Building a Warship for the Video Game Generation

The Navy's latest high-tech destroyer is basically a floating Xbox. (See bad jokes below.)

Have Xbox players taken over the U.S. Navy? Will America's aircraft carriers be launching "Angry Birds" against China and Iran?

You could be forgiven for thinking so now that the U.S. Navy's most sophisticated warship is designed to be operated by video gamers.

The operations center aboard the new Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer is the ship's nerve center, into which sensor information flows, and from which the crew can control ship functions such as weapons and navigation. The Zumwalts are extremely automated, with a crew of just 130 sailors compared to more than 300 for the Navy's older and smaller Arleigh Burke-class destroyers .

That degree of automation is made possible by the extensive use of big video screens as well as touchscreen workstations. And it turns out that defense contractor Raytheon, which built the Zumwalt's computer network, first tested the controls and displays on game-playing sailors, according to a recent CNN piece.

At $3 billion a ship, that's one heck of a game room.

It's not that the Pentagon has been gripped by joystick fever. It is more that the Navy has realized that the young sailors who crew their ships have been raised with video games. Xbox is how young people, especially young males, have fun, engage in tests of skill, and meet new friends. For example, a Naval Postgraduate School survey last year of 200 enlisted Marines found that 73 percent owned a game console such as Xbox, and 40 percent used it daily.

So instead of fighting Playstation 4, the Navy embraced it.

For all the jokes about video games being mindless entertainment, there is a lot of sense to the Navy's approach. In a world of high-speed weapons and normal-speed human brains, how data is presented is vital. In fact, it's so vital that battle management has become data management. The Pentagon spends vast sums on command and communications equipment to enable commanders and their aircraft, ships, and ground troops to share targeting coordinates and surveillance imagery even when U.S. forces are thousands of miles apart. But the military is always struggling to ensure that this concoction of numbers, video, and photos is presented in a way that doesn't drown the user in a tidal wave of information. 

Video games are no different. Whether Call of Duty or Minecraft, or even a paper wargame like Twilight Struggle, playing these games boils down to information management. Players must absorb and assess data in order to make the correct decision. This isn't such an issue in Scrabble, where the only time pressure is your family yelling at you to put down a word. In the case of the first-person-shooter games like Call of Duty that are popular with 18 year-olds, time pressure is the essence of the game. Those who shoot first win. Those who don't lose.

Is this so different than a sailor who has to assess whether the blip on his sensor display is a Chinese missile incoming at supersonic speed? Of course, the stakes are not the same. But in a sense, they are also life and death for computer game publishers. A $40 million video game can flop if players complain that the game controls don't allow them to switch weapons easily, or that the graphics make it difficult to spot the monster hiding in the shadows.

Game publishers spend a lot of time and money designing the interface of their games so that players are able to quickly perceive and react to data. Why shouldn't the military take advantage of this model?

It is also important to remember that video games are not the same as video game technology. The software on our computers and cell phones now use graphics that look they stepped out of a video game. Unless Zumwalt sailors can earn virtual healing potions and magic swords by using their consoles, they are only using the trappings of video games. In this case, form triumphs over function.

Yet practical as the Navy's approach was, gamer-friendliness was not enough to save the poor Zumwalts. Resembling a cross between a Civil War monitor and a floating steak knife, their angular contours were designed to minimize their radar profiles, while their rocket-propelled projectiles could bombard targets 63 miles away. The Zumwalts were supposed to use all that high-tech to provide naval gunfire support for American troops, until the Navy realized that they lacked sufficient anti-aircraft, anti-missile, and anti-submarine capabilities to make them cost-effective.

Instead of buying 32 Zumwalts as planned, the Navy is only buying three. Game over, man.

Nonetheless, the notion of a Navy warship designed for video gamers was irresistible to Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University, and editor of the PAXsims conflict simulation blog. Brynen lampooned the juxtaposition with some thoughts on how such a vessel might operate, such as "No one worries about the ship's lack of vulnerability to anti-ship missiles or its lack of a close-in weapons system because of an almost religious belief that they'll simply 'respawn' in San Diego or Norfolk, Virginia if sunk." Or, "When bored, crews entertain themselves by ganking newbie navies that haven't worked out the intricacies of naval combat yet."

