With more than 1 million servicemembers on active duty in the United States, the military services, and especially the Army, are running short of a critical commodity — training grounds.
The problem, intensified by the winding down of two wars, is ratcheting up the interest of Army senior leaders in virtual solutions to real-world constraints.
“We have a lot of Soldiers coming home to stations here in the United States, and we don’t have enough terrain in many of those places to train those Soldiers out on live ranges,” Col. Anthony D. Krogh told American Forces Press Service.
Krogh is director of the National Simulation Center, part of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“We just physically can’t do it,” he said. “Fort Lewis is a good example.”
Seven 5,000-person brigades are on the ground at Fort Lewis, now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the state of Washington , he said. “But here’s the thing — there’s only enough maneuver space and range for one brigade there at a time,” he added.
That means “our perishable skills as Soldiers start to atrophy rather rapidly,” the colonel said. “The only way we can make up for that is to use a synthetic, or virtual, world.”
Krogh says Army command and control systems themselves produce a kind of synthetic environment that has been in use for a long time. Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below, called FBCB2, for example, is a computer-based communication platform for commanders.
Blue Force Tracking is a GPS-enabled system that gives military commanders and forces location information about friendly and hostile forces. Other command-and-control visualization tools let commanders see a three-dimensional battle space and locate units or particular Soldiers there, the colonel said.
“It doesn’t look like an avatar,” Krogh said, referring to digital representations of users that populate virtual worlds, “but it is a synthetic environment that’s created because we learn or understand quicker through visualization than anything else.”
The Army also uses simulators of all kinds to train Soldiers at different levels, he said, from squad and fire-team leaders and individual Soldiers to division and core commanders.
Emerging technology Army initiatives include a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command effort called the “Training Brain.” This combines capabilities, systems, networks and data into a system that uses modeling, simulation and gaming to replicate real-world events for use in training.
Within about four days the Training Brain system can turn a firefight or a mission into a simulation game, the command’s website says.
“In terms of virtual worlds, our primary focus is on Virtual Battlespace 2, the VBS2 game,” Krogh said. “Gaming initially got a bad rap, because a lot of us had teenagers who were playing Xbox and Nintendo instead of doing their homework. Fortunately, we as leaders grew into this and recognized the value.”
VBS2 has been particularly successful, he said. “Arguably, it’s one of the most successful simulations we’ve ever brought to the force,” he added. “In terms of cost versus usage, it’s a huge success.”
Bohemia Interactive Studio developed the gaming and training platform in cooperation with the Marine Corps, the Australian Defense Force and other military customers. It includes a virtual battlefield on which users can operate land, sea and air vehicles.
Large numbers of people can play the game at once in virtual complex urban areas that include buildings that players can destroy, and realistic working weapons.
An after-action review module, called an AAR, records every player action, bullet path, explosion and vehicle movement for a detailed examination of the training mission.
“The most important thing in any of these synthetic environments is to have focused training and the ability to conduct an AAR critique [to understand] what you did right and what you need to work on,” Krogh said.
VBS2 and other initiatives have helped Army senior leadership understand the value of virtual training. Now, Krogh said, the Army is looking to expand the use of virtual worlds, noting that virtual reality will allow an entire brigade to train at one time next year at Fort Bliss, Texas.
“Only one battalion will physically maneuver on real dirt,” he explained. “The rest of the brigade will either be in virtual flight or tank simulators or in their command posts through what we call constructive simulation. So [it will feature] a lot of digital dirt, and a little bit of real dirt.”
Further into the future, Krogh said, the Army is exploring the utility of “massively multiplayer” online gaming technology, like that used in World of Warcraft.
“These have been in the commercial world forever, but we’re looking to leverage that for training our Soldiers around the clock, around the world, where they can always jump onto that synthetic environment and train,” he said.
The Army is bringing a new system online that tracks physical training scores, weapons qualification levels and scores for other service skills for individuals in the real world and links them to that person’s avatar in the Army’s virtual environment, he added.
“Picture this,” Krogh said. “If I don’t do well on a PT test, my avatar will not run as fast or move as quickly or sustain in combat as long as another Soldier who has a better PT score in the real world.”
The same thing will happen for others skills, he said.
“If I am out of tolerance for my weapons training or I have only shot marksman as opposed to sharpshooter or expert, then my PH/PK — probability of hit/probability of kill — in the simulation goes way down, because I’m not as highly skilled in the real world.”
Training in the virtual world would mirror training in the real world, the colonel said.
Practice with firearms online “would help you prepare so that when you went to the real range, you’d have had that continuous experience of engaging the targets and putting the weapon into service,” he said.
Soldiers couldn’t do physical training online, but in seeing where they stand in relation to their peers, Krogh said, “a Soldier would realize, ‘I’ve got to lose some weight and do better on the PT test, because when I go online my squad is always leaving me behind.'”
Despite progress, the Army is just getting started, Krogh said.
“I would say within the next two years we’ll be able to put many of these capabilities in place,” he said.