Put together in about six months by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, "DARWARS Ambush!" is based on Operation Flashpoint, a best selling commercial first-person-shooter game. The project began in March, and was field-tested in September by an Army combat unit deploying to Iraq.
The Army already has elaborate convoy trainers, such as Humvee mock-ups. However, big hunks of machinery at Fort Hood, Texas, don't help an infantry battalion in Iraq practice its skills in the field. A modified computer game may not be fancy, but at least a truck driver with a laptop can use it in his tent.
The goal is to mentally prepare soldiers for ambushes, rather than teaching them specific driving or shooting skills, said Ralph Chatham, director of DARPA's training superiority program.
"The idea is to build a voice in the back of the head of a soldier who pulls into a parking space, and sees somebody walk away and use their cell phone," Chatham said. The soldier would have to make an assessment based on that person's behavior.
Scenarios typically involve four vehicles, which can include trucks, Humvees or Strykers. Each vehicle has a driver and gunner's slot. Players have to get across Iraq-like terrain, including desert, villages, bridges and a large city.
But first, they'll have to battle their way through insurgents. The guerrillas can be controlled by the computer, but Chatham believes training is infinitely more effective when other players impersonate the enemies. "Just imagine the competition when they say, 'I can build a better ambush that you can't out of,' or 'I can get out of any ambush that you can build.'"
As with many commercial games, "DARWARS Ambush!" can be customized. "Players can choose what weapons to use, where to put themselves in an ambush, and we even have a selection of dead camels and dead cats to put improvised explosive devices into," Chatham said.
To expedite the process, DARPA chose to base the trainer on an existing commercial game. "Operation Flashpoint" was modified to include more realistic vehicles, terrain, objects and artificial intelligence. The upgrades were based on a huge database that DARPA compiled on ambushes, which was then augmented by observing ambush training at Army combat training centers. A game demo was given to an Army unit that DARPA filmed. Studying the film allowed DARPA to glean feedback, such as the fact that soldiers found it easier to control the game with a mouse than a video game steering wheel.
Though Chatham prefers military simulations to commercial games, he deliberately chose to base "DARWARS Ambush!" on a fast-paced computer game, rather than conventional military training software. "I wanted something compelling so tired people would want to participate," he added. "Operation Flashpoint" could be modified quickly and relatively cheaply. The price tag was between $1 million and $2 million.
Chatham sees the ambush simulator as the first step in DARWARS, an ambitious concept that would enable disparate simulations from all services to be linked into a virtual training megalopolis. "DARWARS Ambush!" may evolve into a generic tactical trainer, and a "not-too-massive multiplayer training device," which would be a smaller version of popular multiplayer universes that fans play over the Internet.