Leadership: April 23, 2000

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Games Within Games: The U.S. Navy has finally recognized what a lot of its new pilots have known for years, that PC based flight simulators have value in training pilots. The navy is now using PC based flight simulations to the initial flight training for student pilots. A test of the concept saw student test scores go up as much as 55 percent. What got the navy going was the initiative of one student, Lt Herb Lacy, who used Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 to set up a training program for teaching basic flight skills. He obtained a notably high score in the course. By adding additional flight controls to PCs a cheap (at a cost of $8,900 per station) training tool was created. A group of units went through the basic flight training course using the PC systems and achieved markedly higher scores than students who trained the traditional way. What is interesting about this effort is that it has been tried before, but discarded for various reasons ("not realistic enough," "teaches the wrong things," and so on.) But many trainee pilots used the flight simulations on their own and were not shy about attributing greater success to this approach. Some foreign air forces have also had success in using PCs to more quickly, thoroughly and inexpensively conduct basic flight training. As commercial combat flight simulators become more realistic (largely because of more powerful PCs) it is possible to use PC based systems to train pilots in more complex skills. Traditional flight simulators often cost more than the aircraft themselves, but are cheaper to operate. This these expensive simulators are bought in small quantities and are not available to many pilots. 

The traditional military simulation industry provides expensive systems for all branches of the military and it is a multi-billion dollar a year business. For a decade or so, these high priced sims and wargames have been feeling the heat from PC based products. For a long time, the industry simply dismissed the PC stuff as, "not up to our standards," and "not capable of meeting the military's requirements." Then, in the 1990s, the troops began to create their own PC based wargames for military use. Better software tools (like Visual Basic and a vast array of off the shelf game components, or "libraries") made this possible. This also made it obvious to the brass that maybe, just maybe, there was something useful in PC based wargames and sims.

But major obstacles remain, the chiefs one beings dozens of large companies not at all keen on losing their lucrative business. There is also a large constituency within the military that backs the gold plated (and often ineffective) wargame products. For some two decades, this battle has gone on as a guerilla war, with individuals and organizations sneaking in less expensive, and usually more effective wargames and simulations to get their job done. When the defense budget shrank in the 1990s, the cheaper PC based wargaming began to look more attractive. But not attractive enough, for the military wargaming establishment had a lot to lose, both financially and in terms of reputation. The PC based solution had been badmouthed for so long and so loudly that it was feared any sudden switch could cause embarrassing enquiries from the media and, especially, Congress. But the temptation was too great, and through the last decade PCs were incorporated into the mainline wargame systems. This made it possible for PC based gaming to show off in an official setting. More people in the military went ahead with projects using PCs, assured that they would not be stomped on for being too far out of line. 

But it's unlikely that PC based gaming will take over. The profit margins are too slim, and too many people are qualified to get into this sort of thing. Military contracting is unlike commercial business. There's a lot more red tape, and the people buying from you usually know much less about the project than you do. The military keeps transferring it officers around (to give them wider experience), so the ones assigned to buy wargame development services are moved somewhere else right about the time they understand what they are dealing with. The contractors take advantage of this, getting wargames built that will keep all involved out of jail, but that are less successful at doing what the troops need. The way the military is organized doesn't help much either. The army, for example, has one large organization (TRADOC, the training and doctrine command) which determines which wargames are needed. But another large organization (Stricom) actually gets them built. Communication is not good, and the people who actually need the wargames and simulations, while not out of the loop entirely, are not part of the inner circle either. And after the wargames and simulations are delivered, most of the responsibility for maintaining the software is largely up to the user. There are funds made available for upkeep, but this often results in unused wargames generating annual revenue for contractors that don't have to do much.

Wargames are an arcane little corner of the military-industrial complex, but their problems are common to most other activities in the military. Much of this is unavoidable in large organizations. There are no easy solutions, and there's no solution at all if the problems are ignored.

 


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