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SOCOM Secrets And The Helpful SEALs
by James Dunnigan
December 4, 2012

The U.S. Navy made public the recent official reprimand (the lowest level of official punishment) of seven SEALs for revealing classified information about their equipment and procedures to makers of a video game. As it was explained to the media, these reprimands could be career ending events for the seven SEALs. Not likely, when the military is short of highly trained operatives like this and offer them bonuses of over $100,000 to sign up for a few more years. What the navy media event was doing was getting the word out to everyone in the SOCOM (Special Operations Command) community that when this information is made public that means the enemy gets access to it as well. SEALs and other SOCOM personnel have been quietly told that Chinese, Iranian, North Korean, and Russian special operations troops have been intensively studying SOCOM methods and developing countermeasures. So the more these able foes know, the more dangerous it is for American commandos and their allies.

Surprise has always been a major weapon for SOCOM, and the more potential foes know the less effective special SOCOM equipment and techniques are. Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War in 1991, SOCOM operators have been increasingly using video games for training and planning. There was also a trend towards buying source code for video games and creating classified versions just for the troops. But at the same time, the military liked the civilian versions to be as realistic as possible, so civilians could have a better idea of what the troops went through and to help recruiters attract qualified candidates for commando units and combat service in general. 

Sometimes the collision of military, media, and video games gets truly bizarre. One example occurred two years ago, when there was an outbreak of political posturing and ignorance of military affairs because a new video game (“Medal of Honor”) had scenarios involving American troops fighting Taliban in Afghanistan. The game allowed users to play Americans or Taliban, a feature much in demand by the troops themselves. Many politicians and media pundits declared this was somehow unpatriotic. Yet, for over a century, U.S. troops have been playing wargames where some of them portray the "enemy" and try to kill U.S. soldiers. These highly realistic video games were no different and they are very popular with the troops, both for entertainment and professional training.

Since the 1990s, SOCOM has been using these games for training and using the feature that allows you to play either side. The basic advantage of this is that you get better insight into how the enemy operates if you fight the war from both sides. But this ancient practice seems to have been lost on the politicians and pundits calling for such games to be banned. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) which runs most stores on military bases (including those overseas) joined in the madness and banned the sale of “Medal of Honor.” No big deal for troops in most places, who can get it off base, but for those stationed in Afghanistan, they had to mail order it. With all this posturing no one seems to ask the troops who play these video games what they think.

The U.S. Army has been increasingly using video game technology (especially FPS, First Person Shooters) to create training systems to teach combat troops how to be more successful on the battlefield. For the last decade many of these simulations were created by using Virtual Battlespace (VBS). This is a toolkit for quickly creating realistic military simulations. Dozens of nations and separate military services have used VBS to create accurate combat simulations for training. Some of these are classified, but most are not.

VBS is constantly updated to include whatever new commercial game tech that appears and more mundane features that will make VBS3 easier to maintain. There are some strictly military features. There will be the ability to let troops use foreign languages, and knowledge of the local culture, in realistic situations. This has led to major improvements in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) of the NPCs (Non-Player Characters controlled by software). Commercial games use a lot of AI powered NPCs, but the military needs them more for extreme realism, not dramatic effect. Thus the U.S. Department of Defense is doing a lot of original research on AI (which may then be sold to commercial game developers). The increased military AI requirement means that VBS needs more computing power than even the most ambitious commercial game. Some of this goes towards rapidly creating and putting to use new scenarios. Thus VBS will be able to more easily import military databases (mainly for terrain). For a long time it took weeks, or months, to spin up new battle scenarios. The army uses video game technology to get that down to hours or less.

The army is also expanding the use of this first person gaming technology to training non-combat troops. That's about 85 percent of personnel. That covers everything from medics to mechanics, interpreters, intelligence analysts and interrogators, and, well, everyone. These simulations also deal with psychological issues, like the impact of an ambush and combat in general, on NPCs and the abilities of the players themselves. Then there is the ultimate goal of having these training game systems everywhere, so that troops can just switch to the training software and use existing computers (or the gear they use for their job) and go through realistic training exercises. This is easy to do for tanks and other vehicles but will need special equipment (PCs), or more computers imbedded into equipment, for everyone to be able to quickly switch to training simulation mode.

The U.S. Army began using simulation training game tech for recruiting a decade ago when it rolled out the online game "America's Army" (www.americasarmy.com) in 2002. Britain, Australia, and New Zealand eventually went in the same direction as the marines. To the despair of parents everywhere, it appears that video games do serve a useful purpose. "America's Army" was originally developed as a recruiting and public relations tool. It cost over eight million dollars to create. By late 2002, it had 929,000 registered players, 563,000 of whom stayed around long enough to finish the basic training exercise. The game costs over $4 million a year to maintain. So far, over ten million people have downloaded the front end (player) software. At peak times, over 5,000 players are online with the game simultaneously. Recruiters are satisfied with the number of prospects coming in because of the game. But an unexpected bonus has been the number of other uses the game has been put to.

The game, like many games today, was based on one of the "game engines" that are for sale to those developing commercial games. A "game engine" is the software for an earlier, successful game, with all the specific graphics and play elements removed. When you buy a game engine you add your own graphics and specific game and play elements and have a new game. America's Army used the Unreal game engine, and that led to clones of the America's Army software for additional training systems. Using the highly realistic combat operations depicted in the game, special versions are used to create specific games for all sorts of combat situations. The public will never see most of these, especially the classified ones.

Using the America's Army software, and a "tool box" that has been created to quickly modify the software, you can quickly create a custom version of America's Army. To do this from scratch would cost over a million dollars, take over a year, and might not work. With the America's Army resources, it takes a few months and often costs under $100,000. In this way weapons (and equipment) simulators have been quickly created and put to use. Because America's Army is web based, the troops can start to use it quickly, from wherever they can find a web connection. That means in the combat zone these days.

The marines went with a different engine because, well, even with lots of updates, the America's Army software is showing its age. More realism is a matter of life and death in these training simulations, as getting the details wrong can teach troops the wrong lesson and get them killed. The marines have long been innovators in the use of tactical training and wargames. Back in the 90s they adapted one of the first FPS (First Person perspective Shooters) "Doom" to marine use. Now they have a much more realistic game engine to use and one that can be easily networked. Many marines take their laptop computers to combat zones, and that takes care of a lot of hardware problems.


 

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