September 27, 2020:
In early 2020, the British Army established the Fight Club Association to organize use of a commercial wargame, Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 (CMSF2), for all army wargamers to play and then compare their experiences. For decades military wargamers have been using military and commercial wargamers to play each other informally. Fight Club recognizes that some official recognition is needed to address the problem of what role the enemy plays in battles. Not just some friendly forces designated as “the enemy” but a foe that is equipped like the enemy and uses enemy doctrine. This makes a big difference, something that has been recognized since the 1970s.
CMSF2 has been around since 2007, when it first appeared as a single player game portraying a U.S. invasion of Syria. Over the next three years several improved versions appeared. These included a two-player version for competing via the Internet and portraying a wide variety of national forces, including the British Army. In mid-2020 CMSF2 became available on the Steam website, which made multi-player use even easier. The game is unclassified so military players can use it freely and then discuss their experiences with other military players.
CMSF2 portrays tactical combat up to the battalion level. Individual vehicles and troops are portrayed in a realistic 3-D environment. The “physics” of the game are very realistic, including actual performance of various weapons. The army encouraged all troops, not just officers, to join in. Most importantly the troops were encouraged to openly discuss their experiences playing a realistic real-time combat simulation in which participants could take command of either side. In the past emphasis had been placed on similar official combat simulations training troops to use their vehicles with the tactics they were trained to use. Most military wargames do not emphasize participants playing the enemy. But as chess players have known for centuries, the best way to learn how to defeat a live opponent is to play with an eye towards what can be done on both sides of the board. As the saying goes, in combat the enemy has a vote. Yet in most military training wargames this sort of thing is not encouraged.
The British Fight Club is not unique, except in the way it encourages everyone to use an unclassified multi-player game and then discuss their experiences with each other. For example, in 2000, noting that the troops spent a lot of time playing video games, the U.S. Army hired video games developer Pandemic to create the squad level "Full Spectrum Warrior" (FSW). Compared to your usual video game, the military version of FSW seemed to drag along at times. It can take a minute or more for troops to do some things, like move to another position or use a smoke grenade as it takes nearly a minute for the smoke screen to form. The player assumes the role of the squad leader, and uses the video game controller to intuitively give battlefield type commands to the two team leaders or, if need be, individual troops. The use of the game controller and the game software is pretty intuitive, allowing the player to handle a real time battlefield game without the game controls getting in the way. The commercial versions were released in 2004-5 while the military versions were available to the troops two years earlier.
With FSW the troops use the same drills and tactics taught to U.S. Army infantrymen today. The game is quite effective in showing users how well-trained combat troops are supposed to move. One reason the army put over a million dollars into FSW is another program, begun in 2002, to improve the combat skills of non-combat troops. FSW appeared to be a painless way to expose these clerks, mechanics, cooks and office workers what they should do when under fire. There were scenarios in the game covering situations where non-combat troops have to fight. Many non-combat units are informally organized into squad sized units and often have machine-guns assigned as well. But unless the non-combat troops take the machine-guns and assault rifles out of the arms room regularly and practice, it does them little good to be armed.
The initial batch of scenarios involved going after irregular type fighters in Middle Eastern locations. By using the XBox, the players got photo realistic graphics and equally realistic sound. The army worked closely with the developers to make sure that the game was extremely realistic. The game was eventually available free to anyone in the army (active and reserve). Ultimately, the military and commercial versions shipped on the same CD. That way, civilians could experience the more realistic, but less "fun" military version which has strictly realistic ammo loads and time durations for battlefield procedures. The game eventually had online multiplayer capabilities. The artificial intelligence of the enemy force was pretty realistic and deadly.
Fight Club and FSW are part of the trend that, since the 1990s, has made the use of wargames much more common for commanders and troops. It has also demonstrated that the military can get realistic games created, or adapt commercial ones that are realistic enough. You'd think if there were one thing the military could build themselves, it would be wargames. Such has not been the case for a long time. The U.S. military's experience with wargames over the last 150 years has been quite dismal, with only the Navy proving capable of building most of their own stuff.
But in the 1960s, wargames became a popular entertainment for the civilian market. Initially, most of these wargames were based on historical campaigns and were pretty effective simulations. The reason for was that, unlike the classified (usually) military wargames, the civilian ones were open to comment and criticism from their thousands of users. This kept the civilian wargame designers honest and on the ball. This is what the British Fight Club and the American FSW sought to exploit and it worked.
