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Gaming as a Means to Combat Terrorism

Tuesday, October 02, 2001 by TheDoc

Written by: Bob Mandel

In this time of devastating emotional tragedy, in which Americans and others around the world mourn the loss of life of those affected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, few people realize one of the primary means through which the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment prepares for such a monumentally disruptive event is war gaming. Without this form of professional-level simulation, our ability to track the nature of terrorist actions and to prevent future attacks would be much lower. This article will explore just why and how these games have been relied on so much and what they can tell us.

A bit of background is in order about my ability to write this piece. In addition to being into recreational gaming, in real life I also am a frequent consultant with the defense and intelligence community. Through such experience, and through my intensive study of war games in college, I've witnessed the kinds of exercises military and government professionals do in preparation for both war and international crises. Some are used for routine low-level training, while others are designed for top-level decision making. My eyes were indeed opened after watching first hand how things really work in the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency.

War gaming centers in the U.S. have been costly but are proliferating. The Pentagon's own Studies, Analysis and Gaming Agency (SAGA) was bestowed with a huge budget to conduct elaborate political-military simulations, dwarfing that of any commercial development company. The Army War College opened a $1.5 million war gaming center in 1983, as did later the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, National Defense University, and the Joint Forces Command. The Navy War College has used a sophisticated Navy Electronic Warfare Simulator (NEWS) for decades, with a recent series of GLOBAL exercises there attracting national attention; some of their recent efforts emphasized urban warfare, terrorism, and low intensity crises. Within the last two decades, the Army has introduced the Strategic and Tactical Assessment Record (STAR), an interactive video war game designed to measure the effects of stress on players' efficiency, speed, memory, information processing, risk taking, and decision making. Simultaneously, there has been growth in private consulting companies helping with the spread of computerized war gaming.

Despite the high costs involved, gaming as a means of testing military strategies is a lot cheaper than actually engaging in real life combat. Testing out the range, accuracy, and maneuverability of weapons systems is best done on the computer screen to minimize expenses and to avoid inflicting damage on the surrounding physical terrain. Further, setting up scenarios that assess both the judgment and reflexes of combatants can be most precisely accomplished electronically. Plus, the computer can provide an anonymous safe haven for improving skills if a recruit wants to practice without being yelled at or humiliated for incompetence.

During the post-Cold War environment, there's been a special need to use war games to introduce new ways of looking at conflict and of coping strategically and tactically with a threat. In February 1997, the Army's Training and Doctrine Command began running the "Army After Next" exercises, a three week, 300 person effort examining how the American army could evolve to the year 2020. With significant reductions in the size of the armed forces in recent years, war games can serve to help determine how to effectively stretch what's left. For example, the results of a recent exercise called "Nimble Dancer" indicated that, despite these reductions, American armed forces can still, in accordance with national defense strategy, fight and win two wars at the same time. Due to post-Cold War concerns emerging long before the terrorist attack on New York and Washington, simulation experts inside and outside of government have been developing war games specifically focusing on counter-terrorist measures. Among the more notable results so far from such exercises is clear evidence that our information systems have little immunity to outside attack.

When is gaming used most in defense and security planning? While NATO conducts field war exercises quite frequently to help with logistics, command-and-control, and coordination among troops of differing nationalities, the American Pentagon's planning for the very worst contingencies occurs through a different form of virtual simulation designed explicitly for policy making rather than field application. It's the responsibility of our Defense Department to be ready for any contingency that threatens our national security, and if it can't prevent the intrusion of outside disruption, then it needs to make concerted preparation for any future occurrence. There are a huge variety of choices available for how to conduct offensive or defensive military operations, and when an immediate threat arises, security officials often must make decisions quite quickly.

In order to accomplish this kind of complex strategic defense planning, games are often indispensable. When threats emerge from multiple quarters, standard forms of military superiority are not sufficient, and since communication is difficult across cultural or religious divides, standard modes of analysis are insufficient. There's also a need for additional analytical techniques in cases where existing intelligence is deficient. Threats from foreign non-governmental groups, including terrorists, precisely fit this set of criteria. Such exercises can illuminate the benefits of using new technologies and unconventional combat approaches in novel predicaments. More specifically, professional-level computer simulations of security threats have served to evaluate weapons systems, tactical and strategic doctrines, and the structure of the armed forces.

Simulating the impact of terrorist attacks allowed defense analysts to see the huge vulnerabilities and holes in our national security long before the events of September 11. Like national disaster simulations, the results of these efforts clearly showed how unprepared we are for national calamities. So why were we taken off guard by the attack on the World Trade Center towers? Because there had been no commitment to the huge amount of resources necessary to fill these holes. Americans for years after the end of the Cold War were lulled into a sense of false complacency, to the point where many saw little point for the U.S. government to possess any significant military capabilities, and thus the willingness of Congress to increase defense expenditures has been low until this latest calamity. Professional-level war gamers constituted one of the few voices that consistently called attention to unwise levels of national vulnerability.

Computer simulations can also potentially help penetrate the seemingly inscrutable mentality of international terrorist groups and leaders. By programming in the history of major terrorist actions and the profiles of terrorist groups (there's even an unclassified reference CD available to the general public entitled Terrorist Group Profiles from Quanta Press), it's possible to test theories about terrorist motivations by comparing predicted behavior to actual terrorist activities. When using this method, it doesn't matter whether the groups profiled are rational or irrational according to Western standards, or whether they value life are willing to die for their cause; underlying attitudes emerge that reveal important insights.

