After a decade of unconventional warfare waged by front-line troops raised on Xbox and PlayStation, the Army has turned to “serious” games and simulations for training.
It has taken some convincing these past 10 years, but military commanders now see the benefits of these new training methods. As attitudes have changed, so has the technology. Simulators are no longer clunky behemoths but machines that can be dismantled and taken to the battlefield itself. Backpack computers allow teams of soldiers to train simultaneously in the same immersive virtual environment, an idea that could revolutionize the way the Army trains squads.
The “Star Trek” holodeck may soon exist outside the imagination thanks to exploding technology. And some of it is already here:
Human mannequins incorporate lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, changing the way combat medics are trained. This summer, soldiers tested smartphones and tablets in the desert, and it’s not a stretch to imagine leaders one day sending battlefield instructions via text message instead of radio.
For 10 years, the Army has waited for the technology to mature, said Col. Francisco Espaillat, a project manager with the Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO-STRI) in Orlando, Fla. And it’s changing not just the military but business, too. The Army would rather pay for commercial, off-the-shelf products than spend exorbitant amounts on custom gaming engines.
Just ask former helicopter pilot Jerry Heneghan, who did much of his training on Fort Bragg. He is now CEO of Virtual Heroes, a software simulation and modeling division of Applied Research Associates in Raleigh, which is opening an office in Southern Pines. His 30 employees came from big-name gaming companies like EA and Rockstar. Now, they develop serious games for the defense industry.
In the 1990s, Heneghan would trade the civilian clothes he wore to work at Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Entertainment for the flight suit of a National Guardsman. As both a hard-core gamer and Apache helicopter pilot, he began to see the two worlds collide.
“What if you just log on to your PC at home and do a training mission?” he said. “I really saw an opportunity in that.”
Heneghan served as executive producer of “America’s Army,” the official Army game and recruitment tool. Someone complained that the game was “too real,” but Heneghan knew it would appeal to a generation of recruits who grew up playing realistic (and often violent) video games. Now, the Army utilizes those very gaming consoles like Xbox and Wii with their controllers and high-end graphics.
“There are a whole source of new soldiers coming up through the pipeline right now that are millennials,” said Juliana Slye, referring to young people born between 1980 and 2000. Slye owns Government Business Results and serves as an ex-officio member of the national Serious Games Showcase & Challenge Integrated Program Team.
There’s no need to impress youth with new Army technology, she said. Instead, impress them with its practical applications.
“The ability to almost rehearse a mission before going into the real thing is truly impressive to the soldiers,” said Kent Gritton, director of the Joint Training Integration and Evaluation Center in Orlando, Fla. He is the creator of the national Serious Games Showcase & Challenge and has served as chairman of the Defense GameTech Users’ Conference.
Orlando, with its proximity to PEO-STRI and other military simulation commands and Central Florida Research Park campus, has become a mecca to defense contractors working in the gaming and simulation field. One of the most well-known is Intelligent Decisions, which recently landed a $57 million contract to develop the Army’s first dismounted virtual-reality training system for squads.
Called the Dismounted Soldier Training System, it works like this: Soldiers strap on a helmet-mounted display, computer backpack, sensors and instrumented weapons with optics, sights and scopes. Within moments, their movements are mimicked by avatars in the virtual world that is now their war zone. As a group, soldiers encounter hostile combatants or peaceful civilians.
Simulation has been explored for decades, but serious gaming has made strides in the last 10 years.
“There were still a lot of people that were not certain that serious games were truly serious, and it was something that we should really be pursuing within the DoD,” Gritton said.
Realism and adaptation have been key in convincing skeptical commanders. In the 1980s and 1990s, simulation was mostly canned, based on targets that didn’t exist in made-up cities. Today’s games and simulations are different. If you need rain, there’s rain. If you need a random placement of IEDs, they can be inserted into the framework of the simulation or serious game.
“We can take a database and build it exactly like an area deployed to Afghanistan,” said Col. Espaillat with PEO-STRI in Orlando. “We can build gaming to replicate that exactly. We can train soldiers here in the U.S. in a geo-specific database.”
Heneghan, of Virtual Heroes, said games now include biometric sensors which incorporate the player’s heart rate and brain activity into the game, giving instructors insight into who’s mentally stressed.
“That gets a little trippy,” he said.
Developers are even building in the ability to anticipate disasters or casualties, something Heneghan calls the “Spidey sense” that comes naturally to experienced soldiers and civilians. A Special Forces soldier correctly predicts an IED around the corner, for example, or a nurse with 25 years on the job realizes that a patient is going to code in 30 minutes.
“We take that element and put it in the software,” Heneghan said.
CAE, a company that builds flight simulators, is taking that idea a step further with the Dynamic Synthetic Environment.
Chris Stellwag is CAE marketing communications director.
“What we’re trying to do in the virtual world is be able to change the virtual world dynamically so when things happen in real time, the virtual world changes,” he said.
The weather, for example, can keep this environment unpredictable. It reacts to the footsteps of a soldier trudging through a sandy battlefield. The strength of a bomb blast can permanently alter the terrain.
“It’s not just a visual effect,” Stellwag said. “It changes the database. There’s a lot of technical hurdles to make that change.”
As more soldiers return from Afghanistan and Iraq, virtual training has another benefit – it’s more cost effective than traditional in-the-field training.
At Fort Bragg, two buildings that house simulators at Simmons Army Airfield save the Army $5 million a month, according to lead UH-60 Black Hawk simulation instructor Mike Henderson. Fort Bragg uses several simulators to train troops: flight simulators, a Humvee simulator that enacts rollovers and a Medical Simulation Training Center (see adjacent story) which puts combat medics to the test in a simulated battlefield environment.
As the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade prepares to deploy to Afghanistan in September, its soldiers have been training in the Transportable Black Hawk Operations Simulator which can be broken down and deployed with soldiers overseas. The Army is moving away from the stationary simulators that use hydraulics in favor of these rapidly deployable systems.
Stellwag said that in the next 10 to 20 years the most needed simulation is going to be systems that focus on analysis and operational decision making to help commanders in the field. His company, CAE, is currently investing 10 percent of its revenue back into research and development programs.
Business and military leaders say the best step the government can take now is to clearly define its standards for simulation and gaming systems. More studies are needed to show that the gaming and simulation industry is effective.
“The military as a whole is a very conservative organization, and they’re not willing to blindly leap and make a decision and it be a risk-free decision,” Gritton said.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Fred Lewis is president of the National Training and Simulation Association. He said serious gaming and simulation will continue to rapidly shape Army training.
“There’s nothing that’s been built, delivered, used by people,” he said, “that has not been touched by modeling and simulation along the way.”
By April Dudash, Elite Magazine/The Fayetteville Observer