NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — It’s the military’s version of “Candid Camera,” but insurgents caught on tape will not be smiling for long.
Almost daily, the U.S. military captures surveillance video of roadside bomb incidents and replicates the events in simulations that are distributed worldwide within days to help train troops who are preparing to deploy.
Video footage of insurgents burying improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, is among the data collected by analysts who are assisting simulation experts here at the joint training counter-IED operations integration center.
The center was established two years ago by the Joint IED Defeat Organization and the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
“We’re replicating today’s battlefield events for tomorrow’s training,” says Jeff Bittel, deputy for the modeling and simulation directorate at the center.
The demand for the video gaming technology that is used to reenact IED events is growing, says Steve Hopkins, vice president of professional services at CAE USA, a supplier of simulation technology.
Traditionally the Army would create a video game based on anticipated combat scenarios and would distribute it for training purposes. Now, commanders want to quickly build simulations based on the latest enemy tactics. That is achievable today with laptop computers, new software technology and digital imagery of the war zone, Hopkins says in a telephone interview. CAE built a large digital database of almost every part of Afghanistan and has seen a growing demand for the imagery by the Army for use in simulations.
Inside the darkened operations center here, analysts sit at computers sifting through data. Some confer with colleagues across the room. The facility can connect to deployed teams via video teleconference.
“This morning, we were in with Afghanistan and Iraq,” says Chris von Jacobi, the center’s chief of staff. “We’re picking up on the significant events from the previous 24 hours.”
From that, analysts choose which incidents are “truly significant either in terms of enemy success, or friendly failure.” Simulation engineers are given four days to replicate an event and send copies out to units preparing to deploy, he tells reporters during a tour of the facility.
The center is now producing short 3-D simulations called machinimas — real-time computer animations generated by video game graphics engines.
Bittel plays one that depicts a new IED called the RKG-3, which is based on a Soviet-era weapon. Originally designed to be thrown on top of a vehicle, the device has a parachute that pops out the back end. In the simulation, three men loiter along a street as a convoy of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles drives by. As the final vehicle passes, the insurgents lob the IEDs and the explosion stops the truck.
“When we do one of these, we go out on insurgent websites and we study their tactics before we produce this thing so we [depict] it accurately,” says Bittel.
The machinima is better than simply using video to teach the lesson, says Bob Reuss, deputy chief of staff at TRADOC.
“You can stop and change things around,” he explains. “Video is useful, but machinima is flexible.” If the insurgents’ tactics change because of a countermeasure, the team can simply go back and adjust the scenario to reflect the change.
Bittel’s team has produced about 30 machinimas so far and can produce one a week. Simpler products can take only three days, he says.
Besides distributing the simulations via networks, the center sends trainers to work at units’ home stations. The trainers introduce troops to the center’s capabilities and the tools that they can use to request support for counter-IED operations.
One of those tools is called E-Lizard, which reaches out to the databases that contain imagery and footage from surveillance drones and consolidates the information into one site.
“We’re kind of making the Walmart for intelligence analysts,” says Andy Corbett, a tools trainer and soldier who was wounded in 2007 while fighting in Iraq. The tool is not only great for analysts, but it also is great for troops involved in planning operations, he adds.
Another system, the 3-D Dashboard — the only unclassified tool in the mix — takes a “flight-simulator” look at the battlefield. Commanders can display an area of operation — the city of Mosul, Iraq, for example — and “fly” through it. They can create graphics, plot locations of known roadside bombs and insert a platoon. Troops can practice driving through the city and familiarize themselves with routes.
Josh Jackson, one of the center’s trainers, served 15 months in Mosul and suffered a traumatic brain injury after being hit by an IED. He says that during his tour, these technologies were not available. Now, commanders have access to far more intelligence than they did in the past. “It puts it all into perspective, and it’s all web-based,” he says.
Simulations can be used to prepare convoys for dangerous drives on supply routes that are frequently targeted by insurgents.
“If we know what IED they’re using and what some of the components look like, instead of looking for the whole gamut of IED accessories, we’re just looking for blue Igloo coolers on the side of the road that are common to that area,” explains Corbett.
“I for one am very excited” about this technology, says Ensign Casey Rogers with the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 12, which is deploying to Iraq. “I’ll probably use it every day,” he adds.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have tested the Army’s ability to make the training realistic and applicable to what troops might encounter in the field. While the behavior patterns of average Iraqis or Afghanis may remain unchanged, what changes, often dramatically, is “what the bad guys do and how they do it,” says William David, vice president of Cubic Corp., a San Diego-based company that was contracted by the Army to help train war-bound units.
Early in the Iraq war, many of the attacks were by remotely detonated IEDs. To counter that, the Army outfitted units with electronic jamming devices. Once the bad guys caught on to this, they started planting bombs that were detonated by pressure plates. U.S. forces responded by equipping vehicles with systems that can detect metallic objects, either buried underneath the pavement or stuck in culverts. “Maybe you change your procedures a little bit so that you mitigate the threat of running over an IED that’s initiated by a pressure plate,” says David.
After several years of conflict, the U.S. military has become more successful at neutralizing improvised explosives, even though enemies continued to find new ways to counter the Pentagon’s counter-IED technology. This fall, soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division were the targets of a particularly violent IED attack in Afghanistan. What made this bomb unusual was that the explosive was made of several hundred pounds of fertilizer packaged in plastic tubs, and the frame was made of wood. The bomb blew up a heavily armored mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, according to an account by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who visited 2-ID soldiers in Afghanistan. “To pull the frame together, they used elastics. … They didn’t want any metal because we can pick up metal with some of our devices,” Reed said. “It was very clever.” The bomb was powerful enough that it could have turned over a tank, Reed said.
But even as U.S. forces find ways to defeat IEDs, insurgents have started searching for other weapons, such as the RKG-3. Insurgents have fabricated devices that “look like a German potato masher, except that when you throw it, the stick remains in the thrower’s hands and an explosive device separates from the stick,” says David.
“The bad guys will use these in urban areas from second- and third-story windows,” he says. “And they attempt to strike the vehicle from the top, where it’s generally more vulnerable than the bottom, where it’s better armored.”
Those deadly devices now are being replicated in training exercises so troops can prepare to cope with attacks, he says. Pyrotechnic devices are used to simulate IEDs because they provide similar audio and visual signature as the real thing. Additional Reporting By Sandra I. Erwin and Austin Wright