By the 1970s, the military began to notice the superiority of civilian wargames and began to use them, and called on civilian wargame designers to help out with military projects. All this operated largely in the background for decades, but in the 1990s the cooperation intensified. Part of this had to do with civilian wargame (and action games in general) publishers developing inexpensive and realistic graphic software. Anyone who has played video or computer games knows what this stuff looks like, and it's stunning. This visual realism makes these computer games much more useful for training the troops.
After 2000 numerous civilian-military wargame projects were undertaken. The U.S. Marines used the technology in the civilian game Operation Flashpoint to develop their Department of Defense VBS1 (Virtual BattleField). As is usually the case, the Marines are using the civilian developers of a game to modify the civilian game for specific Marine needs. VBS is still around and VBS4 was recently released, with graphics and capabilities as good as any commercial game.
Many Department of Defense schools use civilian wargames for training. Shortly after FSW appeared, West Point cadets used the recently published commercial wargame Steel Beasts to learn mechanized wargames tactics. Again, the civilians who created the game have worked with the army to modify the game for more effectively meet Army training needs. Steel Beasts is still around, much improved and popular with tank crews, and civilian gamers, worldwide.
At the same time the Army also bought a license for a tactical level game, TacOps (designed and programmed by a retired Marine officer), for use throughout the Army (anyone in the Army can get a copy free). Another PC game, Spearhead, was modified for use in training tank officers. The air force has long been a user of civilian combat flight simulator games, and pilots hone their skills using networked versions of these games. The Air Force also makes use of its many technically savvy members to program their own wargames, often using commercial products as a model. The navy also makes use of flight and naval wargames, which have become popular with sailors on long overseas deployments. There's not much else to do on a ship for entertainment.
The entertainment angle is one reason commercial game developers are sought out for assistance and advice. Commercial products must draw the player in, something Department of Defense designed wargames don't always do. Despite all this use of commercial wargames over a decade ago, many of the Department of Defense produced wargames remain, but these at least let the troops learn how much better things can be, by comparison, when they use wargames created by the help of commercial wargame firms.
It was not that the military wasn’t trying, but most of the money went to computerized simulations that trained troops in the use of the vehicles and weapons they had and how they were supposed to use them. Experimentation was not encouraged, even though experimentation is a necessity once the troops meet real foes, who often have different, and sometimes unexpected, ideas about how to fight. There were a growing number of army officers who realized this and they eventually got permission to pursue this form of wargaming.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. Army began developing a software system that could model (wargame) friendly or enemy forces at the tactical (battalion and lower) `level, and be used in larger wargames as well when more detail had to be shown. The result of this effort was ModSAF (Modular Semi-Automated Forces). The army had previously been working on the AI (artificial intelligence) problem, which led to the ongoing semi-automated forces project. It had been noted that the AI in commercial games was getting much better, but that was because there were two schools of thought on AI. The academic side, which the military depended on, expected perfection. That is hard to achieve, and expensive as well. Tactical level wargames require a lot of AI to function at all. Commercial developers just wanted something that worked, and, increasingly, they were getting impressive results. While ModSAF was a good effort at applying effective AI (that was acceptable to the powers-that-be in the army scientific community), many army developers and scientists realized that more could be done.
In the late 1990s, ModSAF was taken over by the army wargaming operation (STRICOM, now PEO-Stri), with the intention of developing a tactical wargame that used all the good stuff that the commercial developers were turning out, and put it in a package that suited military needs. That was a long list of needs. The new game, OneSAF, had to be useful to the troops, as well as researchers (developers of new tactics, equipment and weapons). That meant a software package that was easy to modify and easy to use. By 2001, OneSAF had replaced ModSAF. The users were happy, and the developers used that good will to get more money, and freedom, to keep OneSAF up to date, and responsive to users.
To do all this, OneSAF had to, of necessity, become a revolutionary product. Consider its characteristics. OneSAF is free (to government and military developers) and is open source. That means it runs on a large number of systems (Windows, Linux, supercomputers, Etc.). It was well documented and SME compliant. Also important is that the basic OneSAF package is a tool kit, which enables users to quickly adapt it to new uses. The core code was written by competent programmers, and the project is managed so that the code stays clean and easy to read. OneSAF also uses managed code, like JAVA, to make it accessible and easier to use and modify. The army really got behind the project, assigning its best people to supervise it. Several senior people on the project are former infantry officers with PhDs in computer science. The army has been sending infantry officers to graduate school, to study computer science, for several decades, and OneSAF was an example of how that policy paid off.
