DECEMBER 1984 / JANUARY 1985 - VOLUME 5. NO 12 / VOLUME 6, NO. 1
by Josh Martin
A new breed of company has recently entered the international arms trade: manufacturers of computerized wargames. Demand for their products has grown steadily as armed forces shift increasingly to high-tech combat techniques.
Nowhere has this trend been more evident than in the United States, where top military strategists are now planning scenarios for World War III on devices that resemble videogames.
According to the Pentagon's Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Agency (SAGAM), there are more than 350 different simulations, wargames, exercises and models in the Defense Department arsenal. Some are simply training tools, like the Link Flight Simulator developed by Singer, or Perceptronics' Tank Gunnery Trainer. Others are used to simulate conflicts ranging from a conventional battalion-sized skirmish all the way to an all-out nuclear war.
Despite their grim purpose, the wargames are often given code names and acronyms reminiscent of their arcade counterparts. There is `Blockbuster' (for platoon commanders fighting in urban areas), `Dragon' (for training in the use of the Dragon antitank missile), and 'TAC Warrior' (to study allocation of aircraft in combat circumstances). Others sound like Hollywood movie titles: `Son of Super Ace' (for allocating weapons), 'Blue Max' (used to determine how flight paths and airspeed can improve survivability), and `Footprints by OZ,'- a system to show how best to target multiple warhead (MIRV) missiles.
The wargames mirror the Pentagon's war material. Computer-dependent guns, tanks, aircraft and ships form the nucleus of the U.S. arsenal; 22 of the top 25 defense contractors are high tech firms like General Dynamics (the biggest, taking in over $6 billion last year), United Technologies, Westinghouse, Honeywell, IBM, Sperry, RCA, Texas Instruments, and AT&T.
Not surprisingly, several major wargame makers are now found on the Defense Department's list of its top 100 suppliers, including Singer Co. (with prime contracts of $549 million), Sanders Associates, Inc. (with prime contracts of $308 million), Science Applications, Inc. ($244 million), and Johns Hopkins University ($236 million).
According to a recent report by SAGAM, at least 43 American corporations and universities are developing the wargames used by the Defense Department.
Science Applications, Inc. developed the most (22), followed by General Research Corp. (18), BDM Corp. (16), the Rand Corp. (8), and Stanford Research Institute (6). TRW, CACI, Inc. and Johns Hopkins University developed five games each. Other notable wargame contractors include General Dynamics, Georgia Tech, Boeing, Ohio State University and McDonnell-Douglas.
Little of the wargame software or equipment is purchased from the companies making consumer games. Most of the military suppliers are linked with major defense contractors, or are small, highly specialized firms that work on specific electronic or computer-related projects.
The Defense Department, however, has tapped the skills of civilian game makers in the past. In 1981, for example, it entered into negotiations with Atari, the videogame giant. According to Atari sources, the Army asked them to modify their Battlezone videogame for evaluation as a training device. Battlezone gives players an image of an animated tank moving through an obstacle course; the goal is to destroy enemy tanks and rockets while avoiding the obstacles. Atari claims that while they did modify some games for demonstration, there was no formal deal, and no subsequent sales.
One major wargame developer, whose systems arc used by the Army, Navy and the Air Force, bristles at the notion that there could be any similarity between Pentagon simulations and civilian videogames. "Most of the home games are simplistic," the developer says. "Home games don't create a real military environment. In a videogame, you're only trying to get a high score; when the game is over, you go home. After working with our simulators, soldiers or officers go into real tanks and planes. The difference is that the videogame is an end in itself, whereas the simulator is the means to the ultimate end."
Douglas Matthews, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based research group, points out that in wargame development, as in many other aspects of military procurement, there is a revolving door. "Designers market their expertise to the Department of Defense and private companies," says Matthews. "Many specifically choose projects with both civilian and military applications. In fact, many consumer computer games that they make are simplified, sexier versions of the military wargames."
Almost half the wargames being used by the military are under some degree of classification; access is restricted, too, by what sort of computer system a user might possess. Many games require full size mainframe computers for play.
Although access is limited, the Defense Department allows private corporations and friendly governments to freely make use of a large number of the wargames. The armed forces of Israel, West Germany, England, Italy, Jordan, Japan, Korea and Taiwan are specifically mentioned by SAGAM as having permission to use one or more wargames. Corporations that made the grade include computer and aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Northrop, Grumman, Honeywell, Raytheon, Texas Instruments, General Dynamics, Rockwell, and Rand Corp., as well as foreign firms like Thomson CSF (the French electronics giant), and British Aircraft.
As this partial list of users indicates, foreign wargame developers have emerged, mostly within the armed services of NATO countries. Several games now used in the United States armed forces were developed by their military counterparts in Canada, West Germany and England.
