Warplanes: USAF Plays Games


November17, 2006: For military people, wargames are not entertainment, but an opportunity to avoid getting killed. Wargames have been around for thousands of years. The earliest versions of chess were excellent tools for practicing how to fight a battle, back in the days when you had no radios or guns, just lots of guys armed with sharp objects and a bad attitude. Warfare is much more complicated today, and air forces have the most complicated weapons and equipment to deal with. For that reason, the U.S. Air Force was a little slow to get into wargames.

The Air Force actually needed two very different types of wargames. For pilots, it needs flight simulators. These have been around since the 1930s. Simulators were originally introduced so that new pilots could get some experience navigating, by instruments, which was how you flew at night and in bad weather. This was not the sort of thing you wanted to practice while actually in the air. These first flight simulators saved thousands of lives, and evolved into the current ones that are extremely realistic, quite visual, and allow you to do just about anything you would do in the air. But not realistic enough to replace actually flying. The simulators do not, for example, replicate the forces of gravity, that can cause pilots to black out, or come close to it, when making sharp turns at high speed. The simulators cannot replicate all the smells, sounds and more subtle signs that you are in a real cockpit. But the simulators do serve to make a good pilot better. As with the original simulators, they provide a safe venue for practicing dangerous procedures. The simulators are also wargames.

Then there are the wargames that enable you to work out battle plans, test those plans, and experiment with potential enemy moves. These are a rather recent development for the Air Force. Before the 1980s, Air Force planners would simply use map exercises and calculators to work out the details of upcoming missions. Not a lot of playing around with what the enemy might do. Noting the success the Army and Navy were having with wargames, the Air Force joined in. But the Air Force took a slightly different approach, reflecting their unique needs, and this produced three types of Air Force wargames;

Mission Planning- This covers planning for an individual mission, involving anything from one aircraft (for, say, a photo reconnaissance mission), to large raids (employing dozens of aircraft, including electronic warfare planes, bombers, fighters and aerial tankers). For about two decades now, the Air Force has been using computerized systems that look a lot like the flight simulation games you play on your PC. But the Air Force versions involve a lot more technical detail, like fuel consumption and frequencies for electronic equipment. The latest ones also have very realistic graphics, so that pilots can, for example, do a test run flying low, through mountainous terrain (to hide from enemy radar). The Air Force has many versions, including some that can be run on a laptop. The next step is mission planning systems that are built into the aircraft. Thus the pilot can quickly revise mission plans while in the air, using the computer like displays that are now standard in cockpits.

Target Planning- Listing which targets are out there, and deciding which should be hit. And when, in order to inflict the maximum damage, while minimizing friendly losses. As far back as World War II, Operations Research (OR) techniques (put simply, a combination of math and common sense) were used. This is still the case, but computers are used now, along with spiffy computer graphics.

Operational Planning- Working out the best strategy for a large campaign, conducted over a long period of time. At this level of wargaming, the activities of the other services (Army and Navy) get more attention, as do a lot of activities on the ground (moving supplies, building airbases and the like.) The Air Force uses two "wargames" for this; TBMCS (air campaign planner software) and AWSIM (a very realistic and complex wargame).

In addition, the Air Force has unclassified wargames for teaching new officers what planning and running an air battle is like. These often look like the professional wargames, because they use a lot of the same hardware and graphics. In the last decade, the military has moved from creating its own wargames in-house, to simply (and much less expensively) adapting commercial wargames to professional use. But while there are plenty of commercial wargames dealing with ground and naval combat, except for flight simulators, there are very few that deal with planning air campaigns and battles.

Learning how air battles work is important because, while we tend to think of air combat as just dogfights or bombing, it's actually a lot more complicated than that. Air campaigns (or "Theater Air Operations") tend to involve hundreds of warplanes in the air at one time (and many more on the ground, getting ready to fly), all of them performing different jobs. Someone has to work all this out in advance, and wargames are a perfect tool for learning about it. Unfortunately, few of the computer wargames out there deal with this aspect of air warfare. Mainly because the situation doesn't lend itself to the same kind of excitement you find in ground or naval combat. For the people in charge of Theater Air Operations, the challenges are mostly logistical (supplying fuel, bombs and the like), coordination and maintenance. That is, you want to use your resources (aircraft and air bases) as efficiently as possible in order to carry out the missions (supporting the troops on the ground, but also cover reconnaissance, and making sure you retain supremacy of the air).

