion in
simulated environments increases learning speed and retention for a range
of tasks, from making laparoscopic incisions to rescuing people from
burning buildings. When the Navy evaluated the performance of student
pilots who supplemented their standard courses by practicing on
Microsoft's Flight Simulator, they found that the majority of those who
used the software had above-average flight scores compared with those who
didn't. Now a customized version of Flight Simulator is issued to pilots
in Naval Reserve officer training courses at 65 colleges. (Al Qaeda's
pilots trained on a similar program for their 9/11 mission.)
Virtual military training dates back to 1929, when Ed Link, the son of an
organ manufacturer, invented the first flight simulator - a wooden cockpit
that swiveled on organ bellows to emulate climbs, banks, and dives. At
first, the 24-year-old entrepreneur found a more eager clientele among the
owners of amusement parks, but the escalating threat of World War II
persuaded the Roosevelt administration to invest in the technology. After
the war, the Army estimated that the devices saved 30 million training
hours and more than 500 lives in one year.
Impressed by Link's teaching tool, the Navy set about creating a simulator
that relied on a computer instead of pumps and valves. The effort, dubbed
Project Whirlwind and spearheaded at MIT, produced the first digital
computer (manufactured by an upstart calculator maker called IBM) and many
of the technical foundations of the modern networked age, including
magnetic RAM and interactive graphics. In many ways, the postwar Project
Whirlwind was a precursor to ICT, blurring the lines between the military,
private industry, and academia.
The architect of the current wave of innovation is Michael Macedonia, the
head of the Army's simulation office. He helped get ICT off the ground and
supervised the creation of AWE, the first massively multiplayer online
game to be used for military training, launched this year and playable
only in a secure area of the .mil network.
Macedonia takes a long view of his work. "People have been using
simulations for thousands of years, as long as there's been a military.
They told stories, drew pictures in the sand, invented chess," he says.
"They made these abstractions in the hopes that they could understand the
nature and dynamics of war. If you look at what a scientist does with
mathematical equations, what an artist does, or a writer - they're trying
to abstract the universe." Now all these modes are converging in the new
breed of training simulations, he says. Macedonia draws a parallel between
the real-life combat scenarios employed by ICT and the epics of Homer -
tales told to pass on the wisdom of seasoned warriors to those who are
called to fight.
As a veteran of the Persian Gulf war, Macedonia understands the realities
of combat. On the morning of 9/11, he was watching CNN on the third floor
of the Pentagon when a colonel walked in and announced, "We are at
Threatcon Delta," the code for an imminent terrorist attack on a known
location. Four minutes later, American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the
building, killing 189 people. Macedonia's brother, Chris, a doctor, is
currently serving in Iraq.
"The big challenge isn't getting the technology right," Macedonia tells
me. "We're almost there. The challenge is, Do we have the right story?
Does it map to reality? Are we teaching the right thing? The real story of
warfare is that your buddy's dying - what do you do? Or people are yelling
at you and you're really scared, because you think they might hurt you,
and you've been ordered not to hurt them." One of his favorite aphorisms
comes from philosopher George Santayana: "The great difficulty in
education is to get experience out of ideas."
On maps of Lawton, Fort Sill sprawls across 145 square miles northwest of
the city. Most of the cabdrivers here are retired Army men, and it's not
unusual to see grunts in camo browsing the magazine racks at Wal-Mart. On
warm nights, the low rumbling on the horizon is as likely to be live-fire
exercises as Oklahoma thunder.
JFETS occupies a wing of the battle lab at I-See-O Hall, named for a
Native American scout who helped the Army discourage local insurgents from
raiding Texas border settlements in the 1890s. The skull of Geronimo, Fort
Sill's most illustrious prisoner of war, no longer occupies his tomb on
the base; the Apache warrior's cranium was reportedly exhumed one night in
1918 by a group of Army officers and smuggled to Yale, where it resides in
the vault of the Skull and Bones society. The young officer who wielded
the shovel, according to university historian Alexandra Robbins, was the
President's grandfather, Prescott Bush.
