TCS Daily

The Truman Show in the Mojave Desert

By James Pinkerton - March 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: In the first installment of this four-part series, we saw some of the techniques that the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin has developed to simulate combat in Iraq and elsewhere. But such "live" exercises are only half the story; in this next installment, we will take a look at some of the soldiers who blend the real and the virtual into the military's own form of practical magic.

FORT IRWIN, California -- Remember the 1998 movie "The Truman Show"? Jim Carrey plays a regular guy, living his regular life. But then one day, he realizes that his whole existence is artificial, that he has been living his life as an unwitting actor, surrounded by witting actors who are playing assigned roles as his friends, co-workers -- even lovers. Comic complications ensue from Carrey's discovery, as well as challenging questions about the nature of reality in an electronic environment.

The film was in my mind as I visited the National Training Center (NTC) here in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I kept thinking to myself, "I know that what I'm seeing is cool, but what does it mean? Is it real? That is, am I watching soldiers genuinely prepare for combat, or am I watching soldiers go through some mock exercise, according to a script that's been written for them -- a script that may or not bear any relation to military reality?" After all, as the 19th-century military strategist Clausewitz observed, "No plan survives its first contact with combat." And so were all these exercises at Irwin just a military version of the "Truman Show" -- a show that Clausewitz would have laughed at?

My head started to ache as I tried to wrap my brain around these questions; it was if I was trying to figure out the plotline of the "Matrix" trilogy. And then I thought, "Maybe all this staging and production is just for my benefit; maybe it isn't the soldiers being faked out, but visiting reporters, such as me!" That latter idea really gave me a headache. But then I got a grip on myself, thinking, "The US military is for real, as the Taliban and Saddam Hussein both discovered. So whatever they're doing here, it has a direct and powerful linkage to reality." And it was up to me to figure it out, no matter how much of a migraine I got.

The National Training Center

The NTC sits on a patch of land that stretches about 60 miles east to west and 40 miles north to south; that's enough room for tens of thousands of soldiers a year to do some pretty serious war-simulating.

But if physical territory is the big sprawling body of the NTC, its brains are indoors, in a small one-story structure, officially called the Operations Center -- but known to all Irwinites as the "Star Wars" building. It's here, on these computer screens, that the Army is thinking through its wars, present and future.

And in the future, even more than today, those wars will be information-driven. Indeed, info-war is the Martial Grail from which all American warriors seek to drink; everybody in the military looks forward to the creation of a totally wired "netcentric" environment, leading to "jointness," so that all personnel in all military branches will have complete "situational awareness" of each other, as well as the enemy. Only then, according to this vision, will the Pentagon be able to wield "full spectrum dominance" -- supremacy in all possible warfighting theaters, from cyberspace and outer space.

If this Department of Defense vision seems to run parallel to Internet-think over the last few decades, that's because it does. But it's worth remembering that the Internet itself was originally a Pentagon product -- ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency within DOD. Indeed, the father of Internet visionaries, Vannevar Bush, was one of the key players in military R&D during the middle of the last century. His seminal essay, "As We May Think," published in July 1945 Atlantic Monthly, outlined a vision of an all-encompassing information-rich environment. Bush painted this picture of proto-"netcentric" science:

"One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination."

Six decades later, in its own military realm, the NTC strives for the same level of "info-comprehensivity" that Bush imagined, situating physical movement inside a virtual datasphere.

People and Machines

But the NTC starts with the basics. For all the gadgets and gizmos in the Star Wars building, everything at Fort Irwin begins with real people and real machines.

Simulated infantry combat, for example, comes in two forms. First, soldiers train by fighting against "the Plywoodian Hordes," as Major Jack Vantress likes to call them. Those "hordes" are, of course, the plywood dummies used for live-fire target practice. But Irwin is no videogame; soldiers don't get to just blaze away; they have to ration their ammo, just as they would on the battlefield. And overseeing all live-fire exercises are the NTC's Observer-Controllers (OCs), who measure and monitor each soldier's effectiveness at knocking off the Plywoodians.

Second, and more usually, soldiers find themselves in combat with mock enemies, called "OpFor," abbreviating "Opposing Force." The OpFors are regular Army units, assigned the mission of playing the military equivalent of the devil's advocate. The two sides -- the good guys and the fake bad guys -- never use live ammunition, for obvious reasons.

