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Virtual Training Forges Combat Skills

July 2001
By Henry S. Kenyon

Synthetic environments provide cost-effective readiness tools, realistic battlefield situations.

The U.S. Army is developing cutting-edge simulation technologies that will allow soldiers to train in a variety of simulated environments. In partnership with the entertainment industry, the service is designing highly realistic and interactive instructional systems that blur the line between contemporary computer-based instruction and science fiction.

Although computers have been used in flight simulators for decades, virtual environments for ground operations are a relatively new phenomenon. Recent technological developments may soon allow diverse units to actively train in a variety of scenarios and situations that cannot currently be replicated by live exercises. By conducting basic training for small- and medium-sized units in a virtual setting, the Army saves money while maintaining readiness and sharpening commanders’ skills.

The National Simulation Center (NSC), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, hones the skills of the Army’s tank crews and aviation personnel. Formed in 1993, it was originally part of the Army’s Combined Arms Command. According to NSC Director Col. Eric R. Wildemann, USA, the center develops simulations for the Army, supports exercises and mission rehearsals worldwide, and offers commanders options when troops are separated by distance or have no suitable area nearby for live exercises.

The NSC primarily conducts two types of training simulations: virtual and constructive. In virtual simulation, the user trains in a simulator that looks like an actual piece of equipment. In constructive simulation, people and vehicles, for example, are simulated to present a view of an entire theater or operation to train decision makers.

Virtual exercises are geared to training entire units. Technical and budgetary considerations currently limit this type of training to armor and aviation units, Col. Wildemann explains.

The center’s virtual trainers operate in the same manner as aircraft flight simulators. These fully operational vehicle interiors feature screens and monitors in place of windows and view ports. The colonel notes that virtual training can provide greater realism than live training in certain instances. He explains that soldiers in tank and helicopter simulators can safely experience being shot at, bursting into virtual flames when hit, being subjected to artillery bombardment, losing visibility to smoke and dust, suffering jamming and coming under simulated chemical attack.

The primary educational tool is the close combat tactical trainer (CCTT), a networked system of manned simulators. Civilian specialists command both friendly allied and enemy units—software models programmed to fight according to non-U.S. military doctrine, the colonel explains.

The object of virtual training is not teaching individual soldiers, but honing the collective behavior of entire units. The CCTT is used to instruct armored units beginning at the platoon level. A platoon consists of four M1 Abrams tanks or M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. While individual tank training is an art in itself, Col. Wildemann notes that the goal is to develop collective unit cohesion and address issues such as fire control. For example, if an enemy tank appears, all four tanks firing on it would waste ammunition when one round from a single vehicle is the best response. “These are subtle things to teach, especially in the fog of combat when everybody does not have the same picture of the battlefield,” he says.

Movement is another issue for the CCTT. Rather than having each vehicle move individually, they are linked to the platoon commander’s tank and proceed according to his direction. The system is scalable and can be used to train platoon-, company- and battalion-sized units of up to 44 tanks. Simulations above the company level also allow the introduction of artillery, aircraft and other battlefield assets. Additional hazards such as smoke, obstacles and limited communications can be added to increase realism.

At the battalion level, the command staff can participate in the exercise from an on-site command post while the rest of the unit trains in the simulators. At this level, the battalion commander can learn how to conduct command and control in a mounted environment with an imperfect view of the battlefield. “They have what they can see out of their tank and what they can picture in their minds from reports and the instrumentation in front of them,” the colonel explains.

Even with modern command and control aids and intelligence, one of the true arts of command is visualizing one’s own position in relation to the enemy’s, Col. Wildemann says. Systems like the CCTT allow commanders to stop the simulation and review their actions. Officers can also view their attack from the enemy’s perspective.

A related system, the aviation combined arms tactical trainer (AVCATT) is used by Army helicopter pilots. It connects to the CCTT to interact directly with armor units in virtual exercises. Wildemann believes the advantage of simulations is the ability to allow many units to participate on the same cyberbattlefield. “Not all of us have the same view of the battlefield based on where we are, but it’s the same ground, the same fight. That’s the beauty of it,” he says.

Theater and operational training is conducted through constructive simulations. Unlike virtual training, which concentrates on honing tactical skills, constructive simulations teach staff and officers how to make decisions and conduct a battle based on data coming into a command center.

