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UK invades California in cyber MMORPG wargame

Walk softly and carry a thin pipe

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It's not all wargame at CWID, however; far from it. The event is at least as much about industrial R&D - and sales - as it is about the forces trying out existing and future kit. Outnumbering the military role-players in the green tents were corporate reps and techs seeking either to make their solutions work across a realistic military network, or to show them off.

That's not easy at all. The military network - at least the UK one - is a far cry from what one might imagine. The movie image of gleaming, futuristic looking ruggedised hardware with astounding capabilities has not been realised. Full-colour hi-res video leaping in near real time from the front line to the prime minister's war room is not on the menu.

Instead, grubby second-hand tents scrounged from a medical unit - still with triage instructions scrawled on the walls in felt tip - are full of rickety folding tables loaded with battered-looking mass-market consumer hardware, linked together by miles of snaking cables. Power sockets are strictly rationed, and bandwidth is tight. A screen in a frontline tank downloading a picture relayed from a recce drone overhead was more reminiscent of dial-up 10 years ago than the new network-enabled future. Bowman doesn't seem to be a patch on 3G; Skynet and the rest don't offer anything remotely comparable to fibre cable.

Of course, Terrizona doesn't have any 3G masts and Arnollia has no undersea cable; the coffeehouses of Wassegon don't - in the game - offer wireless, or probably muffins either. This is war, and you have to take your network with you.

Even so, the temptation to sneakily unroll an ethernet cable across the field at Portsdown to jazz things up must be a strong one. But the MoD was having none of that, it assured us.

"Maybe in past years there may have been some cheating," said Wing Commander Stephen Borthwick, in charge of the UK CWID. "Nowadays, it's all about realism. If industry wants to trial something, we give them the same constraints on power and bandwidth they'd face in the field."

He wasn't joking: the satellite hookup from theatre HQ in "Arnollia" back to the UK was just 2 Mbit/sec, slower than many home broadband connections - at least in the download direction. As for power, the amount on offer may have been realistic, but some compromises had evidently been made. The tent city was full of notices reading "do not turn off any hardware". This did rather suggest that the simulated net wasn't ready for genuine combat conditions where generators might trip out, get blown up etc; or curious, bored or frustrated soldiers might meddle with breakers and buttons.

There was a little bit of exotic military-style gear on show, in the form of Bowman data terminals and displays as used in field HQs near the front line. These units are exceptionally rugged-looking - a Panasonic Toughbook is a pansy computer compared to Bowman - but it seems that nobody's wedded to them, and indeed more normal solutions such as Toughbooks are quite acceptable even in the field if they can do the job (it was noticeable, too, that the Bowman cursor-controller didn't seem popular. Most of the Bowman consoles at CWID had ordinary consumer mice plugged in).

All in all, the philosophy of CWID doesn't seem to be focused on shiny kit and glamorous killer apps: it was more about getting basic stuff to work reliably.

"Tactical commanders...require minimal functionality and maximum adaptability," according to the MoD. They're surely getting the one - let's hope they also get the other. ®

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