Army Warfighters Go Digital to Hone Skills

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2011 — With more than 1 mil­lion ser­vice mem­bers on active duty in the Unit­ed States, the mil­i­tary ser­vices, and espe­cial­ly the Army, are run­ning short of a crit­i­cal com­mod­i­ty — train­ing grounds.
The prob­lem, inten­si­fied by the wind­ing down of two wars, is ratch­et­ing up the inter­est of Army senior lead­ers in vir­tu­al solu­tions to real-world con­straints.

U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command
Army Gen. Mar­tin E. Dempsey, then com­mand­ing gen­er­al of the U.S. Army Train­ing and Doc­trine Com­mand, now the Army’s chief of staff, dis­cuss­es the capa­bil­i­ties of remote train­ing with Kei­th John­ston at the Feb­ru­ary 2011 Win­ter Asso­ci­a­tion of the U.S. Army Expo­si­tion in Fort Laud­erdale, Fla.
U.S. Army pho­to by Sgt. Angel­i­ca Golin­dano
Click to enlarge

“We have a lot of sol­diers com­ing home to sta­tions here in the Unit­ed States, and … we don’t have enough ter­rain in many of those places to train those sol­diers out on live ranges,” Army Col. Antho­ny D. Krogh told Amer­i­can Forces Press Service. 

Krogh is direc­tor of the Nation­al Sim­u­la­tion Cen­ter, part of the Com­bined Arms Cen­ter at Fort Leav­en­worth, Kan. “We just phys­i­cal­ly can’t do it,” he said. “Fort Lewis is a good exam­ple.” Sev­en 5,000-person brigades are on the ground at Fort Lewis, now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the state of Wash­ing­ton , he said. “But here’s the thing — there’s only enough maneu­ver space and range for one brigade there at a time,” he added. 

That means “our per­ish­able skills as sol­diers start to atro­phy rather rapid­ly,” the colonel said. “The only way we can make up for that is to use a syn­thet­ic, or vir­tu­al, world.” Krogh says Army com­mand and con­trol sys­tems them­selves pro­duce a kind of syn­thet­ic envi­ron­ment that has been in use for a long time. Force XXI Bat­tle Com­mand Brigade and Below, called FBCB2, for exam­ple, is a com­put­er-based com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­form for commanders. 

Blue Force Track­ing is a GPS-enabled sys­tem that gives mil­i­tary com­man­ders and forces loca­tion infor­ma­tion about friend­ly and hos­tile forces. Oth­er com­mand-and-con­trol visu­al­iza­tion tools let com­man­ders see a three-dimen­sion­al bat­tle space and locate units or par­tic­u­lar sol­diers there, the colonel said. 

“It does­n’t look like an avatar,” Krogh said, refer­ring to dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of users that pop­u­late vir­tu­al worlds, “but it is a syn­thet­ic envi­ron­ment that’s cre­at­ed because we learn or under­stand quick­er through visu­al­iza­tion than any­thing else.” 

The Army also uses sim­u­la­tors of all kinds to train sol­diers at dif­fer­ent lev­els, he said, from squad and fire-team lead­ers and indi­vid­ual sol­diers to divi­sion and core com­man­ders. Emerg­ing-tech­nol­o­gy Army ini­tia­tives include a Train­ing and Doc­trine Com­mand effort called the Train­ing Brain. This com­bines capa­bil­i­ties, sys­tems, net­works and data into a sys­tem that uses mod­el­ing, sim­u­la­tion and gam­ing to repli­cate real-world events for use in training. 

With­in about four days the Train­ing Brain sys­tem can turn a fire­fight or a mis­sion into a sim­u­la­tion game, the command’s web­site says. “In terms of vir­tu­al worlds, our pri­ma­ry focus is on Vir­tu­al Bat­tle­space 2, the VBS2 game,” Krogh said. “Gam­ing ini­tial­ly got a bad rap, because a lot of us had teenagers who were play­ing Xbox and Nin­ten­do instead of doing their home­work. For­tu­nate­ly, we as lead­ers grew into this and rec­og­nized the value.” 

