This article is produced and financed by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment - read more

Some of the war school students at Linderud in Oslo are planning military operations the old-fashioned way, with maps, stationery and foils, while others get to try SWAP. This FFI-developed decision support tool visualizes the war game on screen. It is currently only a prototype.

Planning war: Researchers are creating a digital war game to replace todays physical maps, tables and pencils

The war room scenes you see in WWII films are not far from the reality of today. Military leaders still use pencils, crayons and physical maps. The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment have developed a prototype of a new program that moves this war planning to a digital cloud.

War gaming is an important tool for visualizing various behaviours, both anticipating the enemy’s moves and planning one's own.

Although there is a completely different approach to data and knowledge in 2020, compared to what the planners had to work with during the last world war, many decisions are made using the same method: The decision makers gather in a room where they use physical resources. In principle, they work with pencils and crayons, in addition to foils placed on top of the maps to show different tactics. The planning process is very similar to what military strategists were doing 75 years ago – or more.

This analogous way of doing it has withstood the test of time. Will it continue in the same way?

When it is all about exercises, the term used is “war games”. But such exercises can become reality. Researchers now see a need for the war game cards to be re-distributed.

Doing war games the digital way

In the new report "Cloud-based Decision Support System for Planning Military Operations", five FFI researchers, led by Rikke Amilde Seehuus, look at the possibility of moving the pieces on the war game board into the cloud.

Last year, the graduating students at the War School practiced on imagined scenarios. The researchers asked the students to make tactical decisions based on the information they received in a decision support prototype.

The prototype is called SWAP, short for "Simulation-supporting War gaming for Analysis of Plans". Routes, terrain and positions are retrieved into this data tool. It all looks like any standard cloud-based service.

Possible behaviours were drawn in by the users. On screen, students could study the terrain, time spent and what resources they had at their disposition.

A system to support, not make decisions

The goal of the researchers was to create a tool that is easily accessible via a web browser. Such tools must be able to run with the fewest possible problems, in the face of a real struggle. The idea behind SWAP is to support decisions on a battlefield in what is called a "Decision Support System" (DSS).

“The point being that users do not need their own software installed. They always have access to the latest version through the browser”, says Rikke Seehuus.

The goal of a DSS is to make it easy to plan, better and faster. The system must be able to select and process information that will take too long for a human to sort out. It must be able to display this information in an easy to understand overview.

A similar tool was developed two decades ago. The so-called Course of Action Development and Evaluation Tool (CADET) was developed by scientists using artificial intelligence. The CADET automatically breaks up an advanced course of action into a detailed battle plan. It will synchronize with everything you know about the battlefield. The tool is then supposed to be able to suggest how different situations should be met. The idea is close to making a system that will act on its own, thus becoming a hot topic in the debate on autonomous warfare.

By comparison, SWAP is passive. The system does not make decisions. It provides planners with data and visualizations. It suggests routes and vantage points. SWAP leaves it to the users to decide on what action to take.

As simple as using a smartphone

The researchers' starting point for the views and use of SWAP is similar to the thinking behind smartphones: the threshold must be low. SWAP is designed to show that a support system can be accessed in any browser anywhere, without the need for technical assistance.

The researchers gave the students a simple instruction manual. They had to get into what SWAP is about within half an hour. Then they were divided into groups. The researchers did a crossover study: Each group had to try out the tasks, both with traditional map data and with SWAP. The mission was limited to see and act upon the actions of the enemy forces.

“The enemy's supposed behaviour was given, and only added to the simulation. In a real system, of course, you would have acted in both your own and hostile forces in the same way. We did not do this here”, Seehuus states.

Slight information overload

The student’s task was to develop plans for two battalions. They system invited them to sort the order of tasks. They had to choose specific ways to meet the enemy. They also had to become aware of possible consequences of time spent, and what any loss of their own resources would mean.

The general feedback from the students was positive. They envisioned how SWAP could be used in a real context. They understood well how to use the system, despite the short training. One point of concern was that the images on the screen quickly presented an overload of information. The students wanted to see the picture clearer: Who did what, where and when. Some of them wanted to be able to switch between maps and satellite images.

“It was important, however, to be able to follow the simulation of the behaviour. The whole point was that users could see it all. Thus, they would also be able to evaluate some of the realism in the simulation”, says Seehuus.

“SWAP is a research prototype with many known shortcomings. The point was to create a concept that was good enough to bring to test. In this way, it would be easier to come up with input on how it should work. We were able to see how the students intuitively interacted with the tool”.

Human knowledge still important

The researchers at FFI find that too much functionality in a digital war game can have a negative effect. Heavy-duty systems will mean less use: That provides less training and poorer user skills.

Users should also be aware of the limitations of such systems. Human knowledge must still be a crucial part of the game. The researchers believe it is important that personnel must consider specific data themselves. They must have the chance to use the military intuition they likely have.

Plans never survive

SWAP is a system that can incorporate many types of factors, thus contributing to a better overview of combat situations. In principle, it will be possible to enter everything from weather forecasts to details about the skills and endurance of the personnel in question. At the same time, the researchers point out that any military plan must be flexible and changeable.

To cushion the expectations of such systems, they quote the Prussian general and strategist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800–1891): "No plan survives the first contact with the enemy".

"An important purpose of planning military operations is, paradoxically, to prepare for action if the plan fails," the FFI researchers say in the report.

There is no need to fold the paper maps yet.

Rikke Seehuus is however clear on one point:

“The plan with SWAP was not to present a finished tool, but to test if this is the way to go in the future. We believe that it is”.

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