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Gaming 4G warfare for the USAF, with rayguns

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In press coverage of how virtual wargames will revolutionize actual war, the lion's share of publicity has generally gone to private sector boffins bankrolled by the US Army. Most often, they appear as wizards from the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. Journalists love the place and can't resist its toys, which in ICT's case, have been peddled as amalgams of Hollywood's most creative and the cutting edge of the military.

The Institute produced the well-known Full Spectrum Warrior, a training tool shilled in game stores. At the time, one Army commander not blinded by the glitz of the technology, said the simulation had been watered down to appeal to gamers and while not utterly useless, was "incredibly shallow."

A couple of years earlier, the US Army had pimped America's Army as an enlistment aid, and it was a wild success as a free download. But the Army now focuses on more mundane tools, like simple TV ads appealing to bravery and adjusting entrance standards downwards, with moral waivers to permit the induction of undesirables with criminal backgrounds.

It is worth recalling one hallucinatory claim referencing America's Army, taken from Salon magazine in 2002. America's Army and computer wargames, it claimed, would contribute to molding a force of "dedicated young men and women, their weapons merged into an information network that enables them to cut out with surgical precision the cancer that threatens us all - heat-packing humanitarians who leave the innocent unscathed, and full of renewed hope. In their wake, democracy... and an Arab world restored to full flower... defended on all fronts by the best of the digital generation."

Another war simulation underwritten by the US military, and one which hasn't received much notice is Point of Attack 2. It is a brutally painful statistical treatment of weaponry in which the mechanics of death are derived through an almost infinite number of calculations - it seems tailor made for Pentagon wonks.

A 2003 report blandly entitled "Analysis of Advanced Technology Weapons in Homeland Defense," written by Dr. Scott Hamilton, recently obtained from the National Technical Information Service, discusses an unusual aspect of it.

Hamilton, the author of the game, writes: "As part of a previous [United States Air Force funded] research project... HPS simulations developed a combat simulation software package capable of modeling the effects of conventional and advanced weapons on the modern battlefield, including those based on High-Powered Microwaves (HPM), Laser and other forms of radiation."

Hamilton posited that developments in the war on terror showed a need for being able to model terror attacks beyond the basic application of bombs and bullets. "The objective of the project was to research how the existing Point of Attack 2 software can be used to model small level attacks on critical installations, and how advanced energy weapons and other non-conventional systems can be used in these situations to best advantage," he writes.

As focus, Hamilton chose Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a target for terrorists bent on acquiring weapons and spreading mayhem. The need had arisen, he reasoned, to have a simulation to model non-lethal weapons so that the enemy would be left over after being defeated. "...[Finding] weapons and methods that leave a significant number of attackers for questioning after the attack would also be the greatest advantage."

Two test scenarios were devised for the Air Force to game using POA2. One posited a terrorist strike team stealing a US Army M-THEL laser, another a mixed Air Force security detachment armed with a truck-mounted non-lethal weapon called a "Maser" which apparently leaves targets insensate.

Yes, if you've grokked this to be astonishing, the formal gaming analysis of terrorists and the US military fighting each other with rayguns in a mid-sized city, that's right.

The report does not discuss what was learned but does show results from one game, an "al Qaeda marginal victory."

Although not particularly well known, POA2 is sold to civilians and includes the designed terror attacks on Albuquerque as part of its library of scenarios, the rest of which are perfectly conventional applications. Replay of the two based in Albuquerque found lethal and non-lethal directed energy weapons indecisive, almost a distraction. This is somewhat reassuring since it indicates there is no miraculous revolution in military affairs to be had, the type of notion that contributed to the current American predicament.

The design of the game enforces a realistic fog of war in which the tactical situation, as it unfolds in real time, is mostly unknowable. In game life, crap happens, forcing the player to allow POA2 to run istelf according to doctrines and direction by artificial intelligence. In these cases, there is little advantage in the use of theoretical weaponry over standard brute force. It is simply easier to allow the police forces and military to kill 'em all and take stock later.

However, it is here where the value of the simulation revealed itself. Since it is designed to cover urban combat, it is ideally suited to set ups in which the US military fights hand-to-hand against a low-tech enemy in a failed state - like Iraq.

A key feature is the active presence of civilians everywhere. Within the constraints of the game, they cannot be distinguished from a guerilla force, with predictable and dire results. Once an American force begins firing upon locals mistaken for an enemy with which it is closely engaged, the outcome becomes impossible to control, the results dismaying. Command breaks down and disasters, draws or marginal victories are what ensues.

There are no graphics and minimal sound. POA2 makes the PC crunch away on ballistics algorithms, flashing outcomes, bullet by bullet, shell by shell. When no one can shoot at each other anymore, it displays the tally of the dead and destroyed treasure of each side, sifted by what weapons systems killed and crushed what. It's furnished in spreadsheet form. And this must be one of the practical reasons the Air Force wanted it - to run simulations of various mixes of weapons systems fighting each other.

Point of Attack 2, quietly released in the the entertainment sector for a couple of years, seems to be a good use of taxpayer money. It is an absorbing wargame for a niche audience but not fun in the conventional sense. It certainly has no use as a recruitment tool and cannot mold a player into a heat-packing humanitarian ready to bring hope and democracy to the Arab world. ®

George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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