My personal favorite involved the Zumwalt ending up on the discount rack: "Rival navies wait a few years and then buy Zumwalt class ships at one-tenth original cost on Steam."

With a nod to Brynen's comments, I'll add a few of my own on what a ship crewed by video gamers would look like:

  • The ship's engines are fueled by a mixture of Mountain Dew and Red Bull.
  • When enemy missiles are incoming, chaff rockets automatically fire clouds of Doritos to spoof their homing radar.
  • Ship's combat displays come with a PG-13 warning.
  • The crew hires Chinese video game "gold farmers" to run the ship while they relax on deck.
  • If a Zumwalt-class destroyer springs a leak, defense contractors will create a patch -- if the Navy can wait five years for Zumwalt 2.0.
  • America's allies also buy Zumwalts -- but the Mac version. Joint operations become impossible.
  • The Navy raises money for the remaining ships on Kickstarter. Taxpayers who pledge $5,000 get a toy Zumwalt that shoots laser-guided paintballs (the paintballs must be purchased separately at $1 million apiece).

Jokes aide, and whatever the demerits of the Zumwalts, the military was correct in taking gamers into account. While most of the planned Zumwalts won't be joining the Navy, the video game generation will be, and for many years to come. If borrowing from Xbox makes for efficient sailors, bring on the joysticks.

Do you have any thoughts on how a warship or other real-life weapon would work if manned by video gamers? Feel free to share.

via U.S. Navy


How to Lose Friends and Alienate Allies

Why America’s friends in Europe are wishing for the good old days of George W. Bush.

The Obama administration has achieved a landmark heretofore considered impossible: they are making America's allies homesick for the administration of George W. Bush. This week, news broke that Poland's foreign minister was caught on tape earlier this year disparaging the United States. Radek Sikorski bitterly said Warsaw's ties to Washington were "worthless," then followed it up with some even saltier language. It's actually a measure of America's importance that the surreptitious recording caused a sensation, forcing Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to face a confidence vote in Parliament. The indiscretion will probably cost Sikorski his prospects for the job of EU foreign policy chief. But he's not wrong about America. The United States has become an exasperating ally, and even countries that are inclined to support us are hedging against because of the Obama administration's conduct. Neither our threats nor our assurances are believed. Clawing back that credibility will be an expensive undertaking.

For sure, the United States is always frustrating for other countries to deal with: our political system is contentious and difficult to navigate, often surprising allies with congressional activism on trade and sanctions. Our public prefers simple explanations and clear-cut outcomes to the often unglamorous and elusive work of diplomacy and negotiation. We are impatient, demanding, and preachy. We often make problems worse and then cut our losses, leaving others to deal with the consequences. And we're strong enough that we can absorb such losses, whereas other countries with smaller buffers are hugely affected by our choices. British historian Arnold Toynbee best captured even friendly countries' wariness about our involvement, saying: "America is like a large, friendly dog in a very small room: it wants so much to please you that it starts wagging its tail and knocks all the furniture over."

Nobody believes the Obama administration wants to please them, though. The president's supreme indifference is among the foremost complaints of our friends; they no longer believe we care enough to help solve their problems. That was the heart of Sikorski's complaint: that the United States was doing nothing about Russia's growing threat, was in thrall to the idea of a pivot to Asia at the expense of long-time allies in Europe, and was leaving those countries that support American policies the most exposed. The John McCain campaign had a funny hit-and-run web ad at the time of candidate Obama's Berlin speech in 2008 mocking him as a vacuous celebrity like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. That belief is now widely shared internationally: the president is a celebrity, not a statesman.

Both the policies and their implementation are to blame for the anger and disappointment. At the highest level of abstraction, the Obama administration champions soft power but shies away from promoting the values associated with America or acknowledging the universal appeal of our political creed. Thus the administration cannot explain where we stand on the Arab Spring: we are neither standing by our authoritarian allies nor supporting the creation of political cultures and institutions to foster more accountable governance. It should be clear from the president's Cairo speech, but those fine words dropped like a stone in a lake because there were no policies stemming from it. Then, the White House made erratic and inconsistent choices when confronted with fast-moving events. People taking great risks to change their countries -- people who should be America's natural allies -- feel abandoned. Worse, they feel betrayed by our indifference after the expectations President Obama excited.