Because command posts are often far away from the fighting and sheltered and camouflaged in forests or buildings, the system relays commanders information that they must interpret and act upon. This type of simulation replicates a large-scale battlefield, providing data on the locations and status of friendly units and the known positions of enemy formations. For example, commanders must know their subordinates’ location, unit status and capabilities. While officers will have various devices at hand, they must still picture the whole situation. “That’s tough to do, so you must use every tool at your disposal,” the colonel says.

As more data become available, however, the commander must sift it to get a clear picture of the battlefield. While this can be difficult even with a small staff, coordinating a large headquarters with up to 200 people can be much more difficult. Col. Wildemann cites an adage that the amount of timely information available to a commander is inversely proportional to the size of the staff. While more staff implies less timely information, constructive simulations allow officers and their subordinates to hone command and control skills. “The art of command is to take all that information and still get what you need in a timely fashion to make decisions,” he adds.

While the Army uses simulations for training, it rarely employs computer models to plan actual operations. Though large activities such as unit movements and battle outcomes can be predicted to a certain degree, software is very poor when it comes to portraying human behavior, Col. Wildemann explains. “The danger of using a simulation to plan an operation is that you buy into its inherent disadvantages when you do so, and some of those are significant. So, the NSC’s models are used to train units in situations that will most probably occur in combat as opposed to specific situations taking place at a set time or location.”

Much of the NSC’s base technology, such as the CCTT, is about 15 years old. While the Army cannot keep up with the pace of commercial developments, systems are under consideration that will greatly enhance virtual training. The colonel claims that the next generation of simulations will be a quantum leap ahead of current systems in the ability to accurately model the battlefield.

A unique aspect of this research is a partnership between the Army and the entertainment industry called the Institute for Creative Technologies, Marina Del Rey, California. There is little difference among movies, games and military simulations, Col. Wildemann observes. They all tell stories, though one is for entertainment and the latter is for training purposes, he says.

One technology under development resembles a chamber with an IMAX-style film screen in it. Users are equipped with sensors enabling them to interact directly with the simulation on screen through computer representations, or avatars, of themselves. A commander or a unit would stand in front of the screen to interact with the simulation. The system is intelligent enough to tailor its reactions based on a person’s actions and decisions. If a person makes the right choice, the scenario moves in one path; if the participant makes a mistake or does something unexpected, the computer can put together a scenario to follow those actions as well, Col. Wildemann says. “My embodiment is now on the screen and I’m watching myself move. If I duck, my avatar ducks, so now I’m really a player,” he observes.

However, the colonel cautions that this holodeck technology is still experimental and its training benefits must be assessed. While this type of virtual application is very good for training individuals or small groups, it would be expensive initially, and he is not sure if it could be applied economically to large groups. The more people participate in a holodeck-style system, the more difficult it becomes to account for individual human behavior. The colonel believes that in its current state, this is good research and development technology, but it is not yet ready to meet the Army’s needs.

Demonstrating a link to readiness is another issue the NSC must address. “We have compelling links to the ability of staff to function in constructive battlefield simulations. What we don’t have yet is a compelling link to the readiness of a unit from virtual simulations,” Col. Wildemann says. He believes a quantifiable link does exist for readiness at platoon- and company-level simulations, but it cannot currently be identified.

The NSC also supports joint simulation training with other services. The colonel notes that each of the services has simulations that possess a high degree of fidelity for its specific needs, but low fidelity for interaction with other branches of the military. For example, the Army’s simulations are designed for land warfare, while U.S. Air Force virtual trainers are geared toward air combat. However, protocols do exist that allow these various types of systems to interact. These applications operate under a joint training confederation, which links the various services’ models to allow integrated training.

The major operational theater commands also maintain a large simulation training and support capability, the colonel says. While these operations are self-sufficient to a degree, they use the NSC in a support role for system expertise and troubleshooting.

Col. Wildemann believes the NSC and simulation will play a greater role in future military training. He notes that the center has been approached by Army commands seeking an increased mix of live and virtual training within the same exercise.

One of the driving factors behind this requirement is the worldwide decline of areas in which to conduct live training. Ironically, as new technologies expand individual Army units’ reach, there is less available space for exercises. The colonel notes that in the near future, an Army brigade will be able to engage enemy units within a 50-kilometer sphere. “How are we going to accommodate the space that a brigade can control?” he asks. “Now we find ourselves in a position where training objectives are being crafted by units in the field, which demands more than just a live, virtual or constructive solution.”