Virtual Bullet, Virtual Gun

As you maneuver your tank across the field of battle, one eye on the threat indicators, one eye on the horizon, you feel an icy sliver of fear deep in your gut. You know this isn’t real war, you know your enemy is virtual, but the tension feels the same. The threat, real. Although the enemy is simulated, he’s not dumb, and it will take every ounce of your skill to search him out and destroy him before he does the same to you.

Your objective: Maneuver your tank from Point A to Point B and destroy him. Your reward: survival. It may sound like just another mission in just another game, but this is no game. You are a member of the California National Guard, and this is JTEP.

As your tank eases over the next hill, you see him; hull down a quarter mile away, waiting for you. The next few seconds feel like they’re happening in slow motion. You see the flash a half-second before you hear the shot. You don’t see the projectile, but a second later you feel it. Alarms go off, the lights dim and the sound of the explosion almost ruins your new speakers. You’re dead. The game is over. And as you climb out of your tank, your nose stinging from the acrid smell of diesel fuel, motor oil and propellant, you can’t wait to do it again.

JTEP (Joint Training Experimentation Program) was created for the California National Guard by SRI International, and since 2003 has been used in a variety of live exercises using existing military vehicles retrofitted with computer simulation equipment, GPS transceivers, speakers and flashing lights. The goal, according to JTEP Program Manager John Shockley, is to “enhance the overall guard training experience and training value. [These] are real vehicles, they’re doing real maneuvering, they’re doing real radio communications, all that. We just simulate the bullet.”

Shall We Play a Game?
The idea of learning to fight war by playing soldier is not a new one. The first wargames (that we know of) were conducted in the 19th century, to better understand tactics and strategy, and similar wargames are being played by soldiers the world over. The idea of learning war by playing a computer game is also not a very new idea, although the depth and breadth of simulations have increased exponentially in recent years, following the production of even faster, better computers.

The concept of all-out war waged via computer terminals entered the public consciousness in the mid-’80s via Orson Scott Card’s stunning science fiction novel, Ender’s Game, in which a group of young boys are trained in war, using a type of virtual reality simulator. Needless to say, when Card wrote his novel, the idea of training boys to fight war may not have seemed far-fetched, but the technology did. Computers at that time were barely capable of drawing pictures, and military simulators often filled entire rooms and provided little more stimulation than was to be had from a tilt-a-whirl.

Much closer to home (and in the same genre) was the popular film The Last Starfighter, in which a young man living in a trailer park learns to pilot a spaceship by playing a videogame. As it turns out, the game is actually a simulator, and by playing it he earns the golden ticket to ride the real thing for free and save the galaxy. “Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League,” the machine intones, as a spaceship lands behind him, and he is whisked away to the far reaches of space to become a warrior. Perhaps, as the inverse of Ender’s Game, the idea of becoming a fighter pilot in space seemed a touch far-fetched, but using a videogame as a flight simulator? Well, we were already there. Or at least the military was. Albeit in tilt-a-whirl style.

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Aside from being crude, large and fairly basic, military-grade simulators in the late 20th century were also exorbitantly expensive. Which, considering the military’s annual budget, may not seem like much of a problem, but when the cost of running a simulator exceeds the cost of burning a jet engine for a few hours, why not just go up? Simulators, therefore, have most often been relegated to simulating high-risk tasks (such as space flight) or for when hands-on training is neither possible nor desirable. Like for practicing nuclear bombing runs over Moscow.

Besides, there are aspects of flight that cannot be accurately simulated, such as g-force, the way sunlight glares on the canopy or the “feel” of the stick as pockets of ionized air pass over the control planes. The ability to learn and adapt to these and other various, minute sensory inputs is what makes or breaks a fighter pilot, and no computer in the world can completely simulate the real thing. Yet. But there is one area of military training that not only benefits from computer-enhanced simulation, it also demands it.

Remote Control
“The UAV (Unmanned Arial Vehicle) Training Center’s simulators are said to be so realistic, it would be difficult to distinguish, without previous knowledge, between them and the actual ground stations,” writes Patrick Chisholm in a November 2005 article appearing in Military Training Technology.

UAVs are basically miniature airplanes controlled via remote control, from a computer station, and until fairly recently required, as with actual airplanes, a working UAV to train pilots. But with UAVs in increased demand in Afghanistan, Iraq (and everywhere else the Army is currently operating), the machines themselves have been too busy conducting operations to sit around idle while rookie joystick jockeys learn the controls. Enter: the UAV Training Center at Fort Huachuca, AZ.

