The man currently sipping a Koskenkorva and consulting his cue cards in the U/S Williams X-Jet The Flare Path uses as a dais is Ilja 'Zipuli' Varha. Our second 'atypical simmer', Ilja has very kindly agreed to talk about his journey from juvenile M1 Tank Platoon fan to 33-year-old brigade simulator officer in the Finnish Defence Forces. Whether your polygonal battle wagon of preference is a Steel Beasts Leo, a Steel Fury T-34 or a World of Tanks Tiger, the following paragraphs should prove interesting.
“I was six years old when my dad bought a new kind of game for our family's state-of-the-art 386. Looking back now M1 Tank Platoon by MicroProse had little to do with the actual simulation of an M1 Abrams tank, but at that time the battlefield realism it offered was something new to me and I was blown away. According to my mother I spent too much time in the virtual turret, fighting off waves of Soviet armour, but little did she know… such games were also a great way of learning English!”
“M1 Tank Platoon sucked me into computer simulator games, and I went on to enjoy other great titles like Their Finest Hour: Battle of Britain and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe by LucasFilm Games, and F-117A Stealth Fighter from MicroProse. In the latter I would fly without permission through the airspace of my home country to take out submarine bases on the Kola Peninsula. With the beeps of radar warning systems echoing in the dark cockpit, such jaunts were always thrilling. The stories created by F-117A were enriched by TV glimpses of real stealth fighters flying sorties in the first Gulf War.”
“I went on to play a lot of other flight simulators like Spectrum HoloByte’s Falcon 3.0, Jane’s US Navy Fighters, Aces over Europe and more recently IL-2 Sturmovik, but somehow the thrill was no longer there. Unfortunately simulation games, especially those concerned with land warfare, were in decline at the time. iM1A2 Abrams tried, so did M1 Tank Platoon II, but both lacked proper realism and were technically poor. Because sims no longer delivered what I was looking for, my interest shifted to the strategy genre and groundbreaking wargames like Steel Panthers.”
“In Finland we have mandatory military service for all males starting the year you turn 18. At that age, having finished school in 2002, I was called in to do my service, and of course I applied to join the armour branch. At that time all armour units were trained in Hämeenlinna, utilizing T-72 tanks and BMP IFVs. Because I lived in a different place with another garrison closeby, and I had a driver’s licence for trucks, I was ordered to report at Karelia brigade to become a driver for the logistics branch. You can probably measure my disappointment by the fact that today I can still remember the name of the major who gave the order, even though I met him 15 years ago and only for a minute.”
“But getting started in the army was interesting even without tanks, and I did dodge the truck driver bullet by being ordered first to NCO school, then to reserve officer school to become a platoon leader in Finnish light motorized infantry, Jaegers. I enjoyed the training in the reserve officer school, which was mentally and physically challenging, and graduated as an officer candidate.”
“When I returned to Karelia brigade to resume the service, I saw some curious vehicles there. Having learned to identify most armour types from strategy games and simulations, on one march exercise I was surprised to recognize a Swedish built CV9030 passing by our column with its 30mm autocannon barrel pointing at me, the stabilizer keeping me zeroed in with impressive accuracy. I think the gunner chose to try to intimidate me as I was at the head of the column carrying an APILAS antitank weapon. I did not know it then, but the brigade was soon to be mechanized, and the vehicles I saw were being tested to fill the role of infantry fighting vehicle in the new panzerjaeger units.”
“During my year as a conscript I also got to know the live simulators in use. The one we used back then was similar to the American MILES system, the idea being that you wear a vest that picks up laser beams transmitted when firing blanks from an emitter-equipped weapon. This brought some realism to our practise firefights as if you didn't keep your head down, you were bound to hear a beep indicating you’d been hit. Nowadays these systems are a lot more advanced, with GPS tracking and added battlefield elements like minefields and artillery to spice up the experience.”
“After national service, I was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in infantry and commanded back to civilian life, or “the reserve” as it’s called. Having enjoyed my taste of the Puolustusvoimat I applied to Military College, got in, and, scoring high enough, got to choose my branch. And armour it was, finally!”
“During the 4 years of officer’s basic training I got to know the Russian BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle and the newly bought German Leopard 2A4 main battle tank intimately (yes, tanks have souls and the tank god is a T-34).”