OneSAF can handle combat from the level of individual troops up to brigade. In other words, it was a tactical combat simulation. It can be plugged into higher level wargames (like WARSIM), so that a theater commander can drill down to see how street fighting in Fallujah is going, to draw back to see how forces are deployed, and operating, for everything from the Middle East to Afghanistan. This was done by building both systems so they could read the same data, and basically talk to each other. To further enhance this integration, many WARSIM developers have moved over (since WARSIM was put into service this year) to work on One SAF.
To do all this, OneSAF uses digitalized military maps and much of the electronic data already available from actual units. The software deals with huge range of military factors, far more than your typical commercial wargame. For example, it can handle casualty care (who got hurt, to what extent and what can be done to help them), accuracy and effectiveness of weapons from hand grenades up to long range army missiles (and missiles of all sorts). The game can accurately represent helicopters (transport and attack) and ground vehicles from trucks to tanks. It deals with anti-aircraft systems, from ground fire (firing an assault rifle at something up there) to Patriot missiles. This includes modeling radar systems. It deals with mines, NBC (chemical, biological and nuclear), electronic warfare (and all sorts of communications), laser designators, and all sorts of damage to weapons, equipment and troops. It also handles logistics and most of the reporting units usually do to each other. In short, it's a pretty comprehensive wargame. Because its easy to modify, new types of weapons (like roadside bombs) can be modeled. When it was seen how effective current tactics were in keeping casualties down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was easy to modify the casualty routines to reflect this new reality.
OneSAF eventually replaced a number of older wargames (JANUS, JCATS, and so on). With OneSAF, its now practical for unit commanders to use a wargame to plan and practice field exercises (over maps of the actual terrain they will be using). This makes those exercises a lot cheaper, and safer for the troops. Using OneSAF this way enables commanders to use the game for planning actual operations, again saving the lives of troops who, in the past ran into something unexpected (by conventional planning methods.)
OneSAF has been something of a stealth project. A lot of people in the military, and a few outside, have heard of it. But few knew what it all really meant. Now you do. OneSAF is still around, with over a decade of software and capability improvements and a few new alternative names.
Another military developed simulation also kept up. In 2014 the U.S. Army introduced Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3). This version addressed a wide variety of requests from users as well as the renewed training troops how to fight conventional, rather than irregular and counter-terror type battles. That need required some new features in VBS and improvements in existing ones. VBS3 could also be modified more quickly, use a larger library of digital maps and portray more action simultaneously. In short, VBSe was easier to use in creating new training scenarios. Troops could even add their own personal capabilities and combat experience. This allowed low level commanders to run training exercises where the digital representation of their troops reflects actual personal capabilities like who is a better shot, faster on their feet and so on. Nearly all the troops who tested the VBS3 beta were eager to use the customized avatars that represented what each of them could actually do in combat.
Even after most American troops were out of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2014, about 40,000 troops uses VBS daily for training and the improvements in VBS3 caused that number to increase. That’s demonstrated by the introduction of VBS 4 in 2020, with lots of new features requested by a lot of users.
VBS is constantly updated to include whatever new commercial game tech now available and more mundane features that make VBS3 easier to maintain. There are some strictly military features. For example, VBS lets troops use foreign languages, and knowledge of the local culture, in realistic situations. This has led to major improvements in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) of the NPCs (Non-Player Characters controlled by software). Commercial games use a lot of AI powered NPCs, but the military needs them more for extreme realism, not dramatic effect. Thus the U.S. Department of Defense is doing a lot of original research on AI, which may then be sold to commercial game developers. The increased military AI requirement means that VBS needs more computing power than even the most ambitious commercial game. Some of this goes towards rapidly creating and putting to use new scenarios. VBS can now more easily import military databases (mainly for terrain). For a long time it took weeks, or months, to spin up new battle scenarios. The army uses video game technology to get that down to hours or less.
The army is also expanding the use of this first-person gaming technology to training non-combat troops. That's about 85 percent of personnel. That covers everything from medics to mechanics, interpreters, intelligence analysts and interrogators, and, well, everyone. These simulations also deal with psychological issues, like the impact of an ambush and combat in general, on NPCs and the abilities of the players themselves. Then there is the ultimate goal of having these training game systems everywhere, so that troops can just switch to the training software and use existing computers (or the gear they use for their job) and go through realistic training exercises. This is easy to do for tanks and other vehicles but will need special equipment (PCs), or more computers imbedded into equipment, for everyone to be able to quickly switch to training simulation mode.
For the troops who do the fighting all this is not enough. The combat troops need a realistic opponent, one who uses different weapon, tactics and ways of adapting. Surprise can be the most devastating battlefield weapon and as realistic as VBS and SAF are, you need easy-to-learn and play games that are unclassified, accurate and widely available.