ORLANDO — The objective is to teach a young soldier or Marine how to enter and clear a building.
The standard simulations that are used for military training will show various characters that pop up in rooms or hallways. Troops learn to differentiate an armed insurgent toting an AK-47 from a boy carrying a stuffed animal.
But the demanding circumstances of current wars require more sophisticated training tools, officials said. Trainees must make tough life-or-death decisions, such as what to do when they burst through a door and find a family inside. Are these innocent civilians or insurgents? Should they pull the trigger?
What is said to the family and to whom they address questions can have repercussions.
Eight years after U.S. forces went into Afghanistan, and almost six years into the Iraq war, computer simulations that are designed to teach troops how to interact with foreign cultures are still in the first generation of development. “There is a major leap forward that we have yet to make,” said Frank Boosman, program management director for 3D Learning Solutions, a division of Lockheed Martin Simulation and Training Support.
In an urban setting where insurgents and U.S. forces might be in a battle for a population’s “hearts and minds,” how the lowest ranking soldiers and Marines conduct themselves could have far reaching implications.
Troops often must make ethical decisions in “nano-seconds,” said Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, commander of the Joint Warfighting Center at Joint Forces Command.
“[Training] must replicate for these service members the kinds of tactical yet ethical based decisions upon which” their actions will be judged, he said at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education conference.
Jeff Bearor, executive deputy of the Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command at Quantico, Va., said that U.S. forces, especially in Afghanistan, are operating in a more dispersed battlefield. Units there are sometimes 30 to 40 kilometers away from their support base.
Training them to operate in these environments is a “critical shortfall that all the services are going to have to be able to crack,” he said.
Troops “are being asked to do more and more and we’ve got to provide them with capability,” he added.
“The fact that they do so well, is a testament to the sort of kids that are coming into the services right now. [But] to say that we fully prepared them and trained them and prepared them to accept that responsibility … is probably an incorrect statement,” Bearor said.
Training troops to act properly in such environments is a tall order, other experts said at the conference.
Teaching a soldier to drive a humvee by using a computer simulation; that’s easy.
Teaching him to engage with a street vendor without aggravating him — a so-called “soft skill” — that’s much harder.
How a tank interacts with another tank on the battlefield “is well understood,” said Gen. William Wallace, commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, in one of his last speeches before retirement.
“How a tank interacts with people as it drives down a street is not as well understood,” he said.
“Cultural training is a hard problem,” Boosman said on the sidelines of the conference.
First, these are unfamiliar cultures to many U.S. citizens who design such games. Second, there is a language barrier. Learning a foreign language is hard enough, but there are nuances that must be understood as well.
“We have to tie the language and culture [training] together. They are inextricably linked,” Boosman said.
Many languages, for example, have words that change depending on the status of the speaker. Japanese is famous for this rigid structure. French, with its informal “tu” and formal “vous” for the English word “you” is another example.
“Can you help me teach a soldier how to disassemble an engine? No problem, give me the specs, give me the access to it. Done,” Boosman said.
That’s a hard skill.
“Can you help me teach a soldier how to walk into a room of Iraqis and interact with them in a culturally sensitive way? It’s a tougher problem.”
These cultural trainers are in their early stages. Boosman sees improvements coming — perhaps in the next five to 10 years, he said.
“If you look at the history of simulation, we get much better,” he added.
Kamiya said most of these programs that teach culture and language are based on current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it’s a big world, he said.
“We are anticipating [U.S. Africa Command] will need to understand African languages and cultures,” he told the conference.
One way to accelerate the cultural training is through web-based systems, said Chip Brown, program manager of federal systems at Forterra Systems Inc.
The On-line Interactive Virtual Environment, or OLIVE, is based on games such as World of Warcraft or Second Life, where users take on avatars and play a role in real time through the Internet.
“The unique thing with virtual world technology is that it’s not an artificial intelligence function. It’s real people,” Brown said.
With the OLIVE system, a trainee will sit in front of a screen and interact with an avatar that is being controlled by a member of the culture he or she is learning about. Currently the system is set up for Iraq, although other cultures such those found in Afghanistan can be plugged in, Brown noted.
The program lets this avatar use culturally correct gestures and facial features.
“When they’re visually angry and upset we can show those things,” he said. The simulation can be carried out alongside PowerPoint slides so the trainee can learn a lesson then apply it. Since voice-over Internet protocol is used, the trainer can tell the U.S. service member what he or she did wrong.
That lesson might be: “Never show the heels of your feet from someone from that background because it’s an insult.” Or when dealing with a situation where information from a citizen is needed, don’t approach a woman first when there is a man present. That will rub him the wrong way.
These exercises are designed for squads, platoons and companies, Brown said. Above the company level, the jobs are more administrative and there isn’t as much face-to-face contact with the populace.
The training should be “for the squad level because those guys are going to have more interaction with locals,” he added.
One of the strongest features for OLIVE and other web-based systems is the ability to do the training remotely, Brown said.
An Iraqi-American can conduct the lesson from the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., and the soldier can be at his home base on the East Coast. Or the Iraqi could even be based in Baghdad.
“You can have somebody in Iraq who’s helping the American forces understand their culture better using a virtual world instead of bringing them to training areas.” And that saves money, Brown noted.
OLIVE has been tested through the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, but has not been used widely, Brown added.
Another company working on similar lines is Intelligent Automation Inc. of Rockville, Md.
Its Cultural Learning Environment for Alertness and Radar program takes place at a virtual vehicle checkpoint.
The “radar” referred to in the program’s title is not a sensor but a “cultural radar.”
The program centers on a vehicle checkpoint where trainees encounter members of the local population.
“We show what happens behind the soldier’s back,” said Bob Pokorny, senior cognitive engineer at the company.
“They learn how well they treat people at the checkpoint gets propagated through interactions unbeknownst to them.”
If the soldier or Marine says something bad or disrespectful to a driver or passengers in a car — an Iraqi family perhaps — there may not be any noticeable consequences, Pokorny explained.
But as the program runs in artificial time, the trainees will later observe the wife tell her friends at a sewing shop about what happened.
The wife will also talk to her sons, and then they become angry at U.S. forces. Now, the soldiers, or perhaps those who follow them in a later deployment, will have young men who are avowed enemies.
The program is not targeted at teaching the hard skills of manning a vehicle checkpoint, but intended to teach young troops that a misconstrued phrase, or words spoken in anger, can have second, third order, or long-term cumulative effects, he said.