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Documentary : Sophisticated Software Takes the Place of Military Hardware in New War Games : NATO maneuvers on the German countryside were costly and destructive--until the Computer Age. Now military brass direct running battles on high-tech simulators, at a fraction of the expense.

November 20, 1990|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MITTERTEICH, Germany — This is the time of year when the rolling, rich fields and blacktopped roads of Bavaria have often been cluttered with grinding tanks, troop carriers and soldiers.

The post-harvest autumn season is military exercise time, when forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would deploy across the German countryside, practicing to repulse a Soviet attack.

In the past, such maneuvers were costly, both in putting thousands of men and machines into action and in payments to local farmers for damage to fields and roadways.

But this year, to an unprecedented degree, senior commanders are conducting their major maneuvers not with hundreds of vehicles and thousands of troops, but with a master computer that simulates a running battle.

Besides being less disruptive to the German countryside, this training method is much cheaper than full-fledged maneuvers--a savings appropriate to the reduced threat from the Soviet Union and the collapsed Warsaw Pact.

A field maneuver involving a full division (17,000 troops) and 5,000 vehicles would cost about $9 million. A comparable computerized version run from a cavernous tent just north of this market town near the Czechoslovak border recently involved "800 people participating at a cost of about $350,000," said the exercise director, Lt. Col. Bill Hatch.

"We call the increased use of battle simulators 'training smart,' " added Maj. John Cooper, a staff officer with the 1st Armored Division.

Training with simulated war games is not new. But thanks to modern computer technology, the games are becoming increasingly realistic, forcing officers to respond to rapidly changing conditions closely matching those they would meet in the field.

One observer likened the contrast between old-fashioned war gaming and today's computer simulations to that between slow-motion and fast-forward.

The exercises give commanders the feel of maneuvering large formations under battlefield conditions while lower-echelon officers and the troops, no longer needed as training props for the senior brass, get more experience in the field.

The five-day training exercise called Swift Lance III that Hatch was directing here was devised at corps headquarters in Stuttgart to simulate a numerically superior enemy attack moving south toward the city of Fulda, long a strategic site near the former East German border. The mission of the 1st Armored Division's commander, Gen. Ronald Griffith, was to stop the advancing forces and then counterattack.

Griffith's brigade commanders and other officers were scattered around Bavaria--none of them, ironically, within 100 miles of Fulda. An opposition forces commander determined attack tactics, with every move fed into the computer.

"I make sure things go smoothly here and nobody cheats," Hatch said.

A sense of nervous tension pervaded the center as members of various units, in separate areas, bent over computer consoles, following the action and feeding detailed data to the battle computer.

Griffiths and his officers must take into consideration the actual conditions around Fulda, Hatch noted. "That means the terrain, the road network, the fact that refugees will be jamming them. Every bridge in Germany is marked on our maps with the weight it will bear. So the commander must maneuver his troops in a realistic manner--you can't run heavy tanks over roads or bridges that won't hold them.

"Further, units must be available and in condition to move," Hatch added. "Sometimes units are depleted by casualties or out of position. You just can't magically order them up. And almost all the maneuvers are done in real time, as they would be in field exercises."

The software for the computerized maneuvers was developed by Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which builds into the database all men, supplies and equipment involved in the exercise.

At command posts away from the simulation center, the mock battle seems all the more real. The division's 1st Brigade and its staff of 150, for example, set up its command post in a sports yard at the edge of Mitterteich. Working in a blackout tent, Lt. Col. Dave Ozolek, the executive officer, bent over maps on a table and updated friendly and opposition troop positions.

Portable generators supplied dim lighting, and two-way radios crackled with messages, just as they would during an actual battle.

"First Battalion taking artillery fire," reports the operations officer.

"Let's get our own arty (artillery) on them," replies Col. Ozolek. "Get the coordinates."

The command staff plots the reported position of the enemy batteries and radios for artillery support. Sometimes it comes immediately, sometimes not--as would happen in war.

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