Electronic Weapons: Wargames In Go To War

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July 25, 2015: In the United States the SOF (Special Operations Forces) usually get whatever they need. One little known area where the American SOCOM (Special Operations Command) spends a lot of money is mission planning software. One of the more recent software items SOCOM bought is ScenGen, an app that quickly calculates all the possible outcomes for a mission. ScenGen deals with a limited number (as defined by the mission planner) of actions in a mission. The action list can be changed and ScenGen run again. With an app like ScenGen planners and commanders can quickly see which aspects of the mission are most likely to cause problems and address the issue.

Something like ScenGen is particularly useful when used with mission planning system like LGC (Lt.Gen Computer) that adds photo analysis tools that enable 2-D photos to be quickly transformed into 3-D models of the battlefield terrain. LGC helps troops with sorting out what the easiest routes (traversability) are and what you can see from any point in an area (for line-of-sight to potential targets.) Changes in traversability, caused by weather or enemy actions, often requires changes to a mission plan.

The troops have long been asking for capabilities that apps like ScenGen and LGC. The troops also want mission planning software that is easy to use, does what needs to be done, and fits on a laptop computer or tablet. Thus the latest mission planning systems combine digital maps and 3-D gaming technology with military procedures and equipment specifications to produce programs that enable commanders, and troops, to quickly put together a simulation of a mission. This is what mission planning is all about. Apps like ScenGen and LGC take a lot of the risk out of combat by enabling the troops to get a better look at the battlefield, and try out moves before the do it under enemy fire and also being able to quickly adjust a plan to changes in the situation.

There's a huge demand for this sort of thing. As computer games became more powerful and modifiable in the 1990s troops began improvising their own mission planning software. This led the U.S. Army to create their own version of "Google Earth" in 2008 for combat planners. This computer application isn't from Google, it just looks like Google Earth. The troops call this mapping software TIGR (Tactical Ground Reporting System). Its inspiration wasn't Google Earth, but mission planning software the U.S. Air Force and Navy have been using for decades. The army made this move because they found a lot of planners informally adopting Google Earth after it first appeared in 2001.

The most recent versions of the mission planning stuff looks like a commercial (as in from a software store) flight simulator, but with a lot more information displayed. Combat pilots have long used systems like this, which have been on computers for over twenty years, to plan their missions. Before that, it was done manually, on paper maps. Mission planning was not just about who would be where, when and doing what, but also where the enemy defenses were, and the lay of the land. That's because the best approach, to get under the radar, is on the deck. For that, you have to know where the hills and valleys are.

For years, army and marine infantry officers knew of these mission planners, and suggested to their bosses that similar tools be developed for the ground forces. Patrols, tactical movements and all manner of combat missions could be more quickly, and effectively, planned with mission planner support. Civilian wargame and simulation experts were also eager to do it, and knew, especially after Google Earth showed up, that all the technology was there. The Department of Defense had already created a huge digital database of maps, and laptop computers were powerful enough to handle the graphics and data storage. The military had Internet type access in the combat zone. Thus since 2001 all this agitation has resulted in a growing number of infantry mission planning systems showing up.

Now the infantry have better mission planning tools, and these are even more useful than the one the pilots use, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's because the ground troops are doing most of the fighting. The infantry run about ten times as many patrols and other combat missions than do the aviators. And the ground troops are far more likely to get shot at. Just as the pilots discovered decades ago, mission planning tools and combat simulators can be a lifesaver.

Sometimes the ground and air mission simulators merge. This was the case with EMC2 (Enroute Mission Command Capability) that showed up in 2014. This is a software package that operates inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 and C-130 transports when carrying commandos, rangers or paratroopers as they are being flown to an operation where they will parachute in. This trip often involves eight hours or more in the air, especially if the flight is from the United States to some distant hotspot. During that time the situation at the destination can change quite a lot and the troops have to be kept up to date. There have been products similar to EMC2 available for over a decade, but with much slower data links (think varying degrees of dial up speed) and not as much supporting software. EMC2 deals with a lot of these shortcomings and the solutions that have long been on SOF operators’ wish lists.

EMC2 features internet service, mission planning apps, video, handling highly classified intelligence and collaboration apps so commanders on the aircraft can communicate with those on the ground or other aircraft. The aircraft are equipped with flat screen PC terminals that can also be used for teleconferencing. Data can also be transferred to tablets and smart phone type devices used by officers, NCOs and troops on board.

In the past troops had to wait until they were on the ground and got their own radios and sat phones working to get updates. They will still do that on the ground, but from now on the trip will be less boring and more informative as the troops get regular updates about what they are soon to jump into.

 


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