Marines' Virtual Training: Just Like the Real Thing

March 4, 2011
By Beverly Schaeffer

Troops are relocating in massive numbers from operations in Iraq to those in Afghanistan. Virtual reality is playing a huge role in training soldiers, sailors and Marines for newer, different challenges. Warfighters are emphatic about the fact that actors and avatars bring so much realism to the training that troops returning from operations agree that it's enough to make them believe they're back in Afghanistan. With this month's issue of SIGNAL Magazine focusing on U.S. Marine Corps technologies, Executive Editor Maryann Lawlor looks at the virtual "world of warcraft" in her article, "Warfighters Delve Into Training." Speaking with experts, Lawlor reports on the Infantry Immersion Trainer's (IIT's) ability to help troops experience virtual urban and battlefield situations. Groundwork for the IIT was laid at Camp Pendleton, California, in 2006 by the Marine Corps Training and Education Command. A most unlikely facility site was chosen--an abandoned tomato processing plant. Phase one included fabricating an Iraqi village setting in fall 2007. The IIT features a total of six two-story and 18 one-story structures comprising 42 rooms. Ten rooms are set up to support eight avatars, one call-for-fire and Smart Warrior IMAX, which is a one-story room designed to give the illusion of being in a two-story room. By November 2009, more than 12,400 troops had trained in the facility, which also was used to conduct two spirals of the U.S. Joint Forces Command's Future Immersive Training Environment. The U.S. military mission change precipitated the move to phase two for the IIT in March 2010: refurbishing the facility from an Iraqi setting to an Afghan environment. Col. David A. Smith, USMC, program manager for training systems at Marine Corps Systems Command, Orlando, Florida, says the overwhelming positive reactions from the Marines were enough to drive the decision to expand immersive training capabilities. The result was creation of the outdoor phase two at Camp Pendleton, an indoor setting at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and an outdoor facility in Hawaii. The ever-looming danger of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) led the Joint IED Defeat Organization to provide $24.1 million to the Project Manager, Training Systems, to fund new immersive capabilities based on gaps identified in IIT phase one facility training scenarios. According to Col. Smith, warfighter input was considered from concept development through design of phase two:

Special emphasis was placed on continuously incorporating lessons learned from operational challenges faced by returning units. One of the critiques from the Marines using the IIT ... was the need for multiple-story buildings from which to establish their own over-watch and sniper positions. When [evolving] to an outdoor training environment ... the multistory requirement was maintained ...

Phase two was integrated as part of the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton Range complex master plan so that modifications and extensions would be accomplished as range improvements. This synchronized the capability into long-term land-use planning and operational sustainment strategies. Industry partners Parsons Corporation, L-3 Services Incorporated and Lockheed Martin Corporation's Global Training and Logistics all provided the technology and materials to ensure a smooth transition to the next phase. When phase two officially opened, the IIT team provided early orientation tours to the First Marine Expeditionary Force battalion commanders. Col. Smith says they immediately recognized the value of the training facility and could not wait for training to begin. Even though industry's been involved throughout both phases one and two, more commercial sector opportunities still exist. Of particular interest is research into human perception in mixed reality environments. What are some thoughts on training in a virtual environment? Will it supplant the basic human "fight or flight" response, or does it truly hone the warfighter's skills? The IIT's proponents and participants are fully convinced of its value; are you? Please share your thoughts here.

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