What if there was a piece of software that could predict -- really, accurately predict -- how a war was going to go?The Economist reports on a "collaboration between computer programmers, mathematicians, weapons experts, military historians, retired generals and combat veterans" that's been surprisingly prescient about conflicts' length and casualty counts. The catch: it doesn't work on counterinsurgencies and guerilla wars, like the one we now have in Iraq.
The Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model's predictive power is due in large part to the mountain of data on which it draws, thought to be the largest historical combat database in the world. The Dupuy Institute's researchers comb military archives worldwide, painstakingly assembling statistics which reveal cause-and-effect relationships, such as the influence of rainfall on the rate of rifle breakdowns during the Battle of the Ardennes, or the percentage of Iraqi soldiers killed in a unit before the survivors in that unit surrendered during the Gulf war.Analysts then take a real battle or campaign and write equations linking causes (say, appropriateness of uniform camouflage) to effects (sniper kill ratios). These equations are then tested against the historical figures in the database, making it possible to identify relationships between the circumstances of an engagement and its outcome, says Chris Lawrence, the Dupuy Institute's director since its founder's death in 1995.The TNDM's reliance on real combat data, rather than results from war games or exercises, also gives it an edge. Another forecasting system, TACWAR, was used by America's Joint Chiefs of Staff to plan the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like many models, it was largely developed with data from war games. As a result, says Richard Anderson, a tank specialist at the Dupuy Institute, TACWAR and other programs based on laser tag exercises tend to run hot, or overestimate casualties. Real-bullet data is more reliable, because fear of death makes soldiers more conservative in actual combat than they are in exercises, resulting in fewer losses. The discipline is only just beginning to recognise the tremendous value of real-world verification, says Andreas Tolk, an eminent modelling scientist at Virginia's Old Dominion University.The next challenge will be to expand the TNDM's ability to forecast the outcomes of asymmetric conflicts, such as the Iraqi insurgency. To this end, the Dupuy Institute is hoping to get its hands on the Vietcong archives, as Vietnam opens up. Insurgencies rarely leave much of a paper trail, but the Vietnamese kept detailed records of their struggle against the French and Americans. The resulting papers provide the world's most extensive documentation of guerrilla fighting.(Big ups: JVD)