MONDAY MORNING

Not Quite a Prototype, but Something to Play With

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sleek tanks survey enemy terrain and soldiers fire sophisticated missiles while unmanned vehicles roam the desert on night missions.

Elaborate graphics depict futuristic combat zones you'd expect to see only on high-powered gaming systems. But this video game is real, purporting to show what the U.S. Army will look like in less than a decade.

Science Applications International Corp., a government contractor with 16,000 employees in the Washington area, developed the game as a training tool to demonstrate the networked battle programs that are part of the Future Combat Systems, the Army's $100 billion modernization project. San Diego-based SAIC, partnered with Boeing Co., is the lead integrator for the job.

SAIC has given away nearly 25,000 copies of the game, Future Force Company Commander, and it has been downloaded more than 13,000 times from the Army's Web site, where it's been available since March. Dubbed F2C2, it has garnered a bit of ink on popular gaming blogs and message boards.

"It's mostly a scalable real-time map exercise, but at any time you can activate a unit's cameras to see what they see," one gamer posted on Battlefront.com, a forum for combat game users. "I was scouting with my UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] and could switch between several thermal and optical modes, set waypoints, conduct my own recons and calls for fire, etc. It was pretty neat. Surprisingly detailed yet easy to use."

The game lets players take control of a Mounted Company Team in the year 2015 -- a year after the first "modernized" brigade combat team is expected to go into action in FCS -- to show how the upgrades will give today's soldiers an edge in battle. SAIC spent $1.5 million building the game over 11 months.

"As a geek and developer, I think this is pretty darn cool," Greg Duncan wrote on his blog, http://coolthingoftheday.blogspot.com. "As a taxpayer, I'm not so sure. I think I'd rather the money go toward actually buying the FCS (or training and equipping our troops, etc)."

Chris Hulick, who oversaw the game's development for SAIC, said its main purpose is to show young soldiers how the modernized equipment and network system will work.

"These are young soldiers who will be the actual commanders once this is fielded," he said. The game "is meant to give them an idea of what it's going to be like and how it's going to affect their career." It has not been used as a recruiting tool, he said.

The Future Combat Systems project, one of the company's largest contracts, is in the fourth year of development. The project aims to link communications and networking systems with soldiers, platforms, weapons and sensors.

FCS includes 18 weapons systems, including manned ground vehicles, sentry carriers and air vehicles, most of which are scheduled to be delivered by 2025. Some technologies will begin to be used in the next eight years.

Download the game at http://www.army.mil/fcs/f2c2.

-- Kim Hart


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