Alien War Brings Mideast Peace

And other benefits of an extraterrestrial invasion.

How do you know that a video game is science fiction? When it portrays Saudi Arabian and Egyptian soldiers fighting side-by-side with Israeli troops.

Such camaraderie seems as fanciful as warp drive and time travel. But if you can accept that Israelis and Arabs would rather kill aliens than each other, then you will discover that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the best strategy games ever made.

Alien invasion is an old mainstay of science fiction, and so is XCOM, which first debuted in 1994, and went on to become a cult classic. While the 2012 remake features better graphics and smoother gameplay, it still retains that same innovative mixture of nasty aliens, high technology, and impending doom.

The game's premise is that extraterrestrials have arrived with high-tech weapons in their tentacles and murder in their hearts (or equivalent organs). At first they come in raiding parties to abduct or terrorize humans, but it gradually becomes evident that they have a more terrifying goal in mind.

The nations of Earth respond by forming XCOM (with you the player as XCOM commander). The organization is governed by the shadowy and vaguely sinister XCOM Council, consisting of 16 nations, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Nigeria, and China. Each nation contributes a certain level of funding each month that enables the military arm of the organization to battle the extraterrestrial invaders. If XCOM fails to stop alien raids against a Council member, that nation will withdraw itself and its funds from the alliance.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a textbook of classic SF and horror creatures. There are the frail Sectoids, who look like your classic 1950s Roswell aliens; the spider-like Chrysalids, whose bite turns humans into zombies; Cyberdiscs that resemble floating marshmallow pies (if snack cakes were armed with directed energy weapons); and Muton, warriors who suggest the aliens successfully bred psychotic gorillas with NFL linebackers. It turns out that an advanced alien race genetically engineered these creatures for various functions and even embedded mechanical devices in their bodies (perhaps they intercepted old broadcasts of The Six Million Dollar Man?). My own gruesome favorites are the Floaters, who have rocket motors in their torsos instead of legs. Who needs the V-22 Osprey? Now this is tactical mobility!

It is a rule that all alien defense organizations must have an underground base, and XCOM is no exception. The XCOM commander's first decision is to choose a location, with different continents offering various bonuses. North America has cheaper aircraft maintenance costs, Europe cheaper infrastructure, and in a macabre twist South America offers faster interrogation of captured aliens. By the time those old Argentinean and Chilean generals are done, even ET will confess to being a communist.

Once a site is chosen, the player can build various facilities there such as labs, workshops and containment facilities for captured aliens. The base is also a barracks, with soldiers recruited from a smorgasbord of countries, including South Africa, Japan, and Middle Eastern nations such as Egypt and Israel. The most important aspect of the strategic game is research. Humanity begins the game outgunned; strangely for an advanced military force, XCOM troopers go into battle armed with 1990s-style light infantry gear (rifles, machine guns, grenades, rocket launchers, and body armor). They must confront aliens armed with plasma beam weapons, biogenetically armored skin, and exotic capabilities such as psionic attacks. The moral of the story is that you don't bring an assault rifle to a death-ray fight, but XCOM must soldier on until better weapons are developed.

As always in science fiction, science does come to the rescue, in the form of a German-speaking female scientist with a talent for interrogating captured aliens (perhaps she was recruited in South America?). Assuming she doesn't end up on trial in The Hague, her lab will develop a series of high-tech weapons and devices, mostly based on captured alien technology, that can be fabricated by XCOM's workshops. However, only one research project can be pursued at a time, so the XCOM commander must prioritize between lines of research such as better weapons, armor, and interceptors. Yet the real obstacle in the interplanetary arms race is that most advanced gear requires unearthly raw materials that can only be obtained from wrecked alien spacecraft and fallen alien warriors. Thus XCOM must make the war pay for itself: the more aliens it destroys, the more resources it captures to fuel its own capabilities.

