The Marine Corps is expanding the use of simulators to prepare infantryman to survive roadside ambushes.
“The explosion in ground simulations is a paradigm shift for the Marine Corps,” said Terry Bennington, deputy director of the Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command’s technology division at Quantico, Va.
A decision last year to acquire eight new infantry simulators at a cost of $5 million each was rooted in necessity, officials said, as near–constant combat deployments have left Marines barely with enough time stateside to train before they’re gone again.
Marines had for years been asking for training devices that would allow them to conduct combat convoy dry-runs, Bennington said.
Currently, the Corps has two networked six-vehicle combat simulators at Camp Pendleton, Calif. A similar setup is planned for Camp Lejeune, N.C. One six-vehicle simulator will be installed in Hawaii, two in Okinawa, Japan; and one at Twentynine Palms, Calif. All eight of the $5 million systems will be fully fielded by the end of 2009, Bennington said.
By training on the simulator, Marines are given the opportunity to encounter the enemy in about 20 different scenarios, all based on actual events that occurred on the ground in Iraq. They experience the action while riding in vehicles and shooting weapons that look and feel like the real thing. The experience also leaves them better prepared for their required live-action training, officials said.
“In a day, they can learn a lot of stuff that would [normally] take weeks to do,” said Luis Garcia, project manager for the combat convoy simulator at the Marine Corps’ training systems office in Orlando, Fla. Garcia and his team are working with the Corps’ Training and Education Command to make the simulator a requirement for pre-deployment training. Currently it is an option for commanders in addition to their required combat training work-ups.
The convoy simulator at Camp Pendleton is located inside two sprawling 6,000 square-foot warehouse-sized buildings sitting on about half an acre. Inside, each building is divided into six bays, each containing a vehicle hull completely surrounded by a 360-degree display screen.
The vehicles — light humvees and 7-ton medium trucks — are the actual hulls, minus their engines. The optics are the same as those used in the field. Eight overhead projectors aimed at the surrounding screen are able to create day and night conditions, which allow Marines to practice exercises using their night-vision goggles. The sounds of combat are also piped in as another detail that adds to authenticity, including weapons and calls for artillery fire.
While the system helps set the scene for combat, the high-tech personal weaponry inside the simulation bay allows Marines to fight as they would in theater. Marines are outfitted with M-16s, M-4s and pistols equipped with Bluefire technology that uses nitrogen or carbon dioxide gas canisters in the magazine to recreate firing recoil. The gas canisters have revolutionized the simulator environment by cutting the cord, trainers said. Previously, mock firing recoil was created with an air hose that kept Marines tethered.
“For our small arms, we were able to go to the Bluefire, which means you’re able to get out of the vehicle now. You don’t have that long black cord trailing behind you,” Bennington said.
That mobility is crucial, as Marines need to be able to move freely around their vehicles in order to interact with other vehicles in adjacent bays that are linked into the system. The system at Pendleton has 12 vehicles networked together, which allows 60 Marines to train at once using the same scenario.
“You still see all the other vehicles in that virtual world,” Bennington said.
“Normally in simulations, what you see is [only] in front of you,” Bennington said. “If you passed a bad guy, it was no big deal. In the convoy simulator, if you pass a bad guy you better engage because now he can engage you.”
An enemy firing a weapon isn’t the only threat Marines face inside the simulator. “If you’re not paying attention to your fuel usage, we can program you to run out of fuel,” Bennington said. “Whatever you have to pay attention to in the real world, you have to in simulation.”
The training can turn on a dime, he added. Following a recent attack on troops in Afghanistan, for example, the scenario was fed into the system within 24 hours. And once the scenario is created, it can be shared with all combat simulations throughout the Corps, he said.
Lockheed Martin Simulation, Training and Support received a $52.5 million fixed-price contract in October 2007 to provide the simulators. In addition to manufacturing the simulators, Lockheed Martin is responsible for operating and maintaining the systems, Garcia said.
The $5 million price tag per simulator covers the cost of the producing the system, site preparation and the technical data package. It does not include future maintenance costs, which are expected to run about $300,000 to $400,000 annually depending on the location, Garcia said.
Lockheed had previously sold eight convoy simulators to the U.S. Army. The Marines’ version is similar but has upgraded graphics, according to Lockheed Martin spokesman Warren Wright. Another difference is that the Army asked for their simulators to be built in trailers so they could be moved around. The Marines wanted theirs to be permanently installed inside buildings.
