Simulation Makes The Virtual a Reality

March 2007
By Maryann Lawlor
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The design of the “USS Trayer” bridge as well as the other spaces within the 210-foot-long replica of a guided-missile destroyer are so accurate that when combined with multisensory special effects, recruits will believe they are at sea. The Trayer is the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy’s newest simulation project called Battle Stations 21.
Immersive environments take sailors to imagination’s edge.

A ship sailing inside a building, a periscope view on a PC and F-18 pilots located thousands of miles apart yet flying in formation are just some of the new teaching tools simulators now are enabling for the U.S. Navy. Computing advances and that touch of illusion that only the entertainment industry can create immerse both new and experienced sailors in virtual environments that suspend reality and convince them that what they see, smell, hear and feel truly surrounds them. The opportunities these capabilities offer are melding the Navy’s training and operational environments and shrinking the time from learning to doing.

What better place to conceive of three-dimensional learning experiences than the home of Walt Disney World, and coincidentally that is just what the Navy did in the 1960s, right around the time Mr. Disney’s secret team was scouting out locations for his newest theme park. Although the roots of the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) reach back to 1941 and Long Island, New York, today the Navy’s own “imagineers” work in Orlando, Florida. From the home of the Magic Kingdom come the ideas, research and genius that enable sailors to train above, beneath and on the virtual high seas without leaving land. However, while Disney’s imagineers seek ways to make visitors believe in make-believe, NAWCTSD’s goal is to prepare sailors to operate in the real world.

According to Capt. Steve Burris, USN, commanding officer, NAWCTSD, today’s meticulously designed simulations train sailors in ways that were unfathomable in the past. The technology allows the Navy to instruct on three levels: the individual, the unit and the force. “At every one of those levels now there are great opportunities in which we can replicate our combatant capabilities in terms of our warfighting systems. And we can also replicate the dynamics that come about when those systems are brought together in multiple groups,” Capt. Burris says.

One example of NAWCTSD’s commitment to taking advantage of these opportunities is the F-18 Distributed Mission Trainer. The project is under way at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, and at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California. This technology enables the Navy to compose a division of four aircraft operated by four operators who can collaborate and share information while flying in the same virtual environment even though they are thousands of miles apart physically. Pilots can practice responses to real-life situations as well as confront some threats they could not take on in the real world such as a surface-to-air missile attack.

Capt. Burris discloses that the NAWCTSD team has begun creating this same capability for the H-60 helicopter community and in the future will expand this effort to the E-2C airborne early warning community. “Ultimately, the aim is to take all of our airborne platforms, link them digitally and be able to bring together the next level up from a unit,” he says.

In this next-generation simulation environment, a real team of operators would be in the loop handling command and control functions. H-60s would be carrying out long-range surveillance for the battle group or supporting a special operations force. Fighter jets would be flying overhead, providing protection. “We would be able to throw countless scenarios at the decision-making team on the admiral’s staff and say, ‘You’ve got this going on, how are you going to respond to it? How are you going to react?’ It really starts to multiply our ability to challenge people in their thought processes and their decision-making actions,” Capt. Burris explains.

The captain believes that advances in digital technologies and networking across the domain are blurring the lines between the Navy’s operational and training environments. The ability to create multidimensional simulations allows the service to take advantage of crew downtime on ships or submarines while deployed or in port to rehearse operations on embedded training systems.

“The crew would feel no difference between the training scenario that they’re looking at and the operational scenario. But the decision makers could very quickly shift from a training environment to an operational mission environment as the situation dictates,” he explains. For example, when a deployed ship is diverted to support a humanitarian mission, the ship’s commander would design scenarios so crew members could practice the skills they will need once they arrive on site.