So when the president says "Afghanistan is a sovereign country that is going to have to deal with its own security," countries around the world hear the limits of our interest. All the more so when the White House hinted that another mangled election in Afghanistan would be cause for America to pull its troops from the country; then, when the election was held with a minimum of violence and fraud, he used it as the reason we could draw troops down further and faster than military commanders recommended. Countries reliant on U.S. power understand that they're being played. It is a luxury of the strong to be ignorant -- but weak states can't afford to trust us when we're this unreliable.

President Obama fundamentally misunderstands the nature of alliance relationships. He believes that weak, poor, war-torn societies emerging from repressive governments should be judged by the same standard as we are -- that they should make brave choices and expansive political compromises. But that is not the nature of frightened people in dire circumstances: they go small, not big. Their societies are characterized by a lack of social trust and institutional constraint. If we want outcomes of brave choices and expansive political compromises, we need to stand by and steady the people making these decisions. We need to strengthen them with our involvement and help build a leadership capable of making tough choices. The administration instead threatens allies with abandonment: choose fast, because we are leaving. And the Obama White House completely misses the irony of this brittle president who can't broker congressional deals but proselytizes about inclusive government.

It is the result of not paying consistent attention -- tending the garden, as former Secretary of State George Shultz described it -- that the administration is lurching from crisis to crisis. The world is not newly dynamic and complicated; it has always been so. What is new is an American foreign policy that does not invest in foreign relationships to steady the many rocking boats.

Iraq is the canonical example. So committed was President Obama to ending the war in Iraq that he squandered the progress expensively bought by the surge. Having turned a blind eye when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki manipulated the 2010 parliamentary election, leapfrogged constitutional restraints, politicized the security services and turned them on Sunni Iraqis, the Obama administration is suddenly now -- as the country is falling to ISIS jihadists -- interested in brokering an inclusive Iraqi government. This would have been a fine approach at any time during the past 5 years. Instead, the Obama administration was silent when Maliki ordered the arrest of his Sunni vice president just after meeting with President Obama. He was silent, too, when the Sunni finance minister was arrested. And yet he wonders why reformers aren't striding bravely forward? In Baghdad mid-week, Secretary of State John Kerry promised "intense and sustained" American involvement in Iraq. There may now be drones flying over Iraqi territory, but no one who has experience in dealing with this administration would believe Kerry's pledge. The re-conquest of Iraq will be much costlier than the maintenance of the Iraq of 2008 would have been -- especially to Iraqis, whose resentment we will be dealing with for decades.

President Obama has repeatedly suggested we shouldn't care more about others' security than they do. That is a smug and fundamentally misconstrued idea about societies in crisis. Of course they care more than we do about their security. But they also have fewer options and resources than we do to ensure it. They may even have different ideas than we do about how to ensure it. And yet the Obama administration condescends to tell other countries what their interests should be, while doing precious little to try and understand what they actually think their interests are or their strategies for attaining them.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice arrogantly counseled allies in public that "collective action doesn't mean the United States puts skin in the game while others stand on the sidelines and cheer. Alliances are a two-way street, especially in hard times when alliances matter most ... we expect every ally to pull its full weight." Would you trust that government to stand up for you in a crisis?

Foreigners and friends abroad are right to question our promises. They are no longer even surprised by the contradictions rife in Obama administration foreign policy -- when the State Department rings forth with a statement that the mass death sentences issued by Egyptian courts are "fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance" the day after Secretary Kerry was in Cairo assuring our support to strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government.

Many foreigners disliked the Bush administration policies. They even disliked the Bush administration, with its brash ignorance. But they liked America, even as they worried how hardened we were becoming after 9/11. And they loved Barack Obama, because he represented a tamer America, one that worked through international institutions and brought U.S. policies into line with European norms. The damage Obama foreign policy has done to America's image is to make countries homesick for the sharp edges of the Bush administration. That was Radek Sikorski's point.

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