“Not a single game can convey the actual atmosphere of being inside a rocking and roaring metal box, firing rounds at targets kilometers away. And what games tell you about a tankers’ life is only about 10% of the actual work. But at least it’s mostly the more interesting bits, as maintenance, repairing a detrack, ammunition preparations, sentry duties etc., and the hefty amount of waiting would probably make for a rather uninteresting game.”
“During the Leopard training we were introduced to a computer simulator called Steel Beasts Pro by eSim Games. I recognized the game, as the original SB had been released in 2000, and I had played it along with other titles like Operation Flashpoint that were breathing new life into the land warfare genre at that time. Pro is the military version that came into being when militaries realized the potential of virtual simulators as a low cost alternatives to cabin trainers."
“We used SB to get accustomed to things like the fire-control system in the Leopard. I got to know the game better when the Personal Edition was released in 2006. I bought it, and was immediately smitten. Tank simulation had come a long way since M1 Tank Platoon! The game, or rather 'simulation', puts realism first, and that won me over instantly. I fiddled around with SB a lot, creating scenarios, painting Finnish camouflage on the vehicles and so on.”
“The only big thing the title lacks is proper simulation of the hull’s life - the sort of rich mud-spattered driving experience offered by sims like Steel Armor: Blaze of War by Graviteam, or, even better, the brilliant Spintires by Oovee. But SB more than makes up for it in other departments, like the fire-control systems and AI!”
“I graduated in 2007 and was commissioned to my old brigade, now equipped with the latest gear Finnish Defence Forces could offer us grunts. I was schooled in the new main ride, the CV9030FIN IFV, and worked as an instructor in the mechanized infantry. What struck me at that point was that the vehicle had no proper simulator equipment available for crew training. Having to do all training using real kilometers and live ammunition is of course excellent for the crews, but only if the resources are sufficient. Also there’s the wear and tear to the equipment, which is costly. And we all know that militaries are not overflowing with money...”
“The situation improved when a decision was made to acquire SB software and to build a simulated CV9030 to be used from crew training up to simulated tactical maneuvers. As I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and already had years of experience with SB, I along with a few others was appointed to “get it done”. And so we did. Soon we had a classroom with computers in a local area network, utilised for training of the vehicle crews in arts of gunnery, command and tactics.”
“It was quickly noticed that training results improved, especially in gunnery, where theory instruction could be followed up with invaluable hands-on experimentation. This of course requires a high fidelity simulation otherwise crew-members may learn bad habits that can backfire in real exercises. And the main thing to understand about this kind of training is that it teaches you the principles only, so it’s mainly intellectual learning augmented with some physical handling of instruments, for example by using simulated gunner’s control handles. The real learning comes when the troops go out and do the same things with real equipment. With good simulator training behind them, the troops get better training results in the field as they've made most of the mistakes already in virtual environments.”
“The difference between even the best simulation software and the real vehicles is physical and mechanical of course. As I pointed out earlier, simulators can convey only about 10% of the full spectrum of a tanker’s life. When cramped in the rocking, dark turret, with little visibility outside, with multiple voices booming in your headgear and tension and anxiety running through your body, you have to know how to do things with your hands and body automatically. This automation, muscle memory, and becoming one with the vehicle cannot be obtained in a classroom, and it can only be trained up to a point with other simulation equipment. So simulation equipment really does not remove the need for actually drilling, but rather makes it more effective when supported properly.”
“After these happy lieutenant years, simulation training within our Defence Forces has taken another big step forward with new equipment being brought into use in quantity. Because the expansion has required a lot of effort to plan, prepare and train the instructors, there was a need to appoint people for this task. Having already quite a lot of experience with virtual simulators, I was assigned my current job as brigade simulator officer.”
“Mom was wrong - playing games can lead to a career! And having the best of both worlds, the real steel beasts and the simulated ones, is something I never dreamt of when taking my first steps with those mighty green boxes masquerading as Abrams tanks in M1 Tank Platoon…”
“But it’s not just work, simulators also occupy my free time."* Steel Beasts Pro PE has come a long way since 2006, offering a truly impressive simulation of battlefield action on the ground level, and the game has grown a very active and productive online community of real world tankers and enthusiasts."
*Along with game development. Ilja's latest project is an add-on for The Seven Years War.
"In the online games run by the community I can feel some of the buzz that got me into simulators in the first place. Footage of some of these online sessions can be found on YouTube. Roaming around with the real vehicles has not in any way made the simulation world of tanking any less exciting, maybe even the other way ‘round. But this is of course thanks to the game in question, which not only pretends to understand tanks, but actually does.”
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