This capability also benefits joint force operations. “The ability to integrate simulators of ships, aircraft, submarines and training schoolhouses ashore inside the continental U.S. in a networked environment with our Army, Marine Corps and Air Force counterparts is vitally important. We need to be able to train in a joint environment; understand each other’s strengths, capabilities and limitations; and be ready to execute the mission at hand in the combined arms theater around the globe. That’s a very, very important future to the modeling and simulation world—how we better make those connections in our training world to ultimately support our operational world,” Capt. Burris states.

To support a joint force training capability, the Navy builds today’s simulation systems with one eye focused on how they can be integrated with the other services’ systems. Flight simulators are being designed to fit into the Navy Continuous Training Environment, which can be integrated into the Joint National Training Capability (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2003).

This multiservice collaboration already has taken place through homeland defense exercises with the U.S. Northern Command. And naval forces have operated not only with the other services but also with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration in virtual environments in real time.

Last year, the F-18 flight simulators took part in a U.S. Air Force Red Flag exercise. The exercises occur immediately before Air Force units deploy overseas. In the past, they were conducted with only live forces, but now the Air Force has instituted exercises called Virtual Flag in which both real and virtual aircraft participate. “The operators involved both in the air and in the simulator couldn’t tell if they were flying against somebody in a simulator or in a real airplane unless they actually looked out their windows,” the captain says. “It’s an amazing world. It’s part of the training transformation that has just occurred within the past two years across the U.S. Defense Department.”

Navy recruits are immersed in the Battle Stations 21 simulation from the very beginning as they wait on the “dock” to board the Trayer.
While these simulation marvels are a vast improvement over the instructional methods available a mere 10 years ago, the real revolution in simulation training just emerged over the horizon. Called Battle Stations 21, the project combines the physical with the virtual so that naval recruits training 1,400 miles away from the nearest ocean can experience life at sea on a ship in crisis.

The Battle Stations 21 home is an $82.5 million 157,000-square-foot facility located at the Navy’s Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois. The facility houses a 210-foot replica of a guided-missile destroyer named the “USS Trayer” that floats in 90,000 gallons of water and is tethered to a lifelike pier where the aroma of the sea and diesel fuel fills the air.

Battle Stations 21 incorporates the latest in virtual reality and entertainment special effects. When recruits step inside the totally immersive training environment, they will man their battle stations as though they were on an actual ship. As the training program reaches full swing, scheduled for this summer, the newest sailors will proceed through 17 shipboard scenarios that are based on lessons learned from actual naval incidents such as the 1987 missile attack on the USS Stark and the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

Maynard Zettler, senior engineer, NAWCTSD, explains that the project is the result of collaborative work between design engineers with ties to Disney on the creative side and the Naval Facilities Engineering Command as well as Chicago’s McHugh Construction Company on the structural side. “The building is a simulator in itself, and the recruits will work through a 24-hour scenario. But we’re using more than just computer simulations now. We’re using sound, heat, fire, smoke and so on to help suspend the belief that they’re in a simulation and make them believe they’re in a real environment,” he says.

Zettler is not exaggerating in his description of the Trayer experience. According to the Naval Service Training Command, six special-effects companies partnered to create the trainer. With the “set” design, lighting, props as well as other effects such as piped-in smells, recruits will experience with horrifying realism mass casualties and a burning ship. Built-in MP3 players triggered to play by infrared sensors will make “injured” dummies scream, moan and emit faint breathing sounds. Thousands of gallons of water will flood the ship’s compartments, and flames will jet from firefighting areas. To convey the true sense of a ship in distress, the floors will shake and the walls will vibrate.

This type of realism is exactly what the Navy needs to train the video-game-generation pool of recruits, Zettler notes. “One of the problems in Battle Stations 21 has been the level of recruits’ competence with computers and even simulations that our high school graduates are coming into the service with. It is so much above what it was just five years ago that we need things as realistic as possible in order for them to engage properly in the training scenario. We need to make them believe it’s real,” he explains.

