Weeks before U.S. pilots took to the skies above Afghanistan last October, they had a pretty good idea what they would see there. Already they had logged many hours doing virtual fly-throughs over the rugged mountain terrain, using a mission rehearsal system known as Topscene (for tactical operational scene). Built for the U.S. Department of Defense by Anteon Corp., Fairfax, Va., Topscene combines aerial photos, satellite images, and intelligence data to create high-resolution three-dimensional databases of a region.
Seated at computer consoles running on Silicon Graphics Onyx processors, pilots could visualize flying from ground level up to 12 000 meters, at speeds up to 2250 km/h. The detailed renderings, showing roads, buildings, and even vehicles, helped them plot the best approach, scout for landmarks, and identify designated targets.
Topscene is just one of many powerful new simulation tools that the U.S. military is using to prepare soldiers and their leaders for battle. Over the last three decades, sophisticated computer modeling and graphics, faster processor speeds, and advances in artificial intelligence have gone into building simulation technology that can create a reality that stops just short of war.
In turn, the use of simulators has helped bring about a sea change in military training. Troops today practice exhaustively, taught by simulators not only how to use their ever more complex equipment, but also how to work in teams, move efficiently through a battlespace, and negotiate a wide range of conflicts, which may or may not involve military force.
Simulation also gives military and political leaders insight into potential conflicts. Commanders can now recreate on computer the complex choreography of thousands of soldiers, weapons, vehicles, and aircraft moving across a battlefield that extends over thousands of square kilometers. In this way, military decision-makers can test strategic options before launching a campaign in earnest. They can also assess the performance of new weapons systems under consideration.
The result has been nothing less than remarkable. Low U.S. casualties in Desert Storm, the Balkans, and now Afghanistan stem in large part from the growing use of training simulators, according to a task force of the U.S. Defense Science Board, whose 35 civilian members advise the Secretary of Defense on matters of military R&D. In its 2000 report, "Training Superiority and Training Surprise," the task force concluded that "the new combat training approach invented 30 years ago develops, without bloodshed, individuals and units into aces."
The push toward training simulation has also spawned a huge industry. According to the trade publication Military Training and Simulation News, the U.S. Department of Defense spends about US $4 billion each year on simulation and training equipment. No other country has invested nearly as much.
And that is just the beginning. Today, the Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation 2 game consoles are being adapted for distributed and networked military gaming. Meanwhile, an Army-sponsored group of artists, Hollywood special-effects experts, and researchers at the University of Southern California are working on the next generation of military trainers: immersive virtual-reality environments akin to the "Star Trek" holodeck, in which real soldiers interact with synthetic yet life-like actors.
"The shift from live range training to computer-based training is fundamentally changing the way we prepare our soldiers for the future," noted W. H. ("Dell") Lunceford Jr., director of the Army Model and Simulation Office in Arlington, Va. "Every soldier today needs to understand the value and the pitfalls of simulation, just as he or she must understand military science."