Welcome to the planet Simnet. But stay alert, because this has to be one of the more dangerous places known to man.
War rages interminably. The terrain is covered with tanks
and armored personnel carriers, many of them engulfed in flames. Close air
support (CAS) aircraft, both rotary and fixed-wing, pop up from behind trees
and scream down to engage in missile duels with ground forces.
The frenzied chatter of troops under stress fills the radio
waves. The incessant booming of artillery reverberates throughout this
nightmare world. Danger of death is ever-present.
This is not a real world, though it is frighteningly
realistic to Army and Air Force personnel who go there to learn the art of war.
Planet Simnet exists in a prototype simulator network—whence its name—put
together by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The purpose
of Simnet is to apply state-of-the-art electronics technology to the demanding
task of training forces in combined-arms warfare.
Maintaining force-readiness levels is a constant challenge,
one not likely to get any easier in an era of stagnant defense budgets and
qualitative upgrading of hostile forces. Traditional training methods,
principally field exercises and instruction on individual weapon simulators,
cannot keep pace for two reasons. First, these techniques cannot duplicate the
totality of tactical warfare. Second, they are too expensive to be used
Air Force Col. Jack Thorpe, the Simnet program manager at
DARPA, is convinced he has a better idea. He has been pursuing it relentlessly
for ten years. He proposes to use new technologies of microprocessors,
high-speed data links (including fiber optics), and computer-generated imagery
to create a new type of total warfare simulator.
Not a replica of a single weapon system built around a
central computer, these new simulators are modular workstations linked in a
network based on distributed architecture. Workstations can easily be added or
removed without forcing a total reconfiguration of the system.
For the purpose of training, the main advantage of this
approach is simple and compelling: All of the participants in an exercise—and
there could be thousands of them in advanced versions of Simnet—are fighting
the same battle.
Furthermore, these troops fight as teams, and they fight
other teams of humans, not computers. Colonel Thorpe compares Simnet
workstations to Alice's looking glass. They are entry points into an
electronically created world of strife. The battle continues without
interruption as trainees enter and exit this world.
Simple to Operate
In a military environment of high tech,
"mil-spec'd" equipment, Simnet workstations are built around Apple
Macintosh computers available at any computer store. One main reason is that
these processors are inexpensive and simple to operate. Another is that
Simnet's modular architecture doesn't care what kind of computer is used. Even
simpler and cheaper personal computers can be substituted.
"We can pick and choose and mix and match,"
Colonel Thorpe says, thus avoiding the situation of being locked into a single
Planet Simnet is rent-free, devoid of political or
ecological constraints, can be made identical to anyplace on planet Earth (from
Fort Knox to the Fulda Gap or even Red Square), and is nonlethal to its temporary
inhabitants, who can blaze away at each other with the weapons of their choice.
Today, Simnet is a test-bed network of workstations located
on two continents, all simulating ground and air vehicles. In the continental
US, there is one star configuration having a central node at Fort Knox, Ky.,
and six outlying nodes. They are found at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; Fort Hood,
Tex.; Fort Rucker, Ala.; Fort Benning, Ga.; Mississippi National Guard
headquarters at Camp McCain; DARPA headquarters in Arlington, Va.; and the
Cambridge, Mass., offices of associate prime contractor Bolt Beranek and Newman
(BBN). In Europe, three West German sites at Schweinfurt, Friedberg, and Fulda
are tied into a central node at Grafenwoehr.
All the nodes can "talk" to each other over
standard AT&T 56,000-bits-per-second long-haul communications lines.
Internal communications at each location use Ethernet or other local area
networks with data rates of 10,000,000 bits per second.
Each workstation for an Ml Abrams tank or an M2i3 Bradley
Fighting Vehicle costs $250,000. The tab is $500,000 for one that simulates a
generic CAS aircraft (it could represent an A-10 or an A-16, so Colonel Thorpe
calls it an "A-13"). Prices represent only a small fraction of the
cost of genuine articles.
Comparable savings are found in operations. Simnet's phone
and electric bills are far lower than costs of gasoline and jet fuel. Colonel
Thorpe estimates the total cost of the Simnet test-bed at about $60 million, of
which DARPA put up $20 million. The Army will pay the remainder.
