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Gulf War 20th: The Battle of 73 Easting and the Road to the Synthetic Battlefield

McMaster quickly ordered Eagle Troop into the attack, essentially the 1990s equivalent of a cavalry charge. He also radioed the contact with the Tawakalna up the chain to Col. Don Holder, the 2nd ACR commander. His basic duty done, he led Eagle Troop several more kilometers east until they had gone clear through the Iraqi battalion’s laager.  At the same time, two other 2nd ACR cavalry units, Ghost and Iron Troops (to the north and south respectively), had also plowed into the flank units of the 18th Mechanized Brigade, and were carving them up. All three troops went on a killing spree of 120mm and 25mm shells, as well as volleys of TOW-2 missiles. By the time it was over, Eagle Troop alone had destroyed over 30 tanks, several dozen armored personnel carriers and trucks, and several hundred Iraqi soldiers. Ghost and Iron Troops racked up similar totals, virtually vaporizing the 18th Mechanized Brigade in a matter of about an hour. American casualties were light, with just a single M3 Bradley being put out of action. Despite several counterattacks over the next few hours, the 2nd ACR held the line while the rest of VII Corps got into formation to begin the assault on the Tawakalna and other IEG divisions. But the performance of 2nd ACR was the highlight of the day.

The work, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was being supported by the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, as part of his plans to digitize the vehicles and soldiers of the 21st century. Sullivan was himself an armored cavalry officer, and when word of the 73 Easting victory reached his office, he decided to see if the work already accomplished by DARPA and IDA might be used to record the battle for future study and analysis. Almost within hours of the cease-fire in the Persian Gulf, IDA personnel went to work on the project.

McMaster and the men of Eagle Troop, along with those of Iron and Ghost Troops, had crafted a combat masterpiece, not unlike Jackson’s flanking march at Chancellorsville or the stand of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on Little Round Top. American combat doctrine had hit a zenith at 73 Easting and the word of the victory shot up the chain of command like a rocket. Along the way, the story of the 73 Easting engagement came to the attention of the field representatives of the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) based in Arlington, Virginia. IDA, a federally funded research and development corporation, had for some time been working on the idea of creating a virtual battlefield. The work, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was being supported by the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, as part of his plans to digitize the vehicles and soldiers of the 21st century. Sullivan was himself an armored cavalry officer, and when word of the 73 Easting victory reached his office, he decided to see if the work already accomplished by DARPA and IDA might be used to record the battle for future study and analysis. Almost within hours of the cease-fire in the Persian Gulf, IDA personnel went to work on the project.

Operation Desert Storm

The 2nd ACR had to fight low visibility conditions, such as shown here. U.S. Department of Defense photo by Staff Sgt. Robert L. Reeve

Following the movement of the VII Corps heavy divisions in pursuit of the IRG, 2nd ACR had been left essentially in place on the 73 Easting battlefield. The IDA research team quickly began to interview McMaster and every available trooper who fought in the battle, and collected ordnance reports and audio recordings, even taking reconnaissance photos. Every Iraqi wreck was mapped, and the movement of each American vehicle was retraced. By the time the research effort was complete, the IDA team knew more about the Battle of 73 Easting than the rest of the participants combined. The key now was to do something useful with the information.

Back in Alexandria, IDA had set up a project team, based upon their earlier virtual battlespace work for DARPA. This had included the development of a low-cost simulation network, called SIMNET, which hooked low-cost vehicle/aircraft crew simulators (based upon arcade game technology) into a common terrain database to replicate the rudiments of small unit combat. SIMNET had provided the tools to take the 73 Easting data and turn it into a compelling analysis tool. Usually presented on large projection screens, the 73 Easting briefings were given to everyone from visiting diplomats to members of Congress. Almost like magic, the viewer would be given the view from just above “Mad Max” during battle, and ride with H.R. McMaster and his crew to fame and glory. That this was a fourth-generation computer presentation made the history lesson just that much more compelling.  Along the way, every visitor to the IDA center would be given a look at the bank of SIMNET simulators, and given a briefing as well. Suddenly, 73 Easting had taken on a real long-term value for the Army and DARPA: as a high-tech marketing tool.

The drive to build a virtual battlefield to test and train on became a major Army objective, embraced by the other services and the Department of Defense (DoD). With a declining defense budget, reduced training ranges and fewer field exercise opportunities, SIMNET-type training was looking like a winner to senior defense executives.

The drive to build a virtual battlefield to test and train on became a major Army objective, embraced by the other services and the Department of Defense (DoD). With a declining defense budget, reduced training ranges and fewer field exercise opportunities, SIMNET-type training was looking like a winner to senior defense executives. This became even more attractive as the many previously incompatible training and simulations systems being used by various services began to be connected to SIMNET through a common set of protocols and standards created though DARPA funding efforts. This eventually led to the creation of a synthetic version of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was extensively used in training and concept testing during the mid-1990s.

The late 1990s were a time of great growth in the development of what was now being called the Synthetic Theater of  War (STOW).  Software was being developed to cover everything from the flyout characteristics of missiles to the shading and texturing of surfaces in various lighting and weather conditions. Along with the armed services of the United States, the United Kingdom joined what was chartered as the Joint Semi-Automated Forces (JSAF) Federation. By late 1997, the STOW program had reached the point where the first 48 hours of a complete U.S. Atlantic Command exercise, United Endeavor 98-1, was able to be simulated without a single ship leaving port or a plane lifting off the ground. Larger exercises were run in 1998, 1999, and 2000, within synthetic replications of actual battlespaces (such as the Persian Gulf) of ever growing proportions. Clearly, this was a watershed for training and simulation technology, with rapidly improving microprocessor and software technology driving new features and capabilities of the STOW program. The various SAF modules even underwent Y2K upgrades to maintain their viability into the 21st century.

Operation Desert Storm

The nature of modern armored warfare made it difficult to reconstruct the Battle of 73 Easting. U.S. Department of Defense photo

As the Army enters a new millennium and administration, they can take pride in the fact that whatever problems they have in personnel and material, the lessons of Desert Storm are being learned and remembered. Nowhere is this truer than with the influence of the Battle of 73 Easting. Far from the textbook actions and decisions of H.R. McMaster and his fellow 2nd ACR troopers, 73 Easting has had as much influence on the military as any battle since Jutland in 1916. More than just providing a model for future officers to study, the 2nd ACR’s battle with the Tawakalna that day has opened up new vistas for training, simulation, and planning in the lean post-Cold War world. SIMNET and the entire STOW effort in its present-day derivatives are making the basic training of small and medium-sized units both affordable and safer.  Along with this, the ability to simulate operations in a real-world crisis area without even being there is a capability that sets the U.S. military head and shoulders above that of every other nation on Earth. That perhaps is the ultimate edge and lesson provided by 73 Easting.

This article was first published in Desert Shield/Desert Storm: The 10th Anniversary of the Gulf War.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...


    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-99387">

    What about L (lighting) trp did they have a role in any of this?