UK invades California in cyber MMORPG wargame
Walk softly and carry a thin pipe
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.
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. ®