Soldiers Test Impact of Virtual Training on Live-Fire Performance

By Dan Parsons

Simulators could soon allow soldiers to train repeatedly for nearly any mission, in any environment, before ever heading to the field.

During a recent exercise called Bold Quest, held at Ft. Benning, Ga., soldiers and Marines tried their hands at the latest virtual training technology. The event was aimed at studying whether and how such training can augment live exercises at the small-unit level. Initial reaction to the use of simulators to train dismounted soldiers was positive, but the systems still cannot replace the real-world in many instances, officials said.

“We don’t believe immersive training will ever be a replacement for live training,” said Gary Daniel, project lead for the Army’s Expeditionary Warrior Experiment, of which Bold Quest was a part. “We are focused on how it can enhance a training program at the small-unit level to make their live training more effective and more efficient.”

During the exercise, several squad-sized units from the Army, Marine Corps and Canadian military performed specific missions using a suite of simulators over a three-day period. On the fourth day, the squads performed the same tactical missions — area reconnaissance, cordon and search and attack — in a live environment.  A squad also used a virtual marksmanship training system and then qualified on its weapons at a live-fire range.

The jury is still out on whether virtual rehearsal improves performance in the real world. Army Test and Evaluation Command is scheduled to publish a report on the exercise within 60 days.

Officials involved with the testing agreed, however, that virtual and immersive systems could have a significant impact on the way small units train and the breadth of scenarios they can practice.

“The ability to alter the environment the soldiers are training in,” is unique to immersive training systems, said Lt. Col. Aaron Lilley, ATEC’s lead military analyst for Bold Quest. “You could have a squad in an urban environment in the desert and with a few keystrokes, move them to the jungle, and with a few more keystrokes, move them to grassland somewhere else. Even in a very large training footprint in reality I don’t know if you could get that variety of environments at one station.”

Virtual, or immersive, training simulators are based on video-game technology that is familiar to many soldiers. Several systems were tested during the Bold Quest exercise, including the Dismounted Soldier Training System, the Small Unit Immersion Training System and virtual marksmanship systems.

Dismounted Soldier allows up to nine troops to participate in an area about the size of a basketball court. Each wears sensors and experiences the virtual world through a helmet-mounted display.

“We’re finding out that they can do lots of things to some benefit,” said Daniel. “One of the real benefits at the squad level is the squad leader can take his eight soldiers into these immersive trainers and teach things that are learned through repetition and do them with multiple repetitions in a short period of time, cheaply.”

Virtual and immersive training systems also allow administrators to alter the complexity of the scenario in which soldiers are engaged. A training official at a computer console can instantly add or subtract obstacles or enemies with a click of a mouse, said Daniel.

The systems allow soldiers to rehearse standard operating procedures for scenarios that would be unsafe, prohibitively expensive or impossible to replicate in reality, said Jim Morris, director of training development at Ft. Benning.

“How many opportunities does a leader have to employ a UAV? Not many,” Morris said. “In an immersive environment, every soldier can do it, and it doesn’t cost much money. There are a lot of things we can do in immersion that you really can’t do any other place.”

Morris offered helicopter pilot training as an example of how only immersion can replicate certain scenarios. While many helicopter pilots will have to deal with a lost tail rotor in combat, none of them is likely to have trained for that contingency during live exercises.

“But they’ve all practiced it in immersive trainers,” he said. 

The virtual marksmanship training system tested at Bold Quest could, in theory, be better at teaching accurate shooting than time on a live range, officials said. Shooting coaches can not only observe their students’ behavior and shot placement, but can actually see the same sight-picture as the shooter. It allows coaches a much more intensive set of criteria and observable variables by which to critique their students, said Daniel. Still, these simulators are unlikely to completely replace live-fire marksmanship training. Morris said transitioning marksmanship to the virtual world was less risky because ranges are not meant to simulate combat.

“Do 40 live rounds on a pop-up target replicate your marksmanship ability in the real world?” he said. “Most targets don’t pop up. They’re not stationary and on ranges. They’re running around the battlefield.”

Without having run the numbers on data gathered at Bold Quest, officials already identified one area where virtual marksmanship trainers can make a difference: training noncommissioned officers to teach marksmanship.

“One of the unintended consequences … is we’re recognizing a void in preparedness of NCOs to teach rifle marksmanship. They could be advantageous in teaching NCOs how to teach soldiers.”

While nearly every one of the Bold Quest officials was positive in their assessment of the technologies tested, not everything came up roses. Soldiers are familiar with video game technology, but the immersive environments don’t yet capture their imaginations completely.

“Technology is really improving year over year, but we’re not really at the point yet where a soldier can completely suspend disbelief and accept that they are inside an immersive world,” said Lilley. “Some things are pretty hard to replicate.”

Motion is one difficult element to simulate. Dismounted Soldier restricts users to a 10-foot-square pad in which to move while operating in an endless virtual environment. Their instinct to physically move often interferes with virtual training scenarios, Lilley said.

Another limitation is the need to feel fellow soldiers during operations, especially in urban environments.

“When soldiers enter and clear a room, they would like to be able to feel the soldier in front and the one behind, patting them on the shoulder telling them it’s OK to go. That’s a sophisticated concept that could be years away.”

Photo Credit: Army/Ashley Cross

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

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