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Today, Sergeant First Class Paul Tidwell will deploy a squad of first-year Army ROTC cadets to Baghdad, Iraq where they will engage enemy insurgents on a blistering desert battlefield for the first time in their lives. Despite the daunting task, the sergeant's orders don't seem to unsettle the students, who munch on cookies prepared by Tidwell's wife as they sit before him in t-shirts and shorts. The students won't need to trade in their civilian clothes for boots and body armor. They will conduct the whole mission in the friendly confines of the West Duke building's subterranean computer lab.

The program that makes it possible is called DARWARS Ambush!, an interactive computer combat simulator that is revolutionizing the way Army ROTC cadets train to become leaders at Duke.

As the first Army ROTC program to utilize the software, Duke is demonstrating a definitive link between virtual training and real-life success on the battlefield.

While interviewing for a job opening as director of the Duke-North Carolina Central University Army ROTC program in 2005, Lt. Col. Charles Hodges discovered ten computers collecting dust in a closet and saw the potential for innovation.

At the time, Hodges was serving as an operations officer for the First Stryker Brigade at Fort Lewis, Wash., and had been briefed on a computerized military simulator that was being used at the base to simulate convoy operations.

DARWARS Ambush! had been created in the fall of 2003 at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a wing of the Department of Defense responsible for the development of military technology, after the agency's director expressed concern about the growing number of ambushes occurring in Iraq.

"I asked myself whether there was a way to train the voice in the back of the head of every service person how to identify ambushes, how to prepare for them, how to deal with them, and how to recover," Dr. Ralph Chatham, the DARPA project manager credited with the creation of DARWARS, wrote in an e-mail. "When I was given the unexpected gift of new money for the DARWARS program, I decided to find out."

After six months of development, Chatham's team had created a networked, multi-user, computer simulation that allowed soldiers to move around in a shared, first-person perspective environment where they could carry out training and combat operations.

DARPA had created a video game where there was more at stake than winning or losing-it was a tool intended to save lives by shaping better, more prepared soldiers.

DARWARS caught on quickly, and by 2006 bases across the country and overseas featured more than 100 computers dedicated to training with DARWARS Ambush!. Over the course of the year, more than 20,000 soldiers, Marines and airmen trained with use of the program, Chatham wrote.

When Hodges was selected for the position at Duke and made the cross-country move to Durham in June 2005, he brought along with him the DARWARS software and a revolutionary idea for training and teaching cadets.

Though the Army had been using the program for two years, no ROTC program in the nation had yet picked up on its potential as a training tool or attempted to use it constructively in the classroom.

"The rest of the Army was still primarily using [DARWARS] as a convoy trainer to counter ambushes and IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," Hodges said. "I thought, 'Maybe I could use it for something else.'"

Lt. Col. Mark Tribus replaced Hodges as director of the ROTC program in June 2007 after Hodges was assigned to take command of an infantry battalion at Fort Lewis. A 1990 graduate of the United States Military Academy with an MBA from Harvard Business School and service in Afghanistan and Somalia under his belt, Tribus has the brainpower and the experience to appreciate DARWARS' potential and importance.

He is fast-talking yet eloquently clear, welcoming yet firm, and excitedly passionate about his role as an educator and leader of the 40 cadets he is charged with turning into capable and competent students and soldiers.

"I'm all about learning and I'm all about experiential active learning," Tribus said. "When I got here and I found out that the prior Professor of Military Science Lt. Col. Hodges was doing this, I thought it was a fantastic method to help people learn."

Tribus sees DARWARS' greatest present value as its ability to provide his cadets with virtual training that supplements and enhances class lessons and real-life simulated exercises.

Though conducting training on the DARWARS system might not be a big deal as far as resources are concerned, Tribus treats the computerized missions with the seriousness of the real thing.

When one of the cadets committed fratricide, or the accidental killing of a teammate, during a DARWARS training session, the cadets held a mock court martial for the student.

"The simulation stops immediately and we will have the kinds of discussions that you hope to never have as a commissioned officer in the United States Army," Tribus said. "War is not a game, people die, I've seen body parts strewn across a field. It's not a game and I would not want anyone to come back and say, 'The ROTC program is promoting war at Duke University.' That's the last damn thing we are promoting. We are promoting learning so that one day, when a cadet is called upon to do what we're asked to by our civilian leaders, we know that it's not a game, it's real life."

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter inherent to the simulation, the students still have fun with the game, particularly when two of the ROTC program's civilian employees get involved in the action.

When the cadets log on for a mission, someone needs to play the enemy, and the role of terrorist insurgent often falls upon Thelma Keith or Nancy Bateman, who handle many of the day-to-day logistical needs of the ROTC program.

"I have a lot of paperwork to do for them, so if they don't get the paperwork in then I'm just on them real hard," said Keith, a soft-spoken woman who spent 20 years in the Army. "So they'll be on the machine looking, trying to find out where I'm hiding to kill me. They say, 'I'm going to find Ms. Keith, I'm going to get her.'"

The students, as well as Keith and Bateman, enjoy the civilian involvement.

"You'll shoot someone and then you'll hear one of them yell from the room across from you and you know that you got one of them," senior Alex Frank, Duke's ROTC cadet battalion commander, said with a grin.

Starting in the spring of 2006, Hodges began using the program to conduct simulated missions as he and his cadets tried to feel out how DARWARS could supplement their training.

Hodges' main goal was to tinker with a particularly unique aspect of Dr. Chatham's program design, "user authoring," a facet of DARWARS that differentiated it from a game any teenager could walk into the mall and buy off the shelf.

Chatham's programming gave users the ability to manipulate and create their own scenarios without the need for complex programming skills-the players could plan, develop and play their own games, tailored to their needs and wants.

"The flexibility for users to invent and implement new ways to use the tool without a contractor between them and their tactics, techniques and procedures was the most important lesson of the project," Chatham wrote. "We didn't deliver an application that lost user interest once the students had run through the 24 provided scenarios. Instead we gave ordinary users the tools to change scenarios themselves and create new ones to meet changing circumstances."

Rather than simply use DARWARS' provided framework to repeatedly counter ambushes and IEDs, Hodges created scenarios that taught basic land navigation, spacing on the battlefield and how to use certain military vehicles, situations that would otherwise require suiting up and heading off to Camp Butner, N.C., where the ROTC program conducts its field training.

The Army recognized Hodges' efforts and named him Innovative Trainer of the Year at the spring 2006 U.S. Army Simulations Conference. The award garnered attention from Duke, which built a $30,000 computer center in the basement of the West Duke building, where the Army ROTC offices are located, so the cadets could interact more easily with one another as they conducted their virtual missions.

By spring 2007, Duke and NCCU cadets could utilize the center's fourteen computers to enact an Army squad, conduct preparatory briefings, set out on a mission and discuss their actions once it's over, all in the same room.

"Literally each computer becomes a human being," Tribus said. "The brilliance of this software is you are inside a scenario and you can use your mouse and turn and you will see eight other soldiers, which are your classmates, sitting next to you in the lab operating their computers, and they can turn, and you can talk, and you can see each other and interact."

The Army has a saying that new recruits have to learn how to crawl and walk before they can run.

"This is really the crawl to the walk and it almost gets you to running without physically being out at Camp Butner," Tribus said. "When they're on the ground, physically out in the field, they're already two steps ahead of the ballgame."

To exemplify his point, Tribus draws nine circles to diagram a U.S. Army squad-two groups of four in triangular formations with a team leader on top. Tribus has talked at length with his cadets about how to correctly space themselves when in formation, but talking isn't enough. His cadets needed to see and experience the distances before they can truly understand.

"Inside DARWARS you can say, 'Why are all nine of you standing within a five meter radius? One machine gun or one grenade is going to take all of you out. Move your mouse and get away from each other,'" Tribus said. "That's that tacit knowledge transfer, where the explicit is very hard to make happen, but you can kind of move in that direction with DARWARS, because it shows you what you're supposed to look like prior to actually being in some sort of a T-formation or stagger trail formation."

Simulations are effective because they cause the brain to react the same way it would in real life, Richard Kristof, president and CEO of American Research Institute, told the Raleigh News & Observer in May.

But does Kristof's theory regarding successful learning in a computer simulation actually translate to success on the battlefield?

Alex Frank thinks it does and saw the real-life impact of DARWARS training when he and two other seniors led six freshmen on a field training exercise at Camp Butner in mid-August.

Their mission: to take out an enemy insurgent using paintball equipment.

After being inserted into the exercise by two Blackhawk helicopters, the team made few mistakes before approaching their opponents via an unexpected path and ambushing the insurgents. It was the most successful exercise Frank has ever been apart of, and DARWARS training played into the team's ability to achieve surprise, he said.

"The thing that you really appreciate about military operations once you've been a part of any is that there's so much that goes on and it's really hard to do it well and not make mistakes," Frank said. "But DARWARS allows you to go through that and get more practice and perfect those steps without having to go out into the woods and set up a lane and have people playing opposing forces and get all your gear together. That's a big deal, but going into the DARWARS lab is not."

Tribus has lofty goals for DARWARS that extend beyond his cadets and into the larger Duke community.

As Duke's success with DARWARS has moved Nati onal Cadet Command to send out the simulator to each of the 1,300 Army ROTC programs it supervises, Tribus hopes to introduce the game to the school's more than 6,000 undergraduates.

He sees the potential for student involvement in each and every avatar, or virtual character, his cadets encounter during a simulation.

Students studying Arabic could log on as Afghan mullahs and act as civilians, interpreters, insurgents or guides; public policy majors could develop insurgency plans; and history buffs could recreate and simulate famous battles to teach lessons learned from past military mistakes or successes.

"I'm convinced that we could really move this to be more interactive, bringing more brilliant minds from the Duke community into assist the cadets in using this software," Tribus said. "There's no question that we're all going to learn more."

The ROTC program is planning to host a DARWARS gaming night at the West Duke building, where any student interested in experiencing the program can sit down, boot up and take a test run.

In addition, Tribus has met with members of Duke's Information Science and Information Studies (ISIS) program, which focuses on information technology and new media and how they affect various disciplines and society, to flesh out future development plans for DARWARS.

"There's lots of different simulated activities that can happen within a virtual world that aren't specifically the war games component-training and HR and planning for example," said Victoria Szabo, ISIS program director. "There's potential for these types of applications to be re-purposed for further things."

One futuristic application could involve the DiVE Tank, short for Duke Immersive Virtual Environment, a six-sided virtual reality cave located in the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering and Applied Sciences. The tank has been used in the past to visualize data and experimental models in a three-dimensional atmosphere, including the patents' database and a virtual developing chicken embryo.

"If we could get so sophisticated where we could actually present an Iraqi village inside the cave and you had a young cadet go in there, that would be true brilliance," Tribus said.

Simulating chicken embryos is somewhat simpler than fighting a virtual reality battle in the Tank, however.

"As far as the complexity of a real-time big environment like DARWARS, I think that's a ways away," Szabo said. "It's possible, but I don't think it's an active area right now."

At this point in time, ISIS' involvement is purely in the planning stages. Both Szabo and Tribus said that above all, the next step in DARWARS' evolution is to raise awareness and garner interest in the program on campus as something everyone can learn from.

"I am aware of the amazing resources and the commitment of the Duke community," Tribus said. "If we put that behind DARWARS, we would really take it to a new level where more than just my cadets are learning from it."

Frank, a Physics major from Washington, D.C., will serve a minimum of four years in the Army once he graduates from Duke in May. He hopes to enter the infantry and one day join the elite Special Forces unit.

He knows that the virtual bullets and bombs he has faced within DARWARS missions could yield to life-or-death situations on a now not so distant battlefield-and that the lessons he has learned within the game are no less real and important to his future.

"When you do a [DARWARS] mission right, you remember that mission," Frank said. "If there's a situation that's like that mission that you're given in a tactical situation, you're going to remember, 'I did this in that mission and that worked really well so I'm probably going to do it again here.'

"I still remember some of the best missions that I've seen played out, and some of the worst too-you tend to forget those pretty quickly though. But you remember the good ones that you've done and that definitely helps in deciding how to act in future situations."


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