Red Flag in a
"Simnet is like the National Training Center [the
Army's major field exercise site at Fort Irwin, Calif.] or Red Flag [the Air
Force exercises at Nellis AFB, Nev.] in a laboratory," Colonel Thorpe says.
But there is a difference: In this electronic world,
participants can do things they'd never dare to do in the real world.
The infantry can call in artillery support close to their
positions. At Fort Irwin this distance is limited to one kilometer; in combat
conditions it is 100 meters. The CAS pilots can learn how to dodge
surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Perhaps best of all, tanks don't cause traffic
jams or tear up farmers' fields. This has been a problem in past Reforger
exercises in West Germany, and the growing mood of pacifism there could
seriously impair future readiness exercises.
Colonel Thorpe, holder of a Ph.D. in industrial psychology
from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, first tackled the simulation problem
in 1978, when he was a captain assigned to the Air Force Office of Scientific
Research. At first, the idea was to examine what simulators could do that couldn't
be done in aircraft. USAF was understandably cool to the idea because it
threatened to reduce flying hours. "No wonder people hated us,"
recalls Colonel Thorpe.
But he persisted and expanded the scope of his studies to
include the Army after he was assigned to DARPA in 1981. Although today Colonel
Thorpe customarily wears his Air Force fatigues and mirror-bright combat boots
in a building where the civilians wear suits and officers wear dress uniforms,
he confesses that at first he wasn't sure what an Army battalion was. (It
typically comprises a headquarters company and four infantry companies or four
artillery batteries, totaling about 700 soldiers.)
By January 1985, DARPA had built a plywood mockup tank
simulator, but it was based on a canned, seven-minute videotape scenario and
was by no means an interactive system. By October 1985, Colonel Thorpe's group
was able to display a full simulator with crude interactive graphics at the
annual Association of the US Army convention, and the program took off. The
first two preproduction units were installed at Fort Knox in May 1986, and the
tankers began serious training in tactics.
What put Simnet on the map was its success in preparing US
teams for the Canadian Army Trophy competition in June of 1987. This is the top
contest among NATO armored units, and the United States had suffered a string
of embarrassingly poor finishes. That spring, US entrants used Simnet to
recreate the Grafenwoehr range, going on to sweep the competition. One Ml
platoon from the 8th Armored Cavalry achieved a record score among twenty-four
participating platoons, and another finished third. "That got everybody's
attention," Colonel Thorpe notes.
An early application of Simnet came in the Army's source selection
from among two competitors for the Forward Area Air Defense System! Line of
Sight-Heavy (FAADS/ LOS-H) system. Trials were held at the artillery school at
Fort Sill, Okla. "They needed somebody to shoot at," Colonel Thorpe
says, so Simnet was expanded to include generic fixed- and rotary-wing CAS
aircraft. Almost by default, this put Simnet in the thick of the Army's AirLand
Battle concept of combined arms.
Today the system has been expanded throughout Army sites in
CONUS and West Germany, but the principal installation is at the armored school
at Fort Knox. It can train an entire battalion at a time. Expecting that Simnet
will soon move from development to operational use, the Army's program manager
for training devices (PMTRADE) is circulating a draft request for proposals
aimed at an initial procurement next year.
Colonel Thorpe estimates that the Army itself might want to
procure as many as 5,000 of the $250,000-per-copy workstations, making it a
potential billion-dollar program.
Colonel Thorpe concedes that his own service has shown scant
interest in Simnet, though he contends that Simnet-type systems would be
valuable in training pilots for highflying reconnaissance aircraft and special
missions such as those of the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS).
Tactical air units, he adds, could also benefit. "They may find," he
says, "that artillery is their best wing man because it takes out air
The Navy, meanwhile, plans· to join the Army in joint
exercises this fall, says Colonel Thorpe. The idea is to use Simnet to
"build an ocean" useful in training those conducting
shore bombardment from ships or flying carrier aircraft on
Some technical issues remain to be resolved. Simnet graphics
are still crude, Colonel Thorpe concedes, much like looking through a dirty
window or encountering bad weather. Another question concerns long-haul
communications to link participants on a global basis. It would be cheaper and
more efficient to train the CONUS-based and forward-deployed units together
electronically rather than to move them to a single site. The question is
whether performance will be degraded by the delays inherent in satellite
communications. An alternative may be to use transatlantic fiber optic cables
currently being installed. That, however, raises security questions.
