Armor: Getting Better All The Time


February 9, 2010:  Over the last seven years, the U.S. Army has created several generations of increasingly accurate combat simulators for training troops to deal with roadside bombs. Initially, the training concentrated on teaching soldiers guarding convoys how to better survive the growing number of bombs found along Iraqi roads. But now the action has shifted to Afghanistan, and the conditions are different. The simulations have kept up, and now are able to quickly incorporate the latest enemy bomb designs and tactics. There are also more specialized simulators. For example, some troops, often engineers, are assigned to route clearance duty. That involves going out each day and patrolling well used (by the military) routes for bombs that may have been planted overnight. Sometimes the locations of the bombs are already known, via intelligence systems that have UAVs or aircraft to take frequent pictures of the route, and detect any changes that might indicate a bomb had been placed. But the route clearing patrols also look for bombs the UAVs and computers might have missed.

The simulators for this work consist of a vehicle (an MRAP or armored hummer) surrounded by project screens that display typical terrain video. Thus the trainees in the vehicle have the illusion of moving down a road, one that contains bombs hidden as real ones are, including the latest tactics the Taliban are using. When a bomb goes off, the sound effects are intense enough to rattle the vehicle. Troops then must respond in the most effective manner (based on their training, and what has been learned by troops in Afghanistan.) It's one thing to read about this, or be