In a cavernous room in the battle lab, a mountain range shimmers on a
wraparound screen like a scene from an Imax travelog produced by the
Afghan Chamber of Commerce. This is a demo of the Open Terrain Module of
JFETS, and I'm standing behind a real Humvee, knee-deep in brush, with
sand and gravel crunching under my feet. One of the soldiers in the
vehicle is Charles Stehling, a blue-eyed, tight-muscled 21-year-old Marine
Semper fi is in Stehling's blood. During the Korean War, his grandfather
survived the most desperate firefight in Marine Corps lore, the Battle of
Chosin Reservoir, in which the 1st Division, cut off from reinforcements
and support, fought through waves of Chinese night-fighters for weeks. His
great-uncles served in World War II - one on each side - and as Stehling
tells me their stories, he refers to the Allies as "the coalition." When
Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz dropped in for a tour of JFETS, the
young corporal was deployed to pick up trash near the doors; in ICT's
synthetic theaters of war, he will have the chance to prove himself a
From our virtual vantage point over a high pass, we have a clear view of a
valley. Stehling rides in the Humvee, typing reports into a battle command
terminal used to access a network providing a 3-D visualization of troop
movements, supply lines, weather, and terrain.
Suddenly, bullets ping! into the rocks, sending up fountains of dust
onscreen. "Contact - we're hot!" yells the sergeant in the turret of the
Humvee, which lurches into reverse on hydraulic pistons, theme-park style.
We race down the mountain under heavy fire and find a new position. Three
trucks in the distance look like enemy vehicles, and Stehling types in a
code to target them. But at the last moment, he learns they're civilian
and gets a dressing-down from the sergeant for depending too much on the
network and not maintaining a "mental picture of the battlespace" at all
Seconds later, as we pull out from behind a ridge, we spot multiple dust
plumes on the move - enemy tanks tearing southeast toward Charlie Company.
Stehling taps in the grid coordinates to call for an air strike. Just then
we're attacked, mortars thunder all around us, and the ground ahead of us
erupts in flames. If one measure of the effectiveness of a simulation is
whether it can evoke visceral fear, the Open Terrain Module passes the
test. My heart pounds as the Humvee grinds into a new position, the
sergeant reacquires the target on his laser rangefinder, and Stehling
calls out, "Ten seconds!"
? four, three, two, one. In the valley below, the tanks explode in
sequence and Stehling shouts, "We're getting everything in the zip code!"
The backlit exfoliations of smoke and debris are almost too beautiful.
"After I went through it," he tells me a short time later, "I was like,
Can you send me over to Iraq right now so I can get on the ball?"
The senior officers in the battle lab with Stehling seem impressed with
the training demo. "Instead of having soldiers fire 20 rounds in live
exercises, get 'em in here and it'll take 'em five" to work effectively as
a member of a team, says Scott Lutjens, a major who's a veteran of three
tours in Bosnia. "It will save the Army a lot of money. But what you don't
get," he adds, "is the true feel of the field" - the million logistical
decisions required to house and feed a community of warfighters in an
inhospitable place. Major Chris Niederhauser, the chief of simulation for
the base, wants to make JFETS even more true to life by adding weather f/x
like sandstorms and blasting heat, and extra layers of visual detail, such
as the blind spots in the windshield of a real Humvee.
Niederhauser also takes part in Darpa's "networked fires," massive
simulations in which every entity on the battlefield is both a shooter and
a sensor - swarm war. I ask him what combat will look like in 20 years.
"Distributed operations involving command and control of entities over
great distances," he says, "executed very rapidly with a short decision
cycle anywhere in the world. Starship Troopers. Ender's Game."
In Orson Scott Card's novel, Ender, a young prodigy, is enlisted to play
war games that turn out to be real. Recruits like Stehling have been
training for Ender's mission all their lives. They pound on Halo in the
garrison and launch strikes on Game Boys while riding in tanks. On their
days off, they pile into the multiplex to see blockbusters crafted by the
same technicians of verisimilitude who will now train them how to save
their buddies' lives while blowing the enemy out of the zip code. At night
the soldiers at Fort Sill head to the Dragon West, a bar outside the city
limits where dancers in thongs whisper scripted endearments and tease them
with glimpses of paradise. Many of them aren't old enough to order a beer,
and they're nine weeks away from Baghdad.
Immersive scenarios, high-payoff targets, limited lethality, people
simulators, networked fires. These young warriors will live, play, fight,
and die in the Matrix.
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