The tactical portion of the game ensues when troops are dispatched to the site of an alien raid, or during a special mission such as retrieving a top scientist caught in an alien attack, or when a team is dispatched to the crash site of a downed alien spacecraft. Tactical brilliance has not tended to be a hallmark of SF aliens, as in the 1970 British series "UFO," where Earth defense force SHADO (which bears a remarkable resemblance to XCOM, except mercifully for the purple hair) maintained three space interceptors on the Moon, yet spacefaring aliens were too stupid to overwhelm the defenses by attacking with four UFOs simultaneously. No such luck in XCOM, though. The aliens will raid three cities simultaneously, and the sole XCOM Skyranger transport with its six-trooper combat team can only respond to one attack at a time.

Once on the ground, the aliens are formidable fighters. I learned more about basic infantry tactics from XCOM: Enemy Unknown than any other game I've played. One reason is that it's turn-based, so instead of the mob tactics found in shooter games, you have time to analyze the situation. And you had better analyze carefully, because the computer-controlled aliens are aggressive and smart. They will utilize cover and employ flanking tactics to get better shots at your troops.

Each human soldier gets two actions per turn, including move, shoot, reload, overwatch (which means shooting as the enemy moves), and various special actions such as suppressive fire. The most fascinating part of the tactical game is the use of colored symbols to indicate where there is cover, and more importantly, from what directions. That wall or parked car may shield your troops from fire from directly in front, but not at a 45-degree angle. Against aliens who aggressively outflank (or the rocket-propelled Floaters who love to drop behind you), success means not just finding cover, but the right cover. It also means patiently using fire-and-movement tactics, because the aliens will chew up a banzai charge. Combat continues until all the aliens or all the humans are wiped out, except for certain alien terror raids where the XCOM team must race to save as many civilians as possible.

It is the fate of XCOM to always be racing against time. When successful alien raids induce eight of the 16 XCOM Council members to withdraw, the game is lost. But like ballistic missile defense, no matter how capable the defenders, some of the attackers will get through. Thus, time is the enemy, and so is money. Over time XCOM will need more expensive weapons and facilities, but inevitably Council members will leave and take their funding with them, which means a shrinking resource base for Earth's defenders. Responding to alien raiders will not be enough. To win, XCOM must strike at the...sorry, no plot spoilers here.

Yet despite the specter of alien conquest, the scary creatures and burning cities, XCOM is a fundamentally optimistic game of the future. It offers an almost Star Trek-ian world where humanity puts aside its differences and works together toward a common goal. Yes, national self-interest does rear its ugly head. Nations will defect from the alliance if their individual defense is not assured, captive to an "all politics is local" philosophy that Gene Roddenberry would not have approved of, but is nonetheless a tradition of human existence.

Still, humanity does band together, if only hesitantly. The lion sleeps with the lamb, the Arab fights alongside the Israeli, the Chinese beside the Japanese. It took an alien invasion for this to happen. But if Earth does prevail in the war to save mankind, then perhaps the price was worth it.

Take-Two Interactive Software/Firaxis Games/2K Games

National Security

The Fissile Cliff

The bomb that could save the Pentagon.

Fiscal reality is catching up with the Pentagon. On Wednesday, the White House Office of Management and Budget directed the Defense Department to start planning for life after the fiscal cliff. Specifically, defense planners must now come up with $500 billion in spending cuts over the next decade.

A good place to start is the U.S. nuclear weapons budget, which at roughly $31 billion per year supports a nuclear stockpile of 5,000 weapons. We don't need that many, according to the Pentagon, and the White House is preparing new guidance on how low we can go. But even before that decision gets made, there is one glaring example of a project that is ripe for pruning: the B61 bomb.

The B61 is mainly based in Europe -- a so-called "tactical" nuclear weapon designed to be used against invading conventional forces -- and the Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) want to extend its service life until 2040 or so. This may sound simple, but it's an expensive proposition. NNSA estimates that the program will cost about $7 billion and produce its first rebuilt bomb in fiscal year 2019. But in July, a Defense Department review projected that the program would cost $10.4 billion and would not produce the first rebuilt bomb until fiscal year 2022. With 400 bombs reportedly planned for upgrades, each B61 would cost roughly $25 million.

When this was first revealed in July, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that controls NNSA funding, said the new price tag requires the NNSA to find billions of additional dollars "at a time when budgets are shrinking."

