Army to Spend up to $100 Million on Holodeck-Like Simulator for Small-Unit Training

By Grace Jean

ORLANDO — The Army plans to award a contract in January to build the Defense Department’s first virtual training system that will be specifically designed for dismounted soldiers.
“We refer to it as a first offering of a Star Trek holodeck,” said Col. Francisco Espaillat, project manager for combined arms tactical trainers at the Army’s program executive office for simulation, training and instrumentation. He spoke with National Defense Dec. 1 at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education conference. 
In the popular sci-fi TV show series, actors would enter a designated room on the starship and become fully immersed in a computer-simulation that could replicate any environment. Army officials hope to bring that concept to its soldiers as early as summer 2011.
“We want to replicate reality to the extent that we really trick our soldiers into believing they were really there and make them think they’re in the fight and make them react the way they’ve been trained,” saidEspaillat.
Companies that are vying for the contract have offered a gamut of technologies — ranging from helmet-mounted displays and joystick controllers mounted on weapons to projection screens that would surround a nine-person squad.
“We really have the best of breed,” said Espaillat. “At the end of the day, we’ll pick the best value for the Army, based upon how many capabilities we’re able to meet, based on the requirements. And then it’s about maturing that capability to the next level.”
The initial 'holodeck' may cost anywhere from $50 million to $100 million. Troops will have the option of following a scripted scenario or free play inside a virtual environment in which they can move around and be exposed to all the sights, sounds and stresses of the battlefield.
The system will be transportable so that platoons and companies can borrow it and set it up inside a gym or out in the field.
“It has to be user friendly and something you can check out, use and check back in,” said Espaillat.
Not every Army installation or schoolhouse will have access to the new technology, Espaillat said. He cautioned that the system would not supplant the conventional training simulators that are currently in use.
“We’re still going to have the traditional simulation centers because they have a mission to play. We’re talking about taking it to the next level, where soldiers can check out this equipment,” which will come with software to allow troops to develop their own scenarios.
“This is an attempt to get away from tying our soldiers to a simulator and getting them into this synthetic immersive environment to train those tactics, techniques and procedures. We see that as being a pretty big deal as we start to mature it,” said Espaillat.
The stakes are high for this first contract.
“Our sister services are kind of looking over our shoulder to see exactly where we’re going with this,” said Espaillat. The Marine Corps, especially, is keeping a close watch. The other services will want to piggyback on the developments, he said.
“We know the technology that’s out there isn’t going to get to all our requirements, but we see this as the first step in the evolution of an immersive training environment for the soldier,” Espaillat said.
The initial holodeck will not have every desired feature, he said. It will be a "40 to 50 percent solution." But “it’s the stepping off point to that capability we believe is critical to training our soldiers in a dismounted situation,” he said.
Critics have slammed the Army in recent years for not having advanced simulation devices for small-unit training. Former commandant of the Army War College, retiredMaj. Gen. Robert Scales, pointed out that the Pentagon spends billions of dollars on instrumented training ranges and digital simulators, "but small-unit leaders still have to gain proficiency the old fashioned way: in combat, by shedding the blood of their soldiers.”

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training

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