Battle-Scarred Troops Have Message for Army Training: Get Real

By Eric Beidel
Troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to an Army in transition from fighting to training.

But a decade at war has presented officials with a dilemma: The training environment now must be made even more authentic to hold the attention of soldiers who already have experienced the real deal.

The Army is dealing with troops who have deployed multiple times and know what it is like to be in firefights and vehicles rocked by roadside bombs. And officials worry that unconvincing battle scenarios could alienate these men and women.

“If it’s not realistic, challenging and exciting, we’ll lose the interest of these great soldiers,” says Col. Mike Flanagan, project manager of training devices at the Army’s program executive office for simulation, training and instrumentation (PEO STRI).

The Army’s solution is to integrate its live, virtual and constructive training environments. In other words, the service is looking for the sweet spot where field exercises can be combined with simulations and computer instruction to create something like a real battle.

“We are incapable of replicating the complexity of the battlefield,” Flanagan says.

Airspace restrictions in the United States prevent the military from recreating drones flying overhead. Intelligence feeds coming from a multitude of platforms are too complex for a single staged environment. Therefore, the Army is focusing on an integrated architecture that blends the three training types, Flanagan says. For example, soldiers in a live training environment could be receiving virtual feeds from unmanned aircraft systems that aren’t really there.

A new mortar training system shows how the virtual and live worlds can come together. Until now, troops were unable to practice every part of indirect fire engagements from start to finish. Some literally were left standing around with nothing to do during an exercise.

“These are combat veterans who have fired thousands of rounds,” says Col. Pat Connors, Army Training and Doctrine Command capability manger for live events. “When they come back and we put them in a training situation, it’s incumbent on us now to challenge those soldiers.”

The new mortar system allows a forward observer to call in a fire mission using an iPad-like tablet. Once a round is fired, he can view a virtual map of actual terrain and call in adjustments to the mortar crew, just like he would during a real mission. Now everyone has a role to play during mortar training, and mistakes result in believable consequences.

“There are so many things that can go wrong now,” and that is a good thing, Connors says. “If the forward observer calls in the grid incorrectly, if the fire detection center miscalculates or enters meteorological data into the computer incorrectly, if the gunner has an error or the weapon system is emplaced incorrectly,” the mission fails.

Army officials envision a brigade commander being able to train multiple battalions at once, saving time and money. One battalion could be undertaking a traditional physical maneuver while another participates in a constructive exercise at the same time. A third could be training companies virtually with tank and aviation simulators.

“Three separate events. We don’t have time for that,” Connors says. “We need to get live, virtual, constructive and even gaming players all linked together so we can have multi-echelon training all at the same time. We need to ensure we get the most bang for our buck from a time perspective.”

With the new integrated architecture, an entire brigade can be trained at the same time while only one battalion is actually using the “maneuver box” reserved for live exercises.

“The training staff won’t know whether it’s live, virtual or constructive,” Connors says. “To them, it should feel like it’s all live.”

With the current budget crunch, a lot of emphasis is being placed on the simulated environment.

“Clearly the coming months and years will hold challenges with reduced resources,” says Scott Pulford, strategic integrator at PEO STRI. “It is critical that we maximize the training benefit of the limited resources we will have allocated to each program.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that leaders don’t know what kind of fight will come next. The Army has been involved in counterinsurgency operations for the past 10 years, but the service has to be ready for any type of war. The training environment has to remain robust and all-encompassing even as budgets shrink, Pulford says.

“We recognize that simulation and simulators can and must be a part of these training strategies, however, we also recognize that simulation can never replace live-fire training and qualification events,” he says. “Simulation can be used to improve an individual, crew or unit’s level of proficiency and confidence, and can be used to validate that proficiency between live-fire events.”

The Army is looking into expanding the use of simulations to train gunners on platforms such as the mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle and the Humvee. Officials anticipate ammunition reductions, limiting the chances soldiers have to fire real rounds. So the service is creating a virtual strategy to improve individual marksmanship. Simulations such as these will add to the success of the Army’s plan to bring together the virtual and live worlds, officials say.

“This capability will allow commanders and units to expand their battle space and increase the complexity of home station training through the use of simulation without increasing their funding requirements,” Pulford says.

The Army must move from a “described” training environment to a “prescribed” one, explains Dan Wakeman, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command deputy capability manager for the virtual training environment. This means strict oversight of who uses which simulators and when. Units may be required to perform at certain proficiency level on a simulator before they can move on to the live environment. The Army’s virtual environments also need to keep better pace with equipment being fielded into battle.

“One thing we knew but didn’t really bite us until after we went to war was that our simulations have to maintain concurrency with the actual platform,” Wakeman says, particularly with the amount of changes the Army has made to its ground vehicles.

It is like a personal car, he explains. Over the years, an owner makes little changes to it without much thought. But those tweaks add up over the course of a decade, creating a significantly different vehicle. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan forced the Army to make drastic alterations to its ground platforms. Each modification made the corresponding simulator a little less accurate until the point that soldiers would say, “Wow. This isn’t anything like what we deploy with,” Wakeman says.

The up-armored Humvee is a good example. Soldiers first deployed with a thin-skinned version of the off-road vehicle, but they were beefed up over time to protect against improvised explosive devices. Simulators for the vehicle, though, didn’t stay current.

The Army also must ensure that simulators are available before equipment is delivered. The MRAP taught the service this lesson. The 14-ton vehicles were rushed to the battlefield, again in an effort to defend against IEDs. Unfortunately, that is also where many units had their first experiences using them, Wakeman says.

Integrating live, virtual and constructive elements will not revolutionize training and it will not come easy, officials say. The Army must link together the training devices it already has, many of which have been acquired from varying sources at different stages throughout the past 20 years or so. Steps are being taken to improve these existing assets.

Since 2001, the service has digitized training ranges for tanks, fighting vehicles and aviation platforms. Before the current wars, a tank driver would come back after a run and leaders would play back his performance on a tape recorder. Now, officials can review video of the entire range as well as from inside the crew compartment. It is a far cry from Flanagan’s days of doing after-action reviews on pieces of cardboard.

“Because of this technology, you can literally show them,” he says. “‘You were here. You shot him. He’s one of your guys.’”

It makes a big impression on young soldiers to be able to see their mistakes in raw footage, Connors adds.

“It really stimulates the senses of soldiers,” he says. “We can replay that and demonstrate on the screen at the after-action review and be brutal with each other and go back out there and do it again.”

The Army also has a “Training Brain” concept, which aims to develop a database of realistic scenarios straight from combat that leaders can put their troops through. The service wants to be able to translate current battle reports and conditions into training exercises. A unit about to go into combat at a specific location in Afghanistan would have information from operations there two weeks or even one day ago.

“If I’m a brigade commander training my brigade, I don’t have to make up a scenario,” Flanagan says. “I can just pull it down.”

The integrated architecture concept, the real-time battle information, authentic simulations — all of these efforts seek to give leaders the tools they will need heading into an intense stretch of home-station training complicated by budget cuts.

“All of these things are enablers,” Flanagan says. “We have to show the ability to take the overhead off the commander.”

The Army also must train its soldiers like they have been there before. Otherwise, they will leave, he says.

“They’ll say, ‘I was making a difference. I was in combat. Now I’m back here training, and this is just boring.’”                        

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training, Videogames

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