What does the U.S. Air Force have in common with kids at the toy store?
They’re both in the market for the latest version of the Sony PlayStation 3.
And, while youngsters want them to play video games, the service has another purpose in mind –bundling the consoles to create a massive massive computer cluster, for use in special projects at the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) in Rome, New York.
Obviously, the USAF needs lots of PS3s to create that cluster–2,200 to be exact. So, the service has placed an order for that number of game consoles, at a cost of $650,000. Total cost for the cluster project is about $2 million, according to an AFRL official. Once completed, the bundled PS3s will be used to create virtual models of the human brain, among other projects.
According to Air Force Times, the Rome lab already has a “small” PlayStation cluster in operation, incorporating 336 consoles, linked in fourteen groups of twenty-four. When that first “buy” was announced last year, USAF officials noted that it was cheaper to link PS3s than buy processors designed specifically for the task. By one estimate, the cluster is five times cheaper than the “alternate” processor solution.
But the advantages of the PS3 cluster don’t end there. Along with their advanced CPUs, the consoles have a high-end graphics capability, extremely useful in military modeling and simulation work.
While Rome lab deserves credit for their cost-effective solution, there is a down-side to the PS3 approach. With no limits on PS3 exports–and their ready availability on the global market–there’s nothing to prevent our adversaries from building their own bundles, for weapons design, employment simulations, or other military functions.
In fact, the U.S. intelligence community began tracking adversary acquisitions of game consoles almost a decade ago, when Saddam Hussein’s front companies reportedly purchased 4,000 PlayStation 2s. At the time, there was concern that Saddam’s scientists would bundle the PS2s in a configuration similar to that used at Rome Labs. Intelligence analysts believed that Saddam wanted the PlayStations to create a cheap, powerful computer bundle to support his WMD program. However, there is no evidence that the bundle was actually assembled, and some experts believe the game consoles were given away as gifts to Saddam’s political cronies.
While the late Iraqi dictator might have missed the “bundling option,” it remains available to almost any country willing to invest the time (and money) in a large-scale purchase of PlayStations, and the effort required to link them together. We can only wonder if the Iranians or North Koreans have their own PS3 bundles, providing support for their militaries and/or WMD programs.