As in all training of this type, there is the problem of the
"red" aggressor forces. They do their work so often and thereby build
up their warfighting expertise to such a high level that they become virtually
unbeatable. It is generally agreed that training US forces in the tactics of
the enemy is desirable, but what if those tactics suddenly change?
These are some of the issues that were addressed during a
proof-of-principle exercise conducted last March. Fort Knox provided a
battalion-sized mechanized infantry task force, and Fort Rucker furnished
helicopters as the blue team. USAF joined the competition for the first time
with four A-10 pilots:
Maj. Frank Countryman and Capt. Mark Lampe from the 45th
Tactical Fighter Squadron, Grissom AFB, Ind.; Capt. James Cobb from the 355th
TFS, Myrtle Beach, S. C.; and Capt. Jeff Miller from the 23d Tactical Fighter
Wing, England AFB, La. BBN personnel in Cambridge were the red team. Additional
support was provided by the other Simnet associate prime contractor,
Perceptronics of California.
The battlefield was a fifty-by-seventy-five-kilometer piece
of terrain at Fort Knox, complete with forests, streams, hills, buildings, and
roads (an "Autobahn"). The area normally is used for real training
exercises. The participants sat in mockups of crew stations that provide
realistic sound (but no motion) and have all controls necessary for maneuvering
and fighting. They communicated with each other via standard forty-channel FM
As everybody fought the same battles, the intensity level
escalated—and little wonder. Because there is no "reset" button on
Simnet, a tank that gets hit is a tank that goes out of the competition. If an
airfield is pocked, an A-10 pilot has to find another place to land. If a tank
tries to cross an unfordable stream, it stays there until a simulated tow
vehicle can pull it out. If it runs out of ammunition, it stops firing until
another simulated vehicle resupplies it.
Random failures are built into the system to occur at the
rate normally encountered in combat. A vehicle's transmission failure can put
it out of operation for an hour, for example; a faulty battery or alternator
can be replaced in thirty minutes.
Though active participants can see only that part of the
battle observable from the windows of their vehicles (three and a half
kilometers for the ground vehicles and seven kilometers for the CAS
aircraft), the DARPA monitors can unobtrusively move anywhere on the
battlefield to see how everybody is doing. Colonel Thorpe calls this his
electronic "magic carpet," and he can hitch it to any vehicle or even
to an incoming missile. Despite the crude graphics, the observer is quickly swept
into the emotion of combat. Colonel Thorpe jokes that he has increased his
vocabulary of profanity in this way.
Each exercise is videotaped as the fighting proceeds so it
can be played back later for instruction in tactics. However, this system is
not intended to teach anybody how to drive a tank or fly an airplane. All the
participants are expected to know the basics already; they are supposed to use
Simnet to refine their combat skills. Nor is Simnet intended to replace
Reforgers or Red Flags, but rather to help personnel prepare for them.
"In order to fight, we have to be able to do the things
we know we will have to do on the first day of a war," Colonel Thorpe
says. "But nobody, anywhere, is able to practice them." On the
electronic planet of Simnet, however, warriors can practice those skills every
The payoff could be great. All military training, whether in
the field or in DARPA's glamorous new video arcade, is aimed at countering what
many view as the single greatest challenge of warfare: overcoming uncertainty.
As the German military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz put it in his landmark
work, On War: "War is the province of uncertainty: Three-fourths of those
things upon which action in war must be calculated are hidden more or less in
the clouds of great uncertainty. "
The purpose of Simnet is to help warriors prepare to cope
with that uncertainty—with a bonus for the trainees: The "dead"
soldiers can go home at night, have dinner with their families, and ponder ways
to survive the next time.
John Rhea is a
free-lance writer, living in Woodstock, Va., who specializes in military
technology issues and is a frequent contributor to this magazine. His most
recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, "Beyond Electronics," appeared
in the June '89 issue.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag