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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 18, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 42
APL's Military Simulation Software Is No Ordinary Game

MOSBE depiction of a port facility with Soviet-made patrol boats and helicopters.

By Paulette Campbell
Applied Physics Laboratory

APL's National Security Analysis Department is developing a video-gaming technology that allows it to create simulations and rehearse complex missions for sponsors on desktop computers. The software — known as MOSBE for "modeling and simulation builder for everyone" — is the centerpiece of NSAD's efforts to strengthen its war-gaming analysis capability.

The MOSBE software provides an environment that helps military leaders rapidly create and test concepts, and quickly and easily modify and refine them before deploying them to trainees or developing requirements for a traditional simulation model.

"Traditionally, a sponsor will ask us to conduct a study of capabilities and scenarios. We'll produce a report, and they get one answer. They may like the conclusion, or tell us to go back for further analysis," explains NSAD's Steve Phillips, the department's MOSBE expert. "But with a 'serious game' modeling and simulation environment like MOSBE, we can create hypothetical situations based on environments that they've defined, using actual military capabilities — sensors behave the way they do in real life, for example. Then, we can bring in players in the morning, and by day's end we will have tried out a variety of scenarios and solutions to figure out how best to solve the problem."

So, what used to take several weeks can be knocked out in one workday.

War game exercises train commanders and their staff in critical battle-related decision making. War games have traversed a path from pencil-and-paper, to board games to high-end computer simulations. NSAD got into the game in 2004.

"We were working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on a technology utility assessment, and as part of that went down to participate in a Marine Corps exercise," recalls NSAD's Scott Simpkins. "We sat in this auditorium and there was a guy standing up front with a bunch of slides. And they called that a war game. I remember thinking, 'We can do better than that.'"

And they did. With the help of the Technical Services Department, NSAD built a board game. "We had game pieces that moved and explored specific technologies," Simpkins says. "Our sponsors thought it was neat, so we did more. We were writing rules and rolling dice. But it had its limitations. The 'gamers' made so many moves it was difficult to recapture where people moved to create a certain outcome."

But Simpkins says he knew that computer gaming companies could tackle this challenge. He researched makers of popular strategy games and found one in the Lab's backyard: BreakAway Ltd., a developer of military simulations and creator of MOSBE, based in Baltimore.

"They had a product that could incorporate military environments, the actual capabilities of equipment and sensors and manpower," Simpkins says. "This was no silly video game."

NSAD was then working on a project for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, employing the board game approach, and Simpkins suggested that Phillips, who was building intelligence information for that project, give MOSBE a try.

"If you had told me four or five years ago that I could model irregular warfare with a video game or merge the capabilities of a video game — even a 'serious' one — with modeling and simulation capabilities, I would have been a bit skeptical," Phillips says. "But my eyes have been opened. This is a powerful tool for analysis."

MOSBE allows users the freedom to build worlds, create scenarios and assess new capabilities in a fully interactive two- or four-dimensional environment, Phillips says. "And it also allows the same scenario to be used repeatedly to glean lessons and to teach commanders how to use their available resources effectively over time and space."

This article appeared previously in the summer issue of APL News.


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