System Keeps Tabs on Troops as They Train in Dangerous Terrain

By Stew Magnuson
In the wake of several fatalities suffered during land navigation training, the Army has created a new system to track troops as they find their way through rough and dangerous terrain.

The soldier tracking system will let Army leaders keep tabs on trainees who are walking solo through forests and deserts with only their compasses and maps to aid them. Despite the pervasiveness of GPS devices in the military, the service still wants its recruits to be able to navigate their way out of difficult situations without relying on technology, said Son Nguyen, a systems engineer at Army’s program executive office for simulation, training and instrumentation.

Soldiers are sent into wilderness areas alone, which has sometimes led to accidents.

PEO STRI began developing the system after several tragic incidents. Second Lt. Zachariah R. Miller, 22, died during a land navigation course at Ranger Training School in 2002 in Fort Benning, Ga. Miller failed to complete the course in time and a search party was sent out to find him. It took more than seven hours to locate his body, according to press reports at the time.

U.S. Army Sgt. Lawrence G. Sprader, 25, died during a desert navigation training course at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2007. Pfc. Norman Murburg III was found dead under similar circumstances while performing Special Forces assessment and selection training at the Hoffman Training Area, Hoffman, N.C., in 2008. His body was found after a 21-hour search.

Murburg, 19, had an emergency beacon-tracking device, but it had to be activated to send out a signal, said the Fayetteville Observer. His exercise took place at night.

The new system sends out a constant signal to leaders who track all participants on a laptop computer.

“Every second, we know exactly where they’re at,” Nguyen said. If a soldier slips and breaks his leg, for example, there will be a warning sent out that he or she is not moving. There will also be a button he or she can press when in trouble to transmit a may-day signal.

Col. Mike Flanagan, PEO STRI project manager of training devices, said, “You could just issue something like cell phones, but the overarching requirement here as well was they can’t be able to communicate with each other. This is an individual event. You’re on your own,” Flanagan said.

Some of the more challenging land navigation courses can last up to 10 hours and include several hours of the exercise during the night, Flanagan noted.

The software has the added benefit of tracking soldiers who may wander out of bounds of a training area. For example, they are not supposed to use roads to find their way to the end of the course. The data is also stored so officers can review where and how the trainees navigated a course. They can determine where a soldier took the wrong path and tell them how to do it correctly the next time.

“The power of training is the after action review,” Flanagan added.

Another benefit of the system is a much quicker end to an exercise. It used to take four to six hours to gather up all the soldiers who were scattered around the wilderness. Now, since leaders know where everyone is, they can round up the stragglers and the lost soldiers in about 45 minutes, he said.

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training

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