The Air Force recently developed an unclassified wargame for teaching officers the details of planning and executing large scale air ("theater") air operations. To do this cheaply, a commercial computer wargame, "Modern Air Power," was modified to meet air force requirements (mainly by adding more detail and the right jargon). This game was re-named "Theater Airpower Visualization" (TAV). In addition to contemporary operations, TAV came with databases showing past theater air operations, all the way back to Vietnam operations in the 1960s. Instructors could easily create new databases, and modify old ones.

A game like this is needed so all Air Force officers understood exactly what the Air Force did, and how it was done. They need something like TAV, because the official wargames for doing this are quite complex, and also classified. The students require a game can be learned quickly and played intuitively (without having to learn a lot of arcane rules and procedures). Students don't have much time. The other services use a similar approach. While TAV is easy to use, it is still quite different from a commercial product. For example, the Air Force added things like the Air Tasking Order (the computer generated list of what every aircraft would do every day during a campaign, based on the needs of all the combat forces out there). TAV also showed the complex relationships between various Air Force, and non-Air Force, organizations. In short, TAV allows users, and not those who might one day run these campaigns, to experience what planning and executing a battle plan is like.

Wargames are basically about learning. Wargames are also about competition and are rich in information. The wargame-like computer systems used to actually plan air campaigns (or land or naval ones) are more process, than gaming. Students who will actually do the planning of theater air operations, will learn all those administrative procedures elsewhere. But when you want to teach them how to out-think the enemy, understand how the air force operates, and the limitations of existing aircraft, weapons and equipment, you need a competition based wargame like TAV.

While commercial wargames are built to get players into the game with a minimum of fuss, professional wargames are much more complicated. That's because military users are not just practicing fighting, they are also learning, and practicing, the many procedures they must carry out to make this happen. Professionals need to practice these procedures. These are the details of warfare that are left out of commercial wargames. Logistics, for example, is rarely given much attention in commercial wargames. But moving the fuel, bombs and spare parts to the air bases is a critical task, and often a difficult one as well. There are also a lot of administrative things to deal with, like making sure pilots don't spend too much time in the air (for the same reason commercial pilots have limits on this, to prevent fatigue, and mistakes while doing intense stuff like landing.)

When the Air Force was created in 1947, the Army and Navy had already been using wargames for over half a century. At first, the Air Force largely ignored wargames. That would have changed eventually, but the process was speeded up by an amazing coincidence. In the early 1980s, two guys, who were roommates at West Point, got promoted. One (Charles Gabriel) became commander of the Air Force and the other (John Wickham) of the Army. The two men had remained friends since, and, together, they introduced an unprecedented period of cooperation between the two services. That included the Air Force taking advantage of new Army developments in the wargames area. Once exposed to wargames, a lot of Air Force officers began coming up with new approaches to gaming, ones that were particularly suited to Air Force needs.

Some of these new tools were used successfully in the 1991 Gulf War, and received even greater acceptance. One problem, however, remained unsolved. The Air Force has, since World War II, been having a problem with BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment). The guys on the ground have, in every American war involving airpower, successfully deceived the Air Force regarding just what was destroyed and what was not. After each war, the Air Force attacks the problem, declares it "solved" and, then, it happens all over again. At the moment, there are some very top secret efforts (including wargames) attempting to solve the problem.

Wargames, both commercial and professional, have been a major aid to the Air Force. The benefits range from new pilots quickly learning the basics using flight simulators they bought while in high school, to software that now allows the Air Force to link its wargames with those used by the Army and Navy. This was not easy to do, because when first undertaken, if was discovered that the three services had different ideas about what the other guys were doing. That in itself was a useful experience, especially since, in 1991, the Air Force and Navy found that their pilots, weapons and aircraft operated very differently. Normally, there differences, which tend to grow during peacetime, only become problems when a war breaks out. But in 2001 and 2003, partly because of wargame exercises between the three services, there were far fewer problems.

There's something else to consider. The U.S. Air Force has dominated the air for over sixty years. We tend to take that for granted, but people in the Air Force, who know their own history, realize that the "Victory Disease" (believing you are good, to the point where you get sloppy) is a constant threat. The latest generation of wargames has played a role in keeping it real. Flight simulators have always done that for pilots, but now Air Force generals and staff officers have realistic wargames that allow them to screw up, realistically, when there isn't a war going on. This saves lives, but not in a spectacular way, so you never hear about. But it happens, and is another reason why the U.S. Air Force continues to own the skies.


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