By Dan Verton


When U.S. Marine Corps and Army units launched their assault on Nov. 8 against insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the world learned what military historians have known for centuries: Urban conflict is among the most dangerous and deadly forms of warfare.

The enemy can be anywhere — behind any door or any window, on any rooftop or around any corner. It’s the uncertainty and the 360-degree nature of the urban battle that not only makes it a dangerous and deadly endeavor, but also one of the most stressful of military operations.

That raises the question: How do you create a training environment that replicates the stress and uncertainty of such operations? The answer: Take cutting-edge IT systems and graphics engines and integrate them with traditional explosives and fireworks, and you have a self-contained, fully automated and safe urban-warfare training simulation, complete with the sights and sounds of real car bombs, mortar attacks and snipers.

The military is beginning to use the techniques and technologies that the entertainment industry has already perfected, says retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Lee Downer. Now a consultant at Gestalt LLC in King of Prussia, Pa., Downer was the senior U.S. Air Force officer responsible for air combat training and managed the service’s effort to Web-enable cockpit simulators across the country.

“That made fighter pilots really feel like they were in war,” says Downer. “They probably get harder work in the simulator than when they go into combat. The idea now is to translate that capability to the ground forces.”

Advances in graphics engines and supercomputers promise to fundamentally transform military training. “In the last few years, PC graphics cards have advanced to capabilities beyond expensive simulation engines,” says Paul Debevec, a filmmaker at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, a research center in Marina del Rey.

Programmers are only beginning to take advantage of their capabilities, he adds. “In particular, the cards now allow for arbitrary floating-point calculations to be performed at each pixel and vertex of a model, and the frame buffers have sufficient bit depth to represent the full range of light seen in the real world, from deep shadows to blinding sun,” he explains. “We will soon see real-time 3-D models where light reflects off of surfaces in the same complex ways that it does in the real world and where we will have enough polygons to represent even virtual humans realistically. Over the next 10 years, the speed and parallelism of graphics cards will increase to the point that the complex inter-reflections of light between the sky and walls and ground and clothing will be simulated in real time.”

And research is now focusing on creating artificially intelligent virtual characters that can interact with humans using natural language. The characters will understand the situations they’re in. These characters will be able to act as members of the local populace — both friendly and hostile — and as virtual members of the mission team.

Ground forces in Iraq are using PC-based training systems and mobile facilities to prepare for everything from convoy duty to urban operations. But Julia Loughran, president of Vienna, Va.-based ThoughtLink Inc., sees technology development taking simulation and training well beyond the PC.

“Technology will … make simulation something that will be available to us anywhere, anytime,” she says. “This means simulations will be part of our everyday life — on PDAs, cell phones, the Internet and at kiosks. The lines of entertainment versus education and training for the military and also every other career path will begin to blur.”

Realism Gets More Real

Dare Westmorland is senior vice president of Titan Dynamics Systems Inc., a company in Marshall, Texas, that has melded real-world explosives and fireworks with IT to create a controlled training environment that gives soldiers the sounds, sights and smells of the real battlefield.

Titan’s computer-controlled products are being used at Fort Knox for convoy training. “We’ve combined microprocessors and pyrotechnics to create a realistic battlefield,” explains Westmorland.

The realism is enough to get a helicopter pilot’s blood pumping, he says. The company’s rocket-propelled grenade simulator, for example, will set off all of the onboard alarms when fired toward an incoming helicopter full of Marines or soldiers.

The realities of the war on terror have sparked what Michael Kitchen, executive vice president of training and simulation at Arlington, Texas-based VirTra Systems Inc., calls the emerging market in products for “fourth-generation warfare” — a term used to describe military conflicts where the enemy is hidden among the civilian population and where the front lines are difficult to discern.

“Through the development of [advanced simulators], the soldiers can be placed in situations that are taken from actual combat incidents or created for specific missions,” he says.