Instead, they use the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES. MILES is akin to laser tag -- soldiers carry laser guns and wear laser-sensor harnesses -- but is much more sophisticated and realistic; soldiers fire blank rounds out of their M-16s, but only up to the limit of what they would normally carry on the battlefield. When they pull the trigger on their weapon, they feel a recoil from the blank being fired; in addition, a laser attached to the barrel sends a pulse that replicates the hypothetical path of the bullet. If the soldier's aim has reached a suitable target -- such as an opposing soldier -- then that opposing soldier's sensors will detect the laser pulse and the unlucky soldier's "whoopee light" will go off. After being "hit," the soldier opens an envelope he or she carries, which reveals the severity of the injury--from a flesh wound to a chest wound. And the OCs are there to make sure that all the rules and procedures are followed. As Vantress says, "MILES is one of the cornerstones of Fort Irwin. It provides soldiers and units with immediate feedback in the replication of combat."

But the MILES system is based on technology from the '70s, updated on a catch-as-catch-can basis over the last quarter century. So MILES works fine for infantry, shooting line-of-sight weapons; it becomes more problematic for "indirect fire" weapons, such as artillery or missiles. How to simulate those? Right now, the OCs at Fort Irwin are empowered to determine the Simulated Area Weapons Effect (SAWE) of a warhead's explosion. Affected vehicles, for example, are judged to have suffered damage on three levels: "mobility kill" (the vehicle can shoot but cannot move), "firepower kill" (the vehicle can move but cannot shoot), and "catastrophic kill" (you can figure it out).

But the SAWE process is a somewhat messy process of judgment and adjudication, not unlike what a baseball umpire does on the ball field. Which is to say, it's good enough to keep the game going, but not precise enough for total-immersion simulation.

Regarding TESS

So the next step for the NTC is the Tactical Engagement Simulation Systems (TESS), which seeks to take simulation to a higher and better level -- in which every aspect of simulation at Fort Irwin is subsumed in the overall "netcentric" vision of the future, in which all military actions are connected in seamless jointness.

With TESS, anything fired at anybody will be more than a laser pulse; it will be an information packet, completely transparent to TESS. That "infopac" will be recorded by TESS and tracked wherever it goes -- whether it hits the target or not, how much damage it does if it does hit. In addition, TESS will track all the other elements of warfighting -- from how much water a soldier is carrying, to how much fuel his Bradley Fighting Vehicle has left, to how many missiles an F-16 flying overhead is carrying.

So is TESS like "The Truman Show"? Does it offer the creators of the program -- remember Ed Harris playing the pretentious director, complete with a black beret? - a chance to play God with Jim Carrey-like people? That's the question that perplexed me at Fort Irwin.

I put that question to Major Joel Stephenson, as he watched over a tank-battle simulation in his workspace at the Star Wars building. Stephenson is seriously real enough -- his background is driving tanks -- but now he spends his time at Fort Irwin watching little tank icons on screens. So is he the Army's answer to Ed Harris? And more to the point, is this whole exercise just the creation of the Star Warriors? Are they acting out their game-playing fantasies?

No, Stephenson explained to me, and here's why. He and all the other simulators at Fort Irwin aren't playing the game, or directing the game; they are watching the game. That's the difference. Stephenson & Co. watch the wargamers on the ground, observing and recording their real-time actions and reactions, which reveal what they would do on the battlefield -- which then, of course, is the basis for a plan for training and improvement.

In "The Truman Show," all the characters -- except for the hapless Jim Carrey -- were following a script. At Fort Irwin, all the characters are writing their own script as they go. Vantress, Stephenson, and all the other simulators in the Star Wars building are there merely to observe the on-the-ground action, and then to feed back their observations to the participants.

So the NTC lets warriors practice their missions in an environment in which the worst thing that can happen is that their "whoopee light" goes off. That might be embarrassing and annoying -- but it's also instructive. And it's definitely not fatal.

Poetry and War

So Fort Irwin has a kind of double nature. At one level, it simulates the dirty -- actually, sandy -- reality of combat. And yet at the same time, on a meta level, it simulates the future of warfare. Indeed, the long-run goal of the people who run Fort Irwin is to make the NTC just a tiny part of the whole DOD training experience; their dream is to make the whole planet into a venue for simulation. That is, in the near future, they hope to digitalize the earth so as to extend the possible training "battlespace" to include anyplace, anywhere. Thus someday soon, the NTC-ers might be able to stage a realistic simulation in your backyard. You won't see a thing, of course, because it's all virtualized -- but you might sleep better at night, knowing that the Army is ready for anything.

See what I mean about all this stuff making your head hurt? It's kind of a mind-blower, to think about worlds, and then more worlds. I had finally gotten "The Truman Show" out of my head. My new thought was about William Blake, who had visions of his own nearly two hundred years ago; he lyricized about seeing "A World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower," as well as holding "Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour." To me, that's Fort Irwin: a place where the world is micro and macro at the same time, a place where one can do and watch, act and learn, all at once. To be sure, the issue at hand is war, not poetry, but there's something beautiful about winning a war.

Next: The man who holds Fort Irwin in the palm of his hand.


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