Murphy's Law: R2D2 Embraces The Dark Side

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September 19, 2017: Air forces are run by veteran pilots and is not surprising that these organizations resist the adoption of combat UAVs, or even UAVs controlled from the ground by non-pilots. Yet military experience and scientific studies (with control groups as well as military pilots and civilian non-pilots with lots of flight simulator experience) continues to demonstrate that the computer game experience is valuable and after 2001 was increasingly put to use. This is part of a larger dispute about the value of computer simulations in general. Yet in the military there is already ample evidence that the simulations do not get sufficient credit for what they have accomplished so far.

By 2000 many combat pilots had come to realize this. By then PC based commercial flight simulator games had convinced a generation of combat pilots that they can be effective without the 360 degree visuals of a real warplane cockpit. This was an unanticipated side effect of PC based flight simulator games. With only a small (usually under 21 inch diagonal) CRT in front of them showing the view in one direction, pilots were able to hit a key to look right, left or to the rear and still size up the situation and take effective action. Crude, clumsy, but it worked. But the senior air force commanders were reluctant to take this much further, other than to use PC flight simulators to screen those applying for flight school. This was more popular in the navy and army.

By 2005 the army went even further when they discovered, much to the dismay of parents everywhere that experience with video games was, more and more, proving to be a lifesaving skill on the battlefield. By then many crucial military systems used video game type controllers. Troops with thousands of "wasted" hours playing video games quickly become expert at using the military gear. This includes RWS (remote control weapons, particularly the CROWS 12.7mm machine-gun turret found on armored hummers and Stryker vehicles), several models of combat robots and UAVs (like the Raven). Research confirmed that eye-hand coordination was enhanced in proportion to the hours spent playing video games. This helped with everything from operating a fire control system in a tank, ship or aircraft, to using remote control surgery gear. Yes, even surgeons who found time to play video games have an easier time using the growing number of automated gear they use.

As an additional bonus, the army has found itself with lots of reservists that had programming and video game skills, thus making it easier to create simulators for the new equipment, using video game-like interfaces. Since 2005 the army has been particularly successful putting some of these simulators (like the one for CROWS) on the "America's Army" online game. There, potential recruits can learn what it's like to use items based on video game technology. The army was not surprised that many teenagers proved able to quickly become adept at using CROWS, both the on-line simulation version as well as the real thing. This proved to be a literal lifesaver in Iraq and Afghanistan where, since 2004, the army was using the remote control turret weapons more. This was largely because the then new remote control gun turret designs actually worked, and suddenly they could not get enough of them. Within a few years the army had over 5,000 of these CROWS turrets in service and that more than doubled by 2010.

The main reason for adopting CROWS was that the enemy was no longer able to knock out the turret gunner, early in a firefight, and take away a lot of the vehicles firepower. Because of CROWS, once the enemy opens fire, they are the ones in trouble. The remote turret tends to begin delivering accurate fire right away, and is much more immune to enemy fire than a human gunner. If the vehicle is a Stryker, the enemy will soon find themselves dealing with half a dozen or so heavily armed infantry, who get out of the vehicle and come at the ambushers. The enemy (Iraqi or Afghan) don't like that. They also don't like how some of the CROWS turret equipped vehicles will come after them. All those accurately aimed bullets coming their way, and no enemy soldiers in sight, is demoralizing.

The idea for CROWS has been around for nearly half a century. Years of tinkering, and better technology, eventually made the remote control gun turret effective and dependable. CROWS has been a real lifesaver, not to mention anxiety reducer, for troops who drive through hostile areas a lot, and have a turret mounted gun (usually in a hummer). The guy manning the turret mounted machine-gun is a target up there, and too often, the enemy gets you. Not with CROWS. The gunner is inside the vehicle, checking out the surroundings on a computer monitor (with night vision and zoom capabilities). CROWS also has a laser rangefinder built in, as well as a stabilizer mechanism to allow more accurate fire while the vehicle is moving.

The accuracy of the fire, and uncanny speed with which the CROWS gun moves so quickly and deliberately, is due to something few officers expected. The guys operating these systems grew up playing video games. They developed skills in operating systems (video games) very similar to the CROWS controls. This was important, because viewing the world around the vehicle via a vidcam is not as enlightening (although a lot safer) than having your head and chest exposed to the elements (and any firepower the enemy sends your way). But experienced video gamers are skilled at whipping that screen view around, and quickly picking up any signs of danger.

Many Iraqis and Afghans, especially those attacking these vehicles, got distressed while watching a CROWS turret being exercised by some video game addict inside the vehicle. That's because the most noticeable part of CROWS, as it swivels and "looks" around, is the machine-gun. Many Iraqis don't even recognize the vidcam and other sensors. They think the machine-gun is, well, sort of R2D2 with a bad attitude and a license to kill.

The one drawback to all this video game experience was that the young men with the best video game skills were often in terrible physical shape. The U.S. military found that many recruits were quick to learn and use things like UAV and remote gun turret controllers (because of previous video game experience), but were in terrible physical shape. The latter problem was solved in basic training, which was extended for promising recruits who needed more time to get into shape. That did not always work but now army combat veterans handing basic training had an additional incentive to get these nerds through basic.

 

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