Military experts assume that similar developments are taking place in the Soviet bloc countries, although it is widely believed that the USSR is several years behind the U.S. in terms of what its computerized wargames can do. For example, they point out that the Soviet armies make far less use of computer technology than does the U.S. defense establishment. However, the military on both sides have enthusiastically welcomed the introduction of computerization. So much money has been spent, so rapidly, that there is no accurate survey of the games now used to prepare the military for Armageddon. Even the SAGAM lists are dated.
The most sophisticated wargame now in use is JANUS, used at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. JANUS is an interactive computer system, which means that as you play a game, it responds to your actions. It is used to test how various weapons work and how use of a particular weapon might affect the outcome of a battle scenario. Developed in the mid-1970's under the code name 'Jeremiah,' JANUS employs striking 8-color computer graphics. If you were sitting at a computer terminal, you would see what appears to be an animated panorama, on which moving symbols represent troops and equipment displacements.
Several nuclear wars have been fought on the JANUS system. In the course of action, players can study the effects of nuclear and conventional weapons (JANUS is particularly favored for its simulations of nuclear "incapacitation" and other effects). Not surprisingly, the game is frequently in use. While most of the players are military, Livermore personnel say JANUS has become a favorite with visiting Congressional staffers.
It is estimated that 50 nuclear wars and thousands of smaller conflicts - sea battles, air fights, tank maneuvers, etc. - take place on Defense Department computerized wargaming systems each day.
All of the nation's major war colleges now have sizeable computer wargaming centers planned or in use. No ambitious student can avoid computerized combat.
When the Defense Department began using computerized wargames in 1962, the games were seen as a way to save time and money by cutting down on the use of real men and material in field exercises. But a handful of Pentagon enthusiasts saw another potential. Improved computer graphics enabled them to use the wargames for more sophisticated applications. Symbols once representing men and tanks could just as easily be read as nuclear bombs and intercontinental missiles.
As with other technological developments, there have been unexpected results. Wargames, originally developed as teaching and logistical aids, now play a role in policy formulation. Military theorists depend on computerized wargames to develop combat techniques and strategies. Officers, soldiers, and politicians make decisions based on computer scenarios, often without questioning the data and assumptions on which they are based.
Two dangerous theories have gained wider acceptance in the Pentagon as a result-: first, that a limited nuclear war can be fought, and second, that such a war is winnable.
Many of the game designers fail to regard nuclear weapons as much more than oversized conventional bombs. Don Blumenthal, a former Army artillery colonel who is leader of the D Division Systems Integration Group at the Livermore Laboratory, reveals this mindset when describing the benefits of nuclear wargaming with the JANUS system.
"You can't really assume you know the outcome in a battle fought by a force with only large-yield nuclear weapons," Blumenthal said in a recent analysis. "For example, we have found that in certain cases, if you use really large-yield nuclear weapons, you can blow down so many trees and start so many fires that your troops have to maneuver through a narrow piece of ground. There, they can be destroyed by conventional means.. .We have really learned the importance of integrating forces, using nuclear forces in a way that actually strengthens conventional forces as well. Almost without exception, players - even senior military officers or Defense Department analysts - come away with a new perception of the effectiveness of tactical nuclear weapons."
This is dangerous teaching. Many of the nuclear wargame scenarios now used by the military (and by other government agencies) only consider isolated aspects of a nuclear exchange. They invariably downplay damage from the blast and radiation, and often ignore other factors that would obviously alter the impact of a nuclear explosion.
The Day After
An important assumption of such wargames is that a nuclear war can be limited. While many military experts believe any nuclear exchange would eventually involve upwards of 10,000 warheads, few games consider anything close to that number. CIVIC III, a wargame used by the Defense Nuclear Agency to estimate civilian fatalities and casualties "resulting from the prompt fallout environments of a nuclear weapon laydown," assumes that "fallout producing weapons" will be limited to 1,500. Even more unrealistic is VALIMAR, developed for the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to assess damage inflicted on both sides by a nuclear exchange. It allows only 63 weapons to be used in the exchange.
Then there are those games that consider the day after. The Systems Dynamics Economic Model (SDEM), a game used by the Treasury Department, considers both the mobilization for, and the consequences of, a nuclear attack. According to its announced purposes, SDEM helps evaluate "post nuclear attack economic conditions." It can also "evaluate capabilities and policies for wartime production and economic recovery in the U.S. following nuclear attack." The assumption, of course, is that there will be production or recovery to measure after the mushroom clouds disperse.
The Defense Department nonetheless remains enamored of computerized wargames. For manufacturers, it is a sellers market. Military planners have taken a set of dangerous assumptions - about computers, wargames, and the information those games use - and are treating them as fact. As one highranking official put it, "Our boys are working on the real thing." No defense contractor could hope for a better product endorsement.
Josh Martin is the Monitor's U.N. correspondent.