Military commanders are sharpening their skills with high-tech computer war games that display video versions of terrain maps and present such real-life problems as letting a unit run out of ammunition.
"It's one thing to talk about nuclear weapons; it's another thing to have a computer sending you a message saying so many people got zapped," said Mike deGyurky, a programmer-engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which developed the programs.
The laboratory, best known as the lab that runs America's unmanned space explorations, created the programs to replace pencil-and-paper simulations, not full-scale field exercises.
By reducing manpower and letting participants communicate via computer from their home bases, the computer programs will save millions of dollars, far more than the roughly $30 million that they cost, said Air Force Col. Chris Spivey, who heads the U.S. Readiness Command's Joint Warfare Center.
Computer simulations of spacecraft flights were performed for years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But when late-1970s budget cuts slowed space work, laboratory scientists developed the war simulation idea, and military officials provided development funds.
Mock conflicts, staged on video screens that display real terrain maps, last three to five days.
Older, less sophisticated computer programs play war games to the finish without human intervention. DeGyurky said the new games require humans to make decisions and issue orders continually.
"If the commander doesn't order up fuel and ammunition, the war comes to a stop," Spivey said.
Blue and red flags representing U.S. and enemy forces are marked with symbols to specify infantry, artillery, supply or other units. As battles progress, the flags move and numbers flash on the screen, showing each unit's position and strength.
The computer calculates the number of casualties "based on statistical analysis of what happened in real wars," DeGyurky said.
When the mock commanders order attacks and the computer tells them the troops were decimated, he said, "they get mad. They get angry. They learn from it. The red team or blue team succeeds, and people are screaming and hollering."
Up to 3,000 people play the battlefield training game, dubbed the Joint Exercise Support System. The commanders work in field command posts, telephoning orders to game controllers, who punch the orders on keyboards and relay simulated results back.
The war plans analysis game, called Joint Theater-Level Simulation, involves two to 400 people.