Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Charge of the Geek Brigade

January 18, 2006: American troops appear to have a considerable advantage because most of them grew up playing video games and using PCs. More and more military equipment uses computers, or are basically electronic gadgets. American troops require a lot less time to learn how to use this stuff, and tend to be very good with it. This extends from fire control systems in armored vehicles, to new radios, electronic rifle sights and training systems (which are very similar to those video games.) Many other countries have to spend a lot more time training their troops to use this stuff, and the proficiency of the troops is never particularly good. This effect is often seen when this high tech American equipment is provided to foreign troops who didn’t have such an electronic childhood.

Military Training: Geek Advantage

And this from Glenn Reynolds:

But the move against violent videogames strikes me as a bad idea for other reasons. Not only does it represent an unconstitutional infringement on free speech -- as the Wired News story notes, "None of the measures that passed have survived legal challenge" -- but it may actually make America weaker.

American troops are already using videogames in training. Some are fancy custom jobs, like the combat simulators described in this article by Jim Dunnigan at StrategyPage:

    The new ambush simulators were done in less than six months. Using existing simulator technology, two different ambush simulator designs were created. Lockheed-Martin is delivering eight simulators based on large video screens, that surround the trainees and replicate the sights and sounds of an attack. Weapons equipped with special sensors allow the troops to shoot back from mockups of vehicles, and they also receive feedback if they are hit. . . .

This is the future. It doesn't mean that ground pounders and General Pattons aren't necessary or should not exist in the future military. The perfect military will indeed be able to integrate both the fantastic geekish gadgetry and the John Wayne "get some" soldier. Ground pounders often speak of the timely intervention of CAS (close air support) or supporting artillary and, while today the men and women in the rear using joysticks are still somewhat of a joke to the bad asses kicking in doors, I think there will be a future where real respect and admiration for the geek in glasses who spent hours in his momma's basement playing video games will be seen, just like the days of Huey and A-10 pilots.

Most UAV missions with a geek in a tin can back at base are intelligence gathering or surveillance post attack that sometimes leads the military to the bad guys. Some have included hellfire missile attacks on known targets. I believe the future is near at hand where the geek in a tin can will be providing CAS to ground units with a relatively inexpensive vehicles and some weaponry that gamers can only dream about handling in their Spec Op games and simulators.

Many reports are indicating that Unmanned fighters on near to rolling off the test line.

It doesn't mean ground pounders go away. You can't win a war decisively unless you have the ability to hold the land and physically depose the political structure of a country. Destroying even a large part of their military does not constitute an end to a regime as we saw after Desert Storm.

While many worry about the psychological effects of videos on children and adults, I believe the real concern that the military must constantly balance against is the tendency to rely too much on electronic devices. It is all good and well that a GPS can give you correct location, but it doesn't help any when the batteries go dead and you're stuck behind enemy lines or on covert mission and can't get a new supply. Even with the military working on better batteries, the loss of basic skills would be disasterous in many situations.

I know that the military trains our men and women to use compass skills (for instance), but I wonder, in the post basic training world, how often units work to keep these skills up? While simulators are great for honing reflexes for battle, I am hoping that commanders in the field or at least their NCOs think that the reasons for those skills are important and should be continuously trained on (I am mentioning compass skills as a basic example, but other simple survival skills should not be lost; war cannot be predicated on the flow of electricity).

That being said, I wonder if the military will relax any of its physical requirements for the geek brigades? If not, they'll be some of the most physically fit couch potatoes on the planet. I don't think it will be too far off when being designated a member of the geek brigade will be a serious badge of honor. What sort of medals will they get if they don't risk life and limb in the midst of combat, but save a squadron from annhilation and bring home the million dollar electronic baby without a scratch?

Or, will that simply become "just another day at the office"? I think the military will have to consider this as well as the technological age comes along. Certainly, you don't have to give them the same awards as a ground pounder, but successful electronic missions are going to become more and more the norm with more brain power than brawn involved. How is the military going to keep the geek brigade if it does not start recognizing their contributions and provide as much or as quick promotional opportunities as a battle hardened commander who's actually traded physical blows with the enemy face to face? Or a guy that has led infantry or tanks on the ground?

What is the military going to offer the geek brigade to get them to join? Or, is the allure of playing with the real thing going to be enough to drive future recruits?

Somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon or in civilian contracting facilities around the United States, a robotics and computer geek brigade is imagining the day when they drop computerized tanks into a war zone driven by guys 9000 miles away, whose technology will be advanced enough that is excellent while being relatively cheap, like the advent of personal computers, where the vehicle can be very fast, require limited, but excellent armor and whose destruction would cost less than an Abrams and it's tank crew in terms of operational disfunction, real monetary costs and political costs. Something that could be easily manufactured and quickly replaced on the battle field. Instead of repairing the tanks, they'd be discoarded like used bic lighters or Hyundai's after 100k miles.

You wouldn't need to worry about sleep, rest or food, just a renewable energy supply, scheduling shifts of other geeks in camouflage and supplying replacement tanks on the go with remote controlled air drops. Imagine the pace of battle, performed 24/7 under those conditions. If the enemy did not have the same capabilities, the idea of getting inside a the enemies decision cycle would be moot. It practically wouldn't exist.

Or imagine fleets of armed UAVs over Tora Bora with the ability to fly high altitudes, with infra red and other radar or sensory abilities (like the infamous Vietnam era people sniffers, but better) or the ground penetrating radar system that could make out a cave as well as its inhabitants, constantly on station. There would have been no escape from Tora Bora. Or, if they did "escape" we would know where they went. Even if ground pounders had to go, these fleets could hold the enemy in place, attrit his forces or provide the ability to track, locate, evaluate defenses and direct forces to those sites for immediate reaction as well as maintain CAS for incoming forces.

Again, there would be very little decision cycle and a lot of confusion on the part of even small, non-technologically advanced enemies.

Yet, as I imagine this future, there are two things that concern me from a mostly philosophical point:

1) Cheap and easy war may lead to a cheapening of life and consequences. I remember an episode of the original Star Trek where they came to a planet where both sides had advanced so far technologically that whole populations were simply annhilated. Instead of coming to a political compromise and resolving the war, for a century, both sides would simply have a lottery of its citizens and they would send them through a supposedly painless particle evaporater, ten thousand every month as per the agreement between warring parties. It was cheaper, less bloody and less politically volatile. In the mean time, they had nearly managed to make their people extinct anyway but they couldn't figure out how to stop it.

That's the war I worry about.

2) History says that the further advanced a society is in law and technology, the more likely it is to be defeated by a completely "barbarian" stone age enemy using low-tech or no tech means. I think it's dangerous to imagine a time when technology makes us so comfortable that we forget the mightiest civilizations were destroyed by the barbarians at the gate.

In the meantime, somewhere deep inside all this philosophical meanderings and futuristic dreaming, I feel a deep vindication for the time I've spent gaming with my brothers as well as a little "up yours" to all those smarmy folks who think they are culturally advantaged because their children don't spend as much time playing computer games or watching TV.

There's a future coming and it says that the geeky couch potatoe will be a force to reckon with.

Maybe then food companies and nutritionists will make a bigger and better effort to develop couch potatoe food with less calories, helps burn fat instead of creating it, lowers cholesterol, less sugar content, more energy creating and doesn't taste like crap. Very likely that the military will invest more in this research instead of just trying to develop high energy compact meals for the guys on the go on the ground. They will have a lot of interest in insuring that their geek brigades don't kill over from heart attacks to early with all the money invested in their training.

Hoo-ah for the geek brigades.

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