The simulators at Fort Huachuca, are a mix of proprietary systems and off-the-shelf PCs (“ruggedized Intel PCs running Microsoft Windows 2000 using game level Nvidia

From the MetaVR website: “When the system operators are not flying the actual UAV, they can fly a simulated UAV using the same hardware they use to operate the real system – using the JTC/SIL MUSE, which replicates the air vehicle and datalink simulation software and MetaVR’s PC-based technology. Thus, an operator does not necessarily know whether the video feed is coming from a simulator or a real camera video feed.

Meaning, it’s possible to pump simulated video into the same terminal used in real flight operations, almost exactly replicating the experience of real operational flight. This, of course, creates a near-perfect training environment, but it also raises the question of whether the pilot can tell the difference, and if the Army cares.

Forced Feedback
“We want to make sure that we use the simulations in a way that helps the soldiers,” says SRI’s John Shockley. “We’re very concerned about making sure that they don’t get any negative training value from what we’re doing.”

In other words, simulating bullets and battlefields saves money and, obviously, lives, but it also creates the possibility that the soldiers using the virtual training systems may not be as prepared for the real thing should it ever come. Naturally, the only real solution to this problem is to not use simulators at all, but barring that, making them as real and as engaging as possible will have to serve. This is easy for training 96 Uniforms. When the live feed and the training video both show on the same screen, through the same equipment, it’s a lot harder to tell the difference between what’s live and what’s Memorex. But what about tank and infantry training? How do you fool a man on the ground that can see the target with his own eyes?

“There are two … live instrumentation systems … that we use to do the engagement simulation,” says SRI’s John Shockley. “The first one is called DFIRST, Deployable Force-On-Force Instrumented Range System. What that system does is it provides GPS-based tracking for the vehicles, and then it also uses GPS pointing angle information to measure where a tank’s turret is pointing. … When somebody shoots a round, a tank round, we know where he’s pointing, and we simulate the engagement of him firing against another vehicle, and then do a statistical kill assessment of those results.”

In other words, a virtual bullet. But the rabbit hole goes even deeper than that.

“[In May of 2003] we used a constructive simulation called JCATS, a Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation,” says Shockley, “and the issue that we had … was how do you visually stimulate the live guys in the tank?”

The solution? Smart targets.

“Tankers are used to dealing with what they call pop-up targets,” he says. “They’re plywood silhouettes of an enemy vehicle [that] pop up out of the ground and provide a signature that they can fire against. So [in May of 2003] we used those, [and] we used the JCATS to mimic their locations, and then we restricted the scenario so that the [dummy] vehicles would be in the defensive position – basically coming up over a hill, firing, then going back. That way we had visual stimulation that live guys … could engage both ways. Now, in addition to the vehicle and environment and engagements being simulated, [we’re] also simulating some of the participants so that the person operating a constructive simulation could be controlling an entire tank platoon, for example.”

The result?

“[We] scored the first kill of a virtual target firing back.”

Real tanks, virtual enemies and the whole exercise can be integrated into one training platform and monitored – even altered on the fly – by a central computer. If you think this is starting to sound a little too much like Ender’s Game, you’re not alone.

Greetings, Warfighter
The use of games as war simulators is a definite improvement over sending young men unprepared into the crucible of war, but it does raise the question of whether the lines will begin to blur. Will the simulations themselves become so indistinguishable as to render the difference meaningless? And what happens then? When games are used to teach war, will war itself become a game? I asked Shockley if anyone using his simulators had stopped themselves, realizing they were having more fun than they should be.

“The very first exercise we did where we had simulated bad guys shooting back,” he said, “we had a company of guard soldiers out, and they were doing these exercises with our system, and they’re out running around doing maneuvers. We were using them, basically to make sure that the system was tuned right and it was all working properly, and it was toward the end of the day. We said, ‘Gosh, guys, we got everything we need, thank you very much.’ And they said, ‘Well, can’t we go out again?'” He said “No.”

I asked John how much an operation involving his systems would typically cost. What, in other words, is the monetary difference between videogames and war games?

“For an individual exercise it’s probably in the few thousands of dollars. … [But] I’d be really hesitant to say because it varies so much … depending on the scale.”

So, significantly more than a quarter; which, at least for now, seems to be the only difference. Will some lucky videogamer soon find himself completing a game and then, instead of a story cut scene, or rolling credits, seeing an invitation to join the Army? According to SRI’s John Shockley, such a scenario isn’t too far from the realm of possibility.

“I think there’s something to that [idea],” he says. “I really think there’s something to that. You know, [as] the skills of simulation get better and better, a lot of the skills will be very realistic.”

Meaning the next game you play could be far less than virtual.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made. His blog can be found at

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