Virtual simulations help hone survival skills

Military leaders, industry officials and academics are working together to develop simulated environments that can help soldiers reduce the threat posed by improvised explosive devices.

The latest in battlefield training is more Hollywood, less Fort Leonard Wood. It takes place in giant trailers that house movie sets rather than the rugged austerity of traditional training grounds.

Much of today’s training is built on simulation, and it has changed how the military prepares service members just like advanced technology has changed how those service members operate. This is the GameBoy generation, for which “Cntl-Alt-Del is as basic as the ABCs,” as one recent Army study states.

Interaction has changed in the new training model, too. Through virtual reality and simulation, young trainees are learning to collaborate under the pressures of combat, make decisions on the fly, and deal with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

One aspect of training is receiving particular focus: counter-improvised explosive device tactics. IEDs are a leading cause of combat casualties, so military and industry leaders are working in double time to give service members the tools they need to survive such attacks.

“Unconventional warfare is not new,” said Todd Richmond, project director at the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California. “What changes are the details — the tactics, techniques and procedures.”

ICT is making strides in counter-IED training, partnering with the military and industry contractors to simulate combat environments. In ICT’s Mobile Interactive Counter-IED Trainer, movie set-inspired stages are housed in trailers that teams of trainees navigate. The trailers can be quickly deployed and set up almost anywhere.

Inside, trainees seek the enemy and virtually come face-to-face with insurgents. The experience is enhanced by the trappings of the entertainment industry: Sound, characters, vignettes and storylines bring the simulation to life. Scenarios can be edited to allow for different outcomes, depending on trainees' decisions. Trainees also engage in red-force and blue-force war games in which one team plays the enemy and the other plays a U.S. military team, testing their agility, coordination and responses.

Another ICT project deals with cognitive training and performance. In those virtual training environments, accessed through a gaming system such as Microsoft Xbox, warfighters take on the role of squad leaders to maximize lessons in decision-making. As they interpret the landscape of a virtual Iraqi city or search the lairs of bomb makers, trainees are closely monitored through neuro-psychological assessments, project designers say. The cognitive assessments allow for retraining in decision-making and communication.

“In these [training scenarios], we’re teaching themes and concepts, not just facts," Richmond said. "It’s about getting left of boom, but it’s also about being able to react right of boom.” 

Left of the boom refers to the seconds before the detonation of a bomb, while right of the boom refers to the seconds just after its explosion.

Technology — particularly simulation — is a critical factor in training, said Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.

“A key focus is improving battle staff training to improve [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] asset optimization and organizational structure for the [counter-IED] fight,” he testified March 17 before the House Armed Services Committee. “It is vital that we replicate the conditions soldiers and Marines will face in exercises before they are committed to combat.”

However, all the technology that Hollywood and the defense industrial base can pump out isn’t what will save lives. “This training is to supplement, not replace, with technology — when and where it’s appropriate,” Richmond said.

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