Virtual Battle Space Blends Reality with Simulation
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 12, 2002 Step behind the blue curtains with Annette C. Ratzenberger in the test bay at Millennium Challenge and you'll enter a world familiar to Star Trek fans.
Ratzenberger's "model simulation federation" isn't quite the futuristic holodeck where the Starship Enterprise crew plays out their fantasies in the computer-generated, four- dimensional simulated environment. But the two-dimensional battle space Ratzenberger's computers generate is certainly a step in that direction.
Joint Forces Command's Millennium Challenge, currently under way in Suffolk, Va., is an experiment first and an exercise second, the chief of experimentation engineering said. About 80 percent of the forces involved are simulated. About 20 percent are real. The computer-generated battle scene enables military theorists and strategists to explore various operational concepts.
"It's a training event since we do have forces on the ground involved," Ratzenberger said. "But the experiment part is what's important because we're really looking at forces in the 2007 time frame. We're looking at ways that we can transform and change for the better, for the future."
She proudly explains that her staff has linked 42 model simulations into the largest and most complex simulation federation ever built.
"We asked the services what we needed to portray and what models they usually use for experimentation," she said. "They nominated their models. Most of them had never run together before. We brought them in, and with the services' help, we created the joint virtual battle space that the joint force commander and his staff are dealing with."
Computer software simulates individual weapon platforms, she said. "We have simulations of tanks, airplanes, aircraft carriers and submarines. We'll play companies of infantry. Some of the simulations play multiples of these things and some programs play more than one platform."
Some simulations are incredibly detailed, she noted. A simulated aircraft carrier, for example, plays the individual decks, elevators, even the landing signal officer waving the aircraft off the deck.
"We simulate everything that exists in the battle space for more than a few seconds," Ratzenberger said. "For example, we simulate the effects of tank rounds, but we don't simulate them individually. They are flight patterns. However, for a theater ballistic missile, we will simulate that explicitly to include their flight pattern because they exist for longer than a couple of seconds."
The experimentation engineers worked with the services for two years prior to the start of Millennium Challenge, she said. People came together, rolled up their sleeves and got the job done at a reasonable cost.
Ratzenberger and her staff had to "bend code" to ensure Navy simulations would work with Air Force simulations. "We've got an aircraft flying in an Air Force model, for example, that's modeling an enemy aircraft firing at blue tanks on the ground in an Army model," she said. "This is truly a joint battle space. It's not a bunch of stovepipes separated by mountains.
"To give you an idea of the complexity," she added, "we modeled 400 different kinds of weapon platforms, 600 different kinds of munitions. We tested and validated over 110,000 weapon-target pairings before we came into this event."
The simulation federation, coupled with incoming digital information on the live forces on the ground, makes up the battle scene the joint force commander and his staff must manage as if they were in a wartime environment. "Since this is an experiment," Ratzenberger said, "we are looking at what they are doing, how they are collaborating and how they are working together in the organizational structure."
Task force officers are managing these live and simulated forces "and hopefully, they can't tell the difference," Ratzenberger said. "Right now, we're at the stage where everything appears real on the computer screens. What's interesting is that some of this now is real out on the ranges as well and it's woven in with the simulation."
Not only do live and simulated forces appear together on the screen, but live, instrumented vehicles at the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., appear in the simulation as well, she said. "We can now fire with virtual artillery -- artillery in the simulation -- at the live vehicles on the range at NTC. We could fire artillery and have that vehicle killed by his instrumentation."
In all, about 13,500 people are taking part in Millennium Challenge. Ratzenberger said they communicate in a collaborative environment via computer. There's no waiting for a fax to come in with a report from the field.
"They get into collaborative sessions with people spread out across the United States at over a thousand work stations we've put out there," she said. "They're linked together so that when the JTF commander wants to give his guidance, everybody can hear it on one of these collaborative tools."
Millennium Challenge takes collaboration to a new standard, said one Joint Task Force spokesman. Ratzenberger, who has worked in the model simulation field since 1978, agreed. A smaller experiment conducted last year involved far fewer workstations.
"We thought we were really doing well because we were pushing the envelope with about 125 in these collaborative sessions," she said. "(This year,) the requirement just grew and grew and grew. We really didn't know if we were going to be able to meet the demand for the collaborative information environment on the technical side."
But Joint Forces Command met the challenge. Ratzenberger said 1,200 "boxes" are collaborating in this year's experiment. Some are aboard ships, some are at Fort Irwin, and others are at stateside military bases such as Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"We've got these models running all over the United States," she said. "We had to build (the federation) so that if one of the boxes -- computers -- goes down due to a thunderstorm or whatever, then the rest are still up and running." So far, she proudly noted, "we have not had the simulations go down on us. They've been rock solid."
Ratzenberger said command officials hope to continue using the simulation federation after Millennium Challenge ends. They want to keep the services involved so they can see how their elements perform in a joint environment.
"We want to take a subset of these simulations and bring them in to create a continuous experimentation environment which we will run nearly continuously," she said. "Experimenters will be able to come in with questions, weekly, monthly. They'll be able to say, "'Let's look at 2015 and these are the kinds of concepts we want to look at.'"
Model simulations "save lives and bucks," Ratzenberger concluded, "This is a wonderful field. I often joke, 'They actually pay me to do this?'"