Computer-simulated war games still can't replace the real thing
- By Paul Constance
- May 27, 1996
FORT BRAGG, N.C.--Why did the Pentagon host a training exercise
last month that launched the largest military parachute assault since World War II?
Simple, explained Lt. Gen. John M. Keane. "We can't do it all by simulation."
The commander of the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps told reporters at Pope Air Force Base,
just outside Fort Bragg, "We can't rely on computers to always tell us what to do. We
have to practice our capabilities in the field."
It was an unexpected justification for the exercise that involved 5,000 paratroopers,
144 heavy-lift aircraft, and hundreds of pieces of artillery and heavy equipment.
Keane's remarks underscored how much military training has changed since low-cost
graphical workstations and high-speed distributed networks arrived in the Defense
Department ten years ago.
Live exercises, once the mainstay of a soldier's training, are now the last link in a
chain of training options based on simulation systems that provide much of the realism at
a fraction of the cost.
Indeed, computer-based training is now ubiquitous within DOD; senior commanders worry
troops will lose touch with the physical dimension of war fighting.
"We've been doing all of this through simulation," said Marine Corps Gen.
John J. Sheehan, commander in chief, U.S. Atlantic Command and Supreme Allied Commander
Atlantic. "But we need to test the theory with practice."
From April 25 through May 20, Sheehan's command sponsored one of the largest live
exercises ever. Known as Combined Joint Task Force Exercise, or CJTFEX '96, it involved
53,000 British and American troops and hundreds of aircraft, ships and tanks at a cost of
nearly $17 million.
The huge nighttime airdrop here on May 15 was but one component of the exercise, which
sought to enforce a United Nations resolution in a territorial dispute between fictitious
countries superimposed on the shores of North and South Carolina.
But for all the emphasis on traditional war fighting, nearly every aspect of CJTFEX '96
illustrated DOD's growing dependence on computers. "The weapon platforms we had in
[Operation Desert Storm] and what we're using here today are basically the same,"
Sheehan said. "What has improved is our ability to distribute information around the
Sheehan said commercial computing and networking products, combined with new DOD
policies that make it easier to exchange classified information with NATO allies, brought
participants in the exercise much closer to what military strategists call "shared
situational awareness." With intelligence data, this awareness speeds the process of
finding and destroying enemy assets such as the Scud missile launchers that often eluded
the Allies during Desert Storm, the commanders said.
Battlefield visualization capabilities were evident at the Wing Operations Center set
up at Pope Air Force Base to oversee the aircraft components of the air drop. Along with
13 different kinds of traditional tactical radios, the WOC had two large projection
screens for displaying the CJTFEX theater.
"An AWACS feed will let us view progress of each aircraft on this screen during
the drop," said Brig. Gen. Larry Northington, mission commander for the air drop,
referring to the satellite data feeds from the Airborne Warning and Control System.
Moreover, that view of the battlefield was available simultaneously to Allied command
centers in Fort Bragg and aboard the USS Mount Whitney, off the Carolina coast, via the
Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS).
Even the paratroopers benefited from information technology. After landing in the dark
at four separate landing zones deep in the North Carolina pine forests, soldiers from the
Army's 82nd Airborne Division used handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers to
plot their location to within a few feet on digital maps.
Each platoon also was equipped with a backpack-mounted Single Channel Ground and
Airborne Radio (SINCGARS), a digital radio that eventually will provide access to the
Army's Tactical Internet through the Force XXI battlefield digitization program.