These games allow military analysts to experiment with the most destructive forms of terrorist attacks without spilling a drop of blood or demolishing a single structure. They also allow creative plans to emerge that can combat even the most sinister attacks, and even reveal patterns that allow intelligence agencies to identify places where they can more productively focus their efforts. When counter-terrorist strategies prove ineffective, there's often a crying need to introduce technologies to facilitate and promote novel ideas, and using computer simulations appears to be one of the best ways of accomplishing this.

There are, however, certain dangers inherent in the use of professional-level computer gaming. Those interpreting these exercises may not be fully aware of all the algorithms and underlying assumptions embedded within them, for instance. In addition, the ability of computers to manage multiple variables simultaneously may cause extraneous elements nonessential to policymakers' understanding of terrorist action to be included. Finally, there's always the possibility that those who design the war games -- or the high-ranking military officers who supervise them -- have a particular ax to grind, ideological predisposition, or preferred outcome which heavily biases the simulation experience.

Unlike consumer-oriented games, there's little need to fear that professional-level war gaming will lead to a bloodthirsty addiction to real-life carnage. The armed forces spend the bulk of their time preparing for war and dealing with instruments of violence, so engaging in a war game dealing with the consequences of a potential terrorist attack should not, in any way, move them to be more immune to the emotional impact of lethal weapons on human victims. Indeed, there's considerable evidence that participating in official exercises may make military leaders more wary of taking risky actions that could cause mass casualties. In most cases, there's no intensified desensitization to the moral trauma of killing.

The success of these war games is a function of the availability of reliable data, well-developed theory, and substantive experts. But even with these, there's no claim that these virtual exercises can predict the future. There are simply too many unknowns to forecast results with any level of confidence. Instead, what's involved is the potential to prepare for a variety of terrorist incidents and to explore the second-order consequences and overall effectiveness of various counter-terrorist strategies. While it's impossible to learn from war games alone how to defeat a particular enemy during a given crisis, it's possible to explore the complexities involved in initiating conflict against them.

While many people might think war games are a weak anti-terrorism instrument since all they do is to provide training and speculation pertaining to how to cope with future attacks, some might wonder why other approaches might not be far superior. Interestingly, terrorism experts agree there's no hard and fast way to eradicate terrorism through any other technique. Three main choices are conventionally discussed: bomb terrorist bases into the stone age, kill media coverage of terrorist attacks, or negotiate with them, getting to know their demands and attempting to make compromises. None has proven effective, just as in earlier centuries no strategy proved consistently effective against pirates or barbarians seeking to attack and undermine civilized society.

After the terrorist attack of September 11, it was widely reported that the Defense Department had simulated similar incidents, and that in these virtual tests our defenses usually proved to be inadequate. Ironically, this helped demonstrate our national vulnerability even before the commercial aircraft hit our precious national symbols. Indeed, as the Washington Post reported on September 17, the events of Terrible Tuesday may have represented the most difficult possible scenario for war gamers: "In all the war-gaming of military academies and Pentagon planners, the U.S. armed forces would be hard-pressed to have invented a more intractable military scenario than waging combat operations in this impoverished, bedraggled land against a radicalized guerrilla force and its most infamous resident -- Saudi fugitive and accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden." While some might complain we did nothing in response to the discovery that our security was not impermeable, it's worth remembering that the demonstration of failed defenses revealed through these completely hypothetical computer simulations were proven to be quite accurate.

Some people have actually argued that commercial computer games helped contribute to the devastation of the recent terrorist attack. In particular, there were well-publicized reports that Microsoft Flight Simulator allows a virtual pilot to plan an attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York similar to that of the terrorists who commandeered the commercial airliner. In that simulation, TV reports emphasized how you can actually fly a commercial jet right into the World Trade Center. Suspicion existed that in addition to flight training, this software helped terrorists perfect their skills. Even if this was true, it's a stretch to hold this recreational offering in any way accountable for the horrendous death and destruction that ensued.

It is, of course, hard to deny that some commercial computer games have glorified killing and even extolled collateral damage. Some titles also have reinforced our national xenophobia toward certain groups of foreigners. But the villainous terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon clearly weren't stimulated to their heinous actions by these software products. Furthermore, it's important to remember that combat offerings teach that it's quite difficult to overcome adversaries, and that launching an offensive can often cause you to lose your life. Americans have learned a deep lesson in compassion from the events of Terrible Tuesday that, if anything, will make them choose to now play computer offerings which do not focus on the depiction of the murder of innocent victims.

In the wake of this terrible national disaster, there have been reports of some Americans being so mournful that they've shunned most forms of popular entertainment. Movies, concerts, and even sports events have seen reduced attendance. When combined with growing signs of an economic downturn, the prospects for the already slumping PC gaming industry don't appear bright. But when we consider that professional-level gaming is helping to plan for future worst-case military scenarios, we might feel a bit more comforted. It might help assuage the widespread feelings of fear and panic to know that something completely separated from distorting human emotions can and is being done to analyze possible future terrorist options. Eventually, we all seek a form of relief from this trauma, and what could be better than the virtual world of computer gaming, where the good guys always win in the end?

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