'Virtual' Games in Korea Show US Military's Edge


Just three years ago, about 70,000 American and South Korean troops steamrolled over the hills of South Korea, taking part in "Team Spirit" - an annual exercise designed to employ new military tactics, and see how they worked in the field. Today, these strategies are tested, not just in the field, but also in cyberspace.

For the last two weeks, at less than one-eighth of the $86 million it cost to stage the 1993 Team Spirit maneuvers, using only one-sixth of the participants, and without angering the farmers who often had their fields tracked up by tanks, American commanders here are finding that the simulated "virtual war" games are giving them better training.

American generals once paced around large maps on tables, using plastic game pieces to strategize and commit ground forces with plastic game pieces like in a B-movie, says Jim Coles, spokesman for US Forces Korea. Meanwhile, actual units would act it out on the ground.

In the Battle Simulation Center, one of many squat, brown buildings around Yongsan Army Base in Seoul, high-level commanders, ID badges clipped to their shirts, swarm around millions of dollars of equipment. "In the olden days we used to go out to the field with tanks and vehicles," says Lt. Col. Jay Grandin as he rushed between briefings. "Now we use work stations to replicate lower-level units."

Before a lieutenant trudges through rice paddies with his troops, he and other "players" are trained by monitoring maps and have to respond to various situations on the computers. The countryside is mottled with icons representing deployments and is divided into hexagonal cells, crossed by webs of lines that represent rivers, roads, and battle fronts. While playing, leaders of computer-replicated companies generate statistics about how much fuel and ammunition is being used, and who is winning. That "intelligence" is then put into a usable format and relayed to generals who make decisions on staging, onward movement, reinforcements, and supply.

"Analysts" and "judges" watch the flow of information up the chain of command and make modifications, aiming to develop a system which provides "real time" surveillance of the battlefield. "Success or failure in modern warfare depends on how fast ... information [gets] to senior levels," says Mr. Coles. Those with the best information can more efficiently redirect resources.

The database for the war simulation includes the known "real world" capabilities of "our forces" and forces similar to what North Korea may have and takes into account everything from fuel supply to natural disasters, says Coles. The computer provides "only the leanest of scripts," and lets the "strategic planners" refine their skills using the equipment and supplies on hand. Commanders must decide on everything from "how you move beans and bullets to how you put bombs down bad guys' chimneys," says Coles.

By practicing various scenarios before going to the field, a commander "is less likely to make a bad decision," says Coles. And each time he returns, he adds new information to the database about the real performance of his equipment and men, thus making the computer model more realistic. The network also allows "free play" between the US and South Korean sides, which was impossible before. A South Korean official in the Defense Ministry lauds the simulation for producing "a real situation" on a large scale.

About 20 years ago the US became the leader in "simulating situations," and has been adapting computer modeling here since 1988.

Since then, "we've virtually created a virtual universe," says Coles. "It's as close as you can get without actually touching something."

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