NAWCTSD faced another challenge in its work on the project—a problem that is unique to the military. “We must consider geospatial relevance and make sure we’re accurately depicting a part of the world; they don’t need to do that in the entertainment industry. In our world, we also need to ensure that every player in that scenario sees the appropriate view from his field of view. So if a helicopter is flying behind a hill, the player should be able to see it or not see it depending upon his perspective. That’s huge for us, and it’s got to be relevant to a specific part of the world,” Zettler relates.

While Battle Stations 21 is impressing the recruits on top of the water, sailors new to the submarine world also are taking advantage of simulation to train. And according to Cmdr. David A. Williams, USN, military deputy director, undersea programs, NAWCTSD, the growth of simulation use during the past several years has exploded. “We’ve always used simulators to train new crew members on special procedures that are hard to do at sea or to keep skills up to date during a long maintenance period. But with the advent of low-cost computer-based systems, what we’re able to train on shore has really taken off,” he says.

Cmdr. Williams describes several of the simulations the Navy employs to train its submarine force. The Mission Reconfigurable Training System for the Common Submarine Radio Room comprises two racks of touchscreen flat-panel displays with the entire submarine radio room represented on them. For training, an operator touches the pictures of the radio components on one of the 16 screens to control the equipment, just like he would do at sea.

Another example of a simulation system that is showing a great return on investment to the fleet is the Virtual Environment for Submarine Ship Handling Trainer (VESUB). Although submarines rarely break the surface, submariners must know how to operate the bridge, especially when pulling in to a foreign port. VESUB features a head-mounted display that gives an officer a 360-degree view of a simulated outside world. He can practice driving the submarine in and out of ports, working with tugboats, tying the ship to piers and getting back underway, for example. This is a training capability the Navy never had in the past. The service has six submarine training facilities, and a VESUB is located at each of them.

The Navy’s Submarine Piloting and Navigation trainer (SPAN) is a simulator of a submarine attack center and control room. Whereas VESUB is a one-person trainer, SPAN allows a team of sailors to practice piloting a submarine. Together, the navigation specialist, quartermasters, officer of the deck, contact coordinator, fire control party and radar operator rehearse driving the submarine in and out of port.

“In a trainer like that, we can pose challenges to the watch team that we don’t want to encounter in real life. We can have them pull into a foreign port for the first time in heavy fog. We can have them maneuvering to leave port and have an adversary vessel opposing them while trying to collect intelligence on a sub and see how the crew would maneuver around that. We can swarm them with a fishing fleet. These are things that we encounter in real life, but we don’t necessarily want to practice out in the real world, so it gives us a great shore-based training for those circumstances,” Cmdr. Williams says.

The submarine force has a number of other simulators in which sailors learn and rehearse other types of skills. The Ship Control Trainer, more commonly known as the Dive Trainer, has a three-axis range of motion and enables a watch team to practice driving a submerged submarine as well as going to and leaving periscope depth. “This is a skill that we need to be very, very good at so we can get up to periscope depth and remain undetected and we don’t surface the ship accidentally,” the commander says.

One of the newest trainers for submariners is the Weapons Launch Console Team Trainer. It is designed to allow the torpedo men who operate the ship’s weapons battery to practice launching weapons and working with weapon system casualties.

In addition to the individual and team training devices, the service now has the Submarine Skills Network so submariners can learn together using individual laptops. For instance, while sitting around a conference table, each member of the navigation team sees the appropriate screen for his job on his laptop. The actions of one team member cause the appropriate effect on the others’ computers so that the team can cooperate.

Although the Navy has a fleet of simulators to train its force, it is not finished designing capabilities that will help both today’s and tomorrow’s sailors train for future platforms. Currently, the service is working on integrating the training for unmanned aerial systems and unmanned aerial vehicles. Once in place, this effort will lead to simulations that prepare the force for a battlespace filled with manned and unmanned platforms above, below and on the surface of the world’s real oceans.


Web Resources
Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division:
Recruit Training Command:
Battle Stations 21:

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