The ground truth: simulating real conflict scenarios in real time with real data
Unlike the world of war-themed video games, simulating a real-world battlefield means creating and manipulating huge quantities of data that represent complex, dynamic scenarios comprising hundreds of thousands of individual objects. Such objects, called entities, may include soldiers, sensor systems, weaponry, aircraft, vehicles, and equipment. But battles don’t take place in a sandbox. Simulations also need to account for scenario-environment conditions such as weather, civilian populations and their movements, air and sea traffic, and military assets outside the immediate battlefield of play. Combining all of this into realistic, high-resolution, graphics-based training tools is the mission of the Conflict Simulation Laboratory.
Since 1997, the Conflict Simulation Laboratory, led by Computing personnel, has provided conflict-simulation software tools to military and civilian customers around the world. Primary among these tools is the Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation (JCATS) application, which accurately replicates ground-based, entity-level operations scenarios for military tactical training and analyses. Originally designed for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff J7 Division (formerly Joint Forces Command), JCATS is also used to analyze civilian site security and emergency management scenarios such as the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and natural disasters.
In a JCATS simulation, human operators role-play friendly and enemy battlefield operations, controlling their entities via a graphical user interface on networked individual client workstations. The results are reported to higher level commanders and staff using actual battlefield command-and-control systems. From the bottom up, JCATS portrays both ground truth and perception that occur in response to friendly and enemy tactical decisions. JCATS owes much of its widespread adoption to its level of human-in-the-loop control. Rather than relying too heavily on automation, JCATS always allows the operator to intervene, controlling automated behaviors to achieve the scenario’s training objectives. In addition, JCATS operates on low-cost, off-the-shelf hardware that allows for easy scalability. Small- to medium-scale users can run JCATS on a single workstation or a few networked laptops, while large-scale scenarios may incorporate more than 100 networked workstations.
JCATS closely portrays actual scenarios by coupling realistic algorithms and data for acquisition and targeting, along with feature-rich terrain, like vegetation and elevation contours. Performance data for sensor systems, weapons, munitions, and vehicles (including ground, sea, and air systems) are user-defined, and can be customized to the user’s chosen level of complexity to train or rehearse any tactical scenario, from a handful of entities up to hundreds of thousands of entities at the joint-task-force level. JCATS can also be used to play “what if” scenarios (e.g., “What if we could make a tank go faster or shoot farther?”) to see how they affect the simulated battle.
The JCATS Low Overhead Driver (JLOD) application adds another layer of realism to JCATS-based scenarios by simulating entities and activities that are taking place outside the JCATS “playbox” but affect what happens there. While a JCATS scenario’s playbox is a high-resolution patch of Earth that is 2,400 km × 2,400 km or smaller, JLOD’s playbox incorporates the entire Earth. The Conflict Simulation Laboratory lead, Mark Piscotty, explains, “JLOD includes wrap-around data like global military assets, and commercial air traffic and ships. For example, JLOD can simulate the realistic transit of B-2 bombers from a U.S. base to a JCATS scenario taking place across the globe.” Another feature of JLOD is its ability to simulate population behavior and realistic patterns of life that may affect the JCATS exercises, from mundane activities like civilian traffic patterns, to dramatic events such as mass refugee movement or disaster evacuation.
A major benefit of JCATS and JLOD is their ability to federate, or link, with each other and other simulation programs used by customers both domestic and abroad. For example, the Joint Chiefs of Staff organization can federate JCATS and JLOD with other simulation programs to provide a joint training environment for all branches of the U.S. armed forces, NATO, and other allied nations. As the JCATS Chief Architect, Hal Brand, says, “JCATS and JLOD play well with others. Using the simulation protocol standards High Language Architecture or Distributive Interactive Simulation, our tools exchange data with other simulations and 3D virtual systems, such as tank simulators. Plus, they can operate in a combined live–virtual–constructive (computed) environment, interacting with real players in a training area and virtual systems while displaying their locations and actions on the JCATS and JLOD screens.”
Figure 1. Live-virtual-constructive simulations bring together live information about real entities (human and vehicles) with human-operated 3D virtuals (e.g., an attack helicopter simulator) and entity-based “constructive” simulations computed by JCATS and JLOD. This capability of combining three environments—live, virtual, and constructive—enhances the simulation realism and effectiveness for the training audience. The most widely used tactical simulation in the world, JCATS is installed in over 350 U.S. military and civilian organizations, in NATO, and in more than 30 countries around the globe.
Building on over 40 years of simulation experience, the Conflict Simulation Laboratory continues to enrich the capabilities of JCATS and JLOD to meet the common need of their U.S. and international customers—to simulate real scenarios in real time with real data to better understand and predict the ground truth in the real world.