WIRED contributing editor Steve Silberman says his new story, "The War Room," is a first look inside "a new Pentagon-sponsored training program for soldiers headed to Iraq and elsewhere that immerses them in highly realistic virtual environments designed by Hollywood special effects artists…. Interesting, troubling."
This is the new way soldiers will train for battle. In September, a select group of Army infantrymen, Marine corpsmen, Navy sailors, and Air Force pilots at Fort Sill will become the first military personnel to learn the art of combat and the rules of engagement from surround sound action movies starring themselves. The installation is the brainchild of the Institute for Creative Technologies, an Army-funded R&D group at the University of Southern California. ICT brings together videogame developers, f/x artists, research scientists, and Pentagon experts to create faster, cheaper, and more effective ways of preparing recruits for their jobs on the front lines. If all goes well, similar facilities will go up at bases from Fort Bliss to Fallujah.
The military has been using flight and tank simulators for decades ("War Is Virtual Hell," Wired 1.01), but the installation at Fort Sill is the first attempt to duplicate battle conditions for troops by combining wartime science and theme-park showmanship. The Joint Fires and Effects Trainer System, or JFETS, is the product of an unprecedented level of cooperation among the Pentagon, film and gaming companies, and Silicon Valley – a synergy that Stanford history professor Tim Lenoir calls the military-entertainment complex.
Virtual war will never fully replace the mainstays of boot camp life: live-fire exercises and ass-busting field training. But as weapons systems grow smarter, they become more expensive to deploy in real-world war games. Now that consumer gaming engines like Unreal are able to render cinematic-quality graphics in real time, even big-ticket munitions are trivial to simulate.