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UK invades California in cyber MMORPG wargame

Walk softly and carry a thin pipe

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All next week a worldwide virtual war is being fought. Soldiers, warships, jets, and unmanned drones from the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are combining in cyberspace to form "Task Force BISON," which will join NATO's "Task Force ATLANTICA" to mount massive amphibious landings in a conflict-stricken West African warzone.

In the simulated world, however, the western USA takes the place of Africa. California becomes the fictional country "Arnollia," bounded to the north by the "Wassegon Republic" and to the east by the expanionist, aggressive nation of "Nevatan".

In the wargame, evil Nevatan plans to destabilise neighbouring governments and seize control of "Terrizona" are thwarted in all-out war by the hard-charging Task Force BISON. British marines storm the beachhead at San Diego, capturing the vital harbour so heavy armoured units can move ashore.

The 101st Airborne division, in a bold move, seizes Las Vegas from the troops of the corrupt dictatorship. Bush-hatted ANZACs stand firm in the face of a determined enemy push out of Salt Lake City. In a final drive, the coalition nations thrust north, shrugging off Scud missile strikes, and - guess what - discover a stockpile of WMDs. It's a resounding victory for democracy. To the north, the coffeehouse republic of Wassegon is stabilised and restored to peace and democracy by a relatively wussy NATO humanitarian mission.

As the fictional Africa/America explodes into violence, all round the world the relevant national governments are kept in instant touch with their troops on the ground. Satellite channels and radio networks join up to link the lowliest grunt in his tank all the way back to the prime minister in his capital-city war room back home.

The whole scenario is virtual, set up as background to the 2007 Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration (CWID). CWID is a combination of massively-multiplayer worldwide role-play wargame, sales expo, and networking test.

Most of the UK network nodes - paratrooper headquarters, air planning cells, theatre command etc - are set up as though for real, in tents and military vehicles far from civilisation and cut off from the worldwide telecommunications grid. The difference is that these locations are all in a field a little north of Portsmouth, at the Portsdown West facility of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, DSTL.

The "Theatre HQ" tents have a dish connecting the British forces back to the UK via the new Skynet 5A satellite; the signal comes back to earth again at the other end of the site. A hundred metres across the field are the fighting unit command posts, connected to theatre HQ by "Falcon" and "Cormorant" terrestrial data-link vehicles. In reality these might well be several countries away. For CWID 07, theatre HQ in coastal Arnollia would be communicating with force commanders battling the Nevatan invaders hundreds of miles into the dark interior of the continent.

From there the data flows onward and downward to ordinary troops via their new "Bowman" battle net - or "radio cloud" as the military comms people prefer to call it. Again, all the players are within yards of each other; footsore military-tech hacks were able to walk round all the locations in 90 minutes during the CWID press event on Wednesday, gaily leaping across cyberspace oceans and borders amid a babel of acronyms from the cheerful MoD minders and guides.

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