The Navy also is purchasing two simulators — one already in operation at Gulfport, Miss., and another to be delivered next year to Port Hueneme, Calif. They will be used for Seabee training.
In addition to the convoy trainer, the Corps also uses simulation technology for a range of skills, such as indoor marksmanship training, driver training and how to make an emergency exit out of a rolled over humvee.
The Corps years ago adopted a “deployed virtual training environment” series of laptop-based networked simulators that use videogames to train in battleground decision making. The portable gaming simulator, which will be pushed out to every infantry battalion by the end of the year, consists of 33 laptops and two head-mounted display visors. The next step is to link the videogame simulator into the convoy simulator, Garcia said.
“The goal is for everything to be compatible,” he said.
The videogame simulator addition to the network would allow Marines to virtually maneuver through buildings — a feature not currently offered with the convoy system.
“Once we achieve that, we then have the capability of putting over 120 Marines in that virtual battle space,” Bennington said.
The attention to detail inside the convoy and simulation bays keeps the experience realistic, said Ted Wilson, who oversees all training devices on Camp Pendleton. “They are the real vehicles. They’re not a mock up.”
All the components are designed for authenticity and are heavily instrumented, even down to the standing platform gun turret, in order to create as much realism as technology will allow. “That helps the computer to know what to put on the screen,” Wilson said. The components are all real-time and interactive, which means if a vehicle in one bay stops and Marines get out, then that’s what the other teams in adjacent bays see as well.
“If you look in your rearview mirror, you see the guys behind you,” in trucks in the convoy, he said.
Outside the simulator bays sits what Wilson calls the heart of the entire system — the combat operations center. In the center, the training officer in charge mans the radios, listens to the vehicle-to-vehicle radio traffic and “calls all the shots,” Wilson said.
The system is loaded with 20 scenarios that can be modified all the way up to the day of training. The ease in altering the experiences allows command to easily take situations up a notch.
“If the guys are breezing right through it, you can make changes on the fly,” Wilson said.
“You can stress these guys as much as you want to and then you can gather them altogether into one of the vehicle bays, and you can walk them through the training,” in after-action reviews, he said. “Then you can go do it again.”
Wilson said he was convinced that the system accurately replicates combat the day he was in the command operations center observing and listening to the radio traffic. “In everybody you could hear confusion and stress,” he said, adding that when the convoy commander called back to the command center, he sounded as if he was on the verge of panic. “That’s the day I was sold.”
As many as 800 Marines have gone through the convoy simulator since it opened last summer, said Sgt. Victor Salazar-Mexicano, who is the liaison between Marine training units and the civilians contracted to run the system at Camp Pendleton.
Units going through the training have spent as little as one hour — the minimum needed to go through one scenario — to as much as a week in the simulator. As part of the drills, Marines can find themselves ambushed by anything from rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs to suicide bombers, Salazar-Mexicano said. They, in turn, have access to the same assistance that is offered to them in theater, and can call for medical evacuations or close-air support.
“They’ll actually see the helicopters land and it seems more realistic,” he said.
Many of the Marines going through the simulator already have had experience in Iraq, which makes the experience all the more genuine to them, he said. “They start yelling over the radio … it feels real,” he said.
Salazar-Mexicano, who recently returned from his third combat deployment earlier this year, said his unit, mostly fresh from military occupation school, would have greatly benefited from the training. “They can mess up as much as they want in here and you can tell them what they did wrong,” he said.
Still, the simulator can only go so far in preparing troops for war, he said. “I don’t think [the simulator] will take away the fear. You’ll always have that.”
The simulators’ realism is also turning them into therapy tools to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. “Those people carrying psychology injuries from prior deployments may very well get triggered by these training scenarios,” said psychologist and PTSD expert Jonathan Shay.
Shay, who has written several books on the disorder, said that simulators are sometimes used in “exposure” therapies to help treat PTSD. Recreating the sights and sounds of a traumatic event can pull the sting out, he explained.
And just as simulators can help someone recover from trauma disorders, they can also help prevent them, he said.
“A well-established method of protecting people from psychological injury is prolonged cumulative and higher levels of realism for what they will have to face,” Shay said. Protection, however, is relative, he noted. “It’s not going to be an absolute protective factor, no more than wearing a helmet and flak jacket.”