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War Games

by Len "Viking1" Hjalmarson

Article Type: Feature
Article Date: May 30, 2001

Product Info

Game Title: Sub Command: Seawolf / Akula / 688(I)
Category: Naval Combat
Developer: Sonalysts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: Released
Files / Links: Click Here


In April of this year I submitted an interview to Kim Castro, Producer at Sonalysts for the coming EA title, Sub Command. Kim is a graduate of the US Naval Academy and a former destroyer officer. For the past twenty years Kim has conducted and led numerous high fidelity simulation modeling studies for both surface ship and submarine undersea warfare analyses. Kim also taught at the Surface Warfare Officers School, and was responsible for the warfare curriculum.

Sonalysts was founded in 1973, supporting the analysis of submarine sonar systems. Since that time, they have been expanding their experience base to include a wide variety of airborne, surface, subsurface and land-based navy systems. Their support to naval warfare systems over the years includes developing tactical decision aids and onboard training systems and writing operational guidelines.

Los Angeles Class SSN

In my interview with Kim I asked some questions relating their gaming products to their military involvements.

Q. Does Sonalysts currently build submarine system simulations for the military?
Kim: Yes, we do. We're involved in several different types of submarine simulators and trainers, including a submarine piloting trainer, several high fidelity simulators for Navy R&D labs, and tactical decision aids that are brought to sea onboard the subs.

A Navy version of “688(I) Hunter/Killer” is currently in use at the U.S. Naval Submarine School, and CNET, Chief of Naval Education & Training, recently procured additional copies to distribute to every submarine in the U.S. Navy. We've also been informed by some foreign navies that they use "688(I)" to teach basic submarine/sonar operations and tactics. I think it possible that "Sub Command" might be used in a similar fashion.


Screen Shot from Fleet Command

I've attached an article written by a Sonalysts partner and published in the "U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings" magazine, February 2001.


The article Kim mentions was titled, “A New Kind of War Game,” authored by Captain David S. Coleman, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired). I’ll use some excerpts from the article to demonstrate the degree to which the simulation gaming and combat training fields have begun to converge. Then we’ll consider where this is all going in my own speculations based on the obvious direction shown by Sub Command.

From Coleman:
“Gaming” has been used for naval training and concept development since the 19th century. However, the term has taken on a whole new meaning within the last few years as the Navy and Marine Corps have discovered the value of applying commercial personal computer (PC) gaming technology to address tactical training and concept analysis requirements.

The submarine community has provided 688I Hunter/Killer™ from Electronic Arts™ Jane’s Combat Simulation series to the Naval Submarine School and onboard operational units to support tactics and orientation training for nearly two years. This submarine simulation game (developed by former submariners and Navy modeling and simulation analysts from Sonalysts, Inc.) was recently modified by the game producer for COMSUBBGRU TWO to add higher fidelity modeling of weapon systems, other platform types, and automation of some tasks. In addition, the Royal Navy is using a licensed version of 688I Hunter/Killer as a baseline for the development of their own submarine tactical trainer.


Jane's 688(I) Hunter / Killer

Incredibly, 688(I) exists in a military version with a modified database for more realistic performance. If this rings a bell, it’s because a team of gamers was formed last year to do something very similar with Fleet Command. Since that time they have released numerous database updates for the game, creating new weapons and modifying performance data to make the game more realistic. (You can check out their work at http://www.navalwarfare.net)

In fact, it isn’t only we civilian gamers who found this kind of expansion potential in Fleet Command. A number of training and operational commands are currently using the game to support surface and battle force training requirements.

Inside a Los Angeles Class SSN

From Coleman:
The Naval Academy was the first to use Jane’s Fleet Command, initially as a beta tester, and later the released version for their Strategy and Tactics course. Students use it in a single seat mode playing against computerized “intelligent” opposing forces or those run by an instructor on another PC and, in a team configuration with each group controlling one or more assigned forces. This game is also being used “out-of-the-box” to support training in Naval Reserve units and at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY.


Here we have the use of Sonalyst’s second game, Fleet Command, for military training purposes. In this case, however, the military was involved informally even at the testing stage. It would be fascinating to see how closely the military modifications would parallel the Warship project linked above. Incredibly, the game was good enough “out of the box” for naval reserve units.
From Coleman:
The Aegis Training and Readiness Center (ATRC) in Dahlgren, VA is exploring the use of Jane’s Fleet Command, with some modifications, to support training in air defense coordination. Other commands interested in using this product for battlegroup or tactics training include the Surface Warfare Officers School Command, COMCRUDESGRU12, Tactical Training Group, Atlantic (TACTRAGRULANT), the Fleet Information Warfare Center (FIWC), and the Marine Corps University.


Akula near oilrig in Sub Command

It’s fascinating to note the particular schools that have shown interest. Both the ATRC and SWO School Command expressed interest in a modified Fleet Command. It is almost a wonder that Sonalysts hasn’t produced a full blown surface warfare simulation.

It isn’t just the Navy that is pursuing an interest in PC simulations for their own use. The US Army Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM) initiative developed a version of Spearhead for use in the Armor Captains Career course. And the Army gave $45 million to the University of Southern California to create a research center to develop advanced military simulations, with support from film studios and game designers. The Air Force is the only service that has remained focused on high-end platform based flight simulators, though recently the US Navy used Digital Integration’s Super Hornet for training purposes.

