Mana: New Zealand’s terrorist war on screen

A New Zealand-developed software tool could be of significant value should the country play a role in an international response to the recent terrorist attacks in the US.

A New Zealand-developed software tool could be of significant value should the country play a role in an international response to the recent terrorist attacks in the US.

The tool, called Mana, was developed by the Defence Technology Agency, which assists New Zealand’s defence forces to model computationally situations likely to be met in a theatre of conflict and helps them decide what equipment and tactics might be most appropriate to achieve a favourable result.

Mana (map-aware non-uniform automata), a simulation tool, uses relatively simple mathematical relationships to model the behaviour of an automaton or “entity” — such as a combatant or non-combatant — in reaction to its surroundings.

A military force which has as its object to transfer supplies from one point to another might, for example, be overrun by belligerents, and Mana considers what means the force might have at its disposal to deter or route around such an attack.

Simple automata, such as the “Game of Life”, where binary cells in a rectangular array live, die or give birth according to the number of cells surrounding them, are well known. But Mana’s automata and their interactions are, of course, much more complicated than this, says Michael Lauren, manager of the operational analysis section of the DTA. To begin with, there are several different kinds of entity, exhibiting different behaviours, while in the Game of Life, all cells are of the same kind.

The tool is potentially of value should New Zealand be called on to play a role in any international response to the recent terrorist attacks in the US, Lauren says. “It is a tool to assist lateral thinking, and this is useful in a terrorist scenario, where there are no simple logical answers.” But any military response will necessarily be “multifaceted,” using a number of different tools and techniques in combination.

Mana uses elements of chaos theory, which has proved useful in modelling difficult-to-predict systems like the weather. One of the principles of chaos theory is that small causes can have large effects, a fact enshrined in the military proverb about the lack of a nail in a horseshoe leading to the division being short of one man with the resulting loss of a battle and thereby the war.

Lauren sees Mana superseding, possibly within months, older war simulations used by the defence forces. These models were based on Cold War thinking, he says.

The army is in the forefront of practical use of Mana, but some naval and air exercises have been simulated with it. In a simple model an entity reacts only to its local conditions.

While these conditions are important in the behaviour of Mana’s entities, says Lauren, they have “knowledge” of and are influenced by, the position of other entities at a distance — their “map awareness.” This simulates the ability of personnel and groups of personnel to communicate, Lauren says.

The model has been used to simulate, in retrospect, situations that have occurred during the presence of the multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor. Because Mana is so new, it has not yet been used in a predictive mode, Lauren says.

Has it identified what went wrong in past unfavourable situations? “I recall one time when a Canadian peacekeeper, after running one of our simulations, said: ‘If we’d had this six years ago, we could have saved lives’.” He was referring to findings of the kind that when distributing relief supplies it is better to set up a number of distribution points, so that large crowds do not gather and become impatient and belligerent.

In East Timor, Mana signalled the appropriateness of the “hearts and minds” campaign to win over the non-combatants encouraging them to give the forces intelligence.

Use of Mana in East Timor simulations “highlighted the importance of junior leadership at the corporal and lance corporal level, providing evidence that extra training and resources should be devoted in that area,” he says.