VBS2 has been par­tic­u­lar­ly suc­cess­ful, he said. “Arguably, it’s one of the most suc­cess­ful sim­u­la­tions we’ve ever brought to the force,” he added. “In terms of cost ver­sus usage, it’s a huge success.” 

Prague-based Bohemia Inter­ac­tive Stu­dio devel­oped the gam­ing and train­ing plat­form in coop­er­a­tion with the Marine Corps, the Aus­tralian Defense Force and oth­er mil­i­tary cus­tomers. It includes a vir­tu­al bat­tle­field on which users can oper­ate land, sea and air vehi­cles. Lots of peo­ple can play the game at once in vir­tu­al com­plex urban areas that include build­ings that play­ers can destroy, and real­is­tic work­ing weapons. 

An after-action-review mod­ule, called AAR, records every play­er action, bul­let path, explo­sion and vehi­cle move­ment for a detailed exam­i­na­tion of the train­ing mis­sion. “The most impor­tant thing in any of these syn­thet­ic envi­ron­ments is to have focused train­ing and the abil­i­ty to con­duct an AAR cri­tique [to under­stand] what you did right and what you need to work on,” Krogh said. 

VBS2 and oth­er ini­tia­tives have helped Army senior lead­er­ship under­stand the val­ue of vir­tu­al train­ing. Now, Krogh said, the Army is look­ing to expand the use of vir­tu­al worlds, not­ing that vir­tu­al real­i­ty will allow an entire brigade to train at one time next year at Fort Bliss, Texas. “Only one bat­tal­ion will phys­i­cal­ly maneu­ver on real dirt,” he explained. “The rest of the brigade will either be in vir­tu­al flight or tank sim­u­la­tors or in their com­mand posts through what we call con­struc­tive sim­u­la­tion. So [it will fea­ture] a lot of dig­i­tal dirt, and a lit­tle bit of real dirt.” 

Fur­ther into the future, Krogh said, the Army is explor­ing the util­i­ty of “mas­sive­ly mul­ti­play­er” online gam­ing tech­nol­o­gy, like that used in World of War­craft. “These have been in the com­mer­cial world for­ev­er, but we’re look­ing to lever­age that for train­ing our sol­diers around the clock, around the world, where they can always jump onto that syn­thet­ic envi­ron­ment and train,” he said. 

The Army is bring­ing a new sys­tem online that tracks phys­i­cal train­ing scores, weapons qual­i­fi­ca­tion lev­els and scores for oth­er ser­vice skills for indi­vid­u­als in the real world and links them to that person’s avatar in the Army’s vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment, he added. 

“Pic­ture this,” Krogh said. “If I don’t do well on a PT test, my avatar will not run as fast or move as quick or sus­tain in com­bat as long as anoth­er sol­dier who has a bet­ter PT score in the real world.” 

The same thing will hap­pen for oth­ers skills, he said. “If I am out of tol­er­ance for my weapons train­ing or I have only shot marks­man as opposed to sharp­shoot­er or expert, then my PH/PK — prob­a­bil­i­ty of hit/probability of kill — in the sim­u­la­tion goes way down, because I’m not as high­ly skilled in the real world.” 

Train­ing in the vir­tu­al world would mir­ror train­ing in the real world, the colonel said. Prac­tice with firearms online “would help you pre­pare so that when you went to the real range, you’d have had that con­tin­u­ous expe­ri­ence of engag­ing the tar­gets and putting the weapon into ser­vice,” he said. 

Sol­diers could­n’t do phys­i­cal train­ing online, but in see­ing where they stand in rela­tion to their peers, Krogh said, “a sol­dier would real­ize, ‘I’ve got to lose some weight and do bet­ter on the PT test, because when I go online my squad is always leav­ing me behind.’ ” Despite progress the Army is just get­ting start­ed, Krogh said. 

“I would say with­in the next two years we’ll be able to put many of these capa­bil­i­ties in place,” he said. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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