But cost is far from the B61s only challenge. The B61 life extension program, or LEP, has become an unaffordable solution to a problem that does not appear to exist.

The United States currently keeps about 180 B61s in Europe to assure allies of the U.S. commitment to NATO. However, U.S. and NATO military leaders acknowledge that it is U.S. strategic forces -- that is, the larger nuclear weapons based in the United States and on American submarines -- that provide the ultimate guarantee of NATO security, not the tactical versions of the B61 bomb stored in bunkers on European air bases.

Some NATO members, such as Germany, have called for the B61 to be removed from Europe. It is also possible that a future agreement between Russia and the United States to account for and reduce tactical nuclear bombs would require that the United States remove B61s from NATO. This raises the awkward possibility that most B61 bombs might not be needed a decade from now, when the proposed rebuilding program would be complete.

That issue aside, it is not clear why the bombs need a full-scale life extension now. The Pentagon and NNSA have asserted that B61 bomb parts need to be replaced soon or the bombs would no longer meet operational requirements, such as the ability to produce a specific explosive yield. NNSA had planned to complete the program by 2022, but the Pentagon review suggests this deadline would be missed by a few years.

The B61, like all modern nuclear weapons, has two components that have a limited lifespan and are replaced on a regular basis (neutron generators and gas transfer systems). However, NNSA's plans for the B61 go well beyond these limited-life components and involve replacing thousands of other non-nuclear parts, such as switches, foams, and cables, as well as the bomb's uranium secondary. The bomb's plutonium "pit" would not be changed.

These parts are continually assessed by the stockpile surveillance program, run by Sandia National Lab, which inspects 11 warheads of each type in the U.S. arsenal each year to look for problems. Yes, the warhead parts are getting older, but there is no evidence that they are about to fail. B61s have no moving parts and components do not "wear out." Besides the limited-life parts, it is not clear why the B61 LEP must be completed by 2022.

Bob Peurifoy, a former director of weapons development at Sandia, said in a Nov. 15 interview that, aside from the limited-life parts, the B61 "should be left alone until the stockpile surveillance process finds a problem."

In addition to extending the service life of the B61, NNSA and the Pentagon considered many new concepts to increase the weapon's safety against accidental detonation and security against unauthorized access and use, known together as "surety." But after conducting cost-benefit analyses, major surety upgrades were found to be not worth the price. For example, the rebuilt B61 bomb would not have multi-point safety, a fire-resistant pit, or an optical initiator. The B61 already has many of the most modern surety features, including insensitive high explosives, and the LEP would not add major new ones.

Tactical versions of the B61 stored in Europe, which can be delivered on U.S. and NATO fighter jets, are potentially more vulnerable to theft than the strategic B61 bombs based in the United States. NNSA has proposed to address this concern, in part, by folding four of the B61 versions into a new one, the B61-12, whose design would be based on that of the B61-4. The B61-4 has the lowest maximum yield of the B61 series, meaning it has the smallest amount of fissile material.

The planned B61-12 would be used as both a tactical and strategic bomb, and it would have to meet the military specifications of the higher-yield B61-7 strategic bomb. To do that, the Pentagon proposes to make the B61-12 more accurate than the B61-4 by replacing the parachute with an $800 million guided tail kit for ground detonation.

But rather than pursue this complicated and expensive consolidation, the physical security of forward-deployed B61s could be addressed in other ways, such as by providing more secure storage in Europe, or by stationing these bombs in the United States.

The Pentagon has time to explore alternatives to a $10 billion B61 life extension. One option would be to scale-back the program by replacing only the parts that are known to be at the end of their lives and only for the weapons that are likely to still be deployed a decade from now. For example, NNSA could only upgrade the strategic B61-7, of which there are an estimated 120 in service, and replace only the limited-life parts and possibly the radar (which is an old model that still uses vacuum tubes). The B61-7 already had significant upgrades in 2009. As for the roughly 180 tactical bombs based in Europe, such limited upgrades could be made only for the number planned to be deployed ten years from now.

This scaled-back approach to the B61 LEP would save billions of dollars. If the Pentagon does not go for it, Congress could require a public, independent program review to explore viable alternatives before it makes a $500 million down payment on the program next year.