Coleman goes on to discuss the potential benefit of high fidelity commercial military simulations for developing, analyzing and validating new fighting concepts.
From Coleman:
The Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group, located at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, is using Jane’s Fleet Command to evaluate revolutionary naval warfare concepts. “This game allowed naval officers across the rank spectrum to probe potential warfare concepts for the 21st Century in a dynamic, interactive manner providing the means for rapid turnaround of ideas within an innovative process.” (Excerpt from official Strategic Studies Group press release dated 15 June 1999.)


Sub Command: Control Center in a 688I

Coleman closes his article by commenting that “Commercial gaming technology is not a panacea” but it is an “available, cost-effective approach that can be employed to resolve a number of tactical training deficiencies and support rapid first assessment of new warfighting concepts.”

With the continued evolution of computer hardware, the level of fidelity possible in PC simulations has increased. This can only make commercially available simulators all the more interesting to the military. At the same time it makes producing simulations designed for a dual purpose that much more attractive for military contractors like Sonalysts.

I asked Kim Castro what the increased power of the PC platform since the release of 688I would mean for Sub Command.
Kim: We now have the power to do a much higher fidelity detection model for sonar, which uses realistic equations for propagation loss, including environmental conditions and emitting frequencies. The player will especially see the difference in broadband and narrow band sonar, which now show significantly different performance because of the frequency dependence in underwater sound propagation. Low frequency noise travels much farther than high frequency noise, and will be identifiable earlier on a low-frequency narrow band sensor such as a towed array. Narrow band will be more important as a search tool, not just as a means to identify targets already marked in broadband.
In fact, there are other differences in fidelity relating to the detection systems. In 688(I) narrowband returns were either visible or not. In Sub Command, signals gradually appear as conditions (e.g., range, aspect angle, noise generated, etc.) improve. Other factors which were modeled in 688(I) as part of the detection equation, like sea state and thermal layers, can now be calculated in real time also, and entirely new factors like bottom bounce and on-ship noise (e.g., tubes flooding, pump noise) have been added.

In short, game fidelity in Sub Command will exceed that of 688(I) by a considerable margin. This means that the player gets a more realistic experience out of the box and doesn't have to wait for third parties to modify the database.

This in turn means that the potential of Sub Command as a simulator for use by the military as an “available, cost-effective approach that can be employed to resolve a number of tactical training deficiencies and support rapid first assessment of new warfighting concepts” will be even greater than that of Fleet Command or 688(I) Hunter/Killer.

But there are other factors that make Sub Command the best candidate yet for military training and concept validation. Sub Command is designed for ease of expansion in ways that 688(I) and Fleet Command were not. In particular, the ability to run head to head missions with dissimilar platforms increases that usefulness, just as it does for those of us who want to only "play" the game.

At this point the missing link for a superior military training asset is surface warfare, but it’s obvious that Sub Command’s combination of 688(I) and the Fleet Command database is designed for just that kind of expansion in mind. Have a look at these images showing the Sub Command control interface and strategic map view.

Sub Command' s menu system offers control from the 3D map or tactical interface

With all the 3-D models in place and the expanded database of Fleet Command, all Sonalysts needs to do is build an interoperable naval surface warfare simulation and plug it in. They have all the expertise in place to do this, and the 3-D engine of Sub Command is easily up to the task. They would be crazy NOT to do this piece.

Sub Command: Ticonderoga taking a hit

Consider for a moment the amount of work that has gone into the 3-D engine of Sub Command, when it is obvious to naval simulation fans that very little time or energy went into the 3-D engine for 688(I). Why create such an engine for only one simulation product, and that for a product where the 3-D world is rarely seen in practice? The 3-D engine for Sub Command must have been created with more simulations in mind.

The remaining component for Sonalysts electronic battlefield would be the naval air component. Again, Fleet Command has the data, Sub Command models the entire world, and the 3-D engine is now finished. Sonalysts needs only to throw in a flight model and damage model, build a few high resolution 3-D aircraft and cockpits, expand the command structure and presto! . . . a naval air simulation can be plugged into the Sub Command, Fleet Command universe. With their expertise in radar tracking systems, the AWACS component will be easy.

In fact, the strategy is so obvious I’m going to make a wild guess at how it will map out.
  1. Release of Sub Command,
  2. Winter, 2001 release of expansion disk with diesel subs and Trafalgar class,
  3. Spring, 2002 release of naval surface warfare component interoperable with Sub Command,
  4. Winter, 2003 release of naval air warfare simulation completes the electronic battlefield.
We have seen a fascinating progression in the simulation world. The first model was that game developers would hire retired military personnel (like CJ Martin: Jane's Longbow II, F-15 and F/A-18; Jim Harler: iF-22 and iF-18; Bryan Walker: Flying Nightmares II, Jane's F/A-18) to assist them in attaining a higher level of fidelity in sim design. Now we have a military contractor whose primary clients are the military hiring game designers to assist them in developing products for the consumer market.

Because of their military interests Sonalysts already have an incentive to develop interoperable products and continue to expand the electronic battlefield. Where most developers have only one potential client base, you and me, Sonalysts is really developing their simulations for both civilian and military customers.

With Sub Command we have Sonalyst’s own version of SSI's Harpoon coming to life. Where Harpoon places the emphasis on the macro world and third person perspective, Sub Command emphasizes the micro world and first person action. Sub Command is Harpoon for the simulation fan, and if I am correct about the ongoing expansion of the Sub Command world, we’ll see a naval battlefield emerge that will offer us a high level of challenge as we compete for dominance of the battlespace.



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