USA — Immersion Training Prepares Troops for Reality of War

WASHINGTON — U.S. Joint Forces Com­mand has devel­oped a com­put­er­ized train­ing pro­gram that immers­es ground troops in the sights, sounds and smells of war, offi­cials there say.
Most impor­tant­ly, they say, the pro­gram, known as Future Immer­sive Train­ing Envi­ron­ment, or FITE, will improve ser­vice­mem­bers’ crit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing skills in com­bat.

“We look at it as putting these sol­diers and Marines in a very com­plex deci­sion-mak­ing envi­ron­ment,” Jay Reist, FITE oper­a­tions man­ag­er at the Nor­folk, Vir­ginia-based com­mand, said dur­ing a tele­phone con­fer­ence with defense reporters today. “It’s not about kinet­ic engage­ment, it’s about under­stand­ing the base­line envi­ron­ment they’re in,.…and mak­ing prop­er deci­sions.”

The first phase of the pro­gram, which is designed for small units, was demon­strat­ed with 13 Marines from 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 8th Marine Reg­i­ment at Camp Leje­une, N.C., and sol­diers at Fort Ben­ning, Ga., in Feb­ru­ary and March. The sec­ond phase, live-action train­ing to be done in a ware­house on Camp Pendle­ton, Calif., is sched­uled for demon­stra­tion in Sep­tem­ber, Reist said.

Phase 1 is a vir­tu­al-real­i­ty based pro­gram in which ser­vice­mem­bers strap on gear that includes a head­set that trans­mits the sights, sounds and smells of war, while also mon­i­tor­ing their heart rates to gauge not only their health, but also how immersed they are in the com­bat set­ting, said Clarke Lethin, a tech­ni­cal man­ag­er of the pro­gram with the Office of Naval Research.

The hel­met dis­play shows var­i­ous scenes, most­ly based on Afghanistan, in which troops inter­act with local peo­ple depict­ed by com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed images paired with the live voic­es of cul­tur­al experts mon­i­tor­ing the train­ing, said Navy Lt. Cdr. Rob Lyon, a Joint Forces Com­mand spokesman. In one scene, a local Afghan approach­es a ser­vice­mem­ber to give him a tip about where impro­vised explo­sive devices are hid­den. The out­come of the sce­nario is based on the servicemember’s reac­tion. If he ignores the villager’s warn­ing, he may stum­ble across the IED and be killed, Lyon explained. The ser­vice­mem­ber may engage the vil­lager in con­ver­sa­tion where even sub­tleties such as how he holds his weapon can affect the out­come, he said.

At the same time, the par­tic­i­pants’ com­mand­ing offi­cer is talk­ing to them through a head­set with dif­fer­ent audio, and a gen­er­a­tor is pump­ing out smells, such as cordite dur­ing a fire­fight. To add to the vir­tu­al real­i­ty, each of the program’s weapons is equipped with a shock device to sim­u­late the ser­vice­mem­ber get­ting wound­ed or killed, Lyon said.

“These sol­diers and Marines are in a very com­plex com­bat envi­ron­ment,” Reist said. “This is about how they detect anom­alies and make prop­er deci­sions. It enables them to go over count­less rep­e­ti­tions in deci­sion-mak­ing and it’s rewards-based for good deci­sions.

“This is about the 6 inch­es between the right and left ear of that 20-year-old in com­bat,” he added.

The com­mand spent 18 months devel­op­ing the sys­tem and received input through­out the Defense Depart­ment, includ­ing the Joint Impro­vised Explo­sive Device Defeat Orga­ni­za­tion, and from com­bat vet­er­ans, as well as from aca­d­e­mics and oth­er out­side experts includ­ing cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists, Lethin said.

“Before we even start­ed going into this, we took strides to inter­view return­ing vet­er­ans from Iraq and Afghanistan about what we need­ed to include to cre­ate the most respon­sive train­ing envi­ron­ment,” he said. “All along the way, we made sure we got con­stant feed­back.”

The vir­tu­al real­i­ty aspects of the pro­gram works well for today’s young ser­vice­mem­bers, Reist said. “In each case, what we found is that from the gen­er­a­tion these young men come from, they are very com­fort­able with it. They under­stand it not as a game, but as train­ing.

As a team, they work through unit-mak­ing, cohe­sion and train­ing skills,” he added.

Lethin and Reist, both for­mer Marines, said the goal of the immer­sion is that ser­vice­mem­bers’ first fire­fight is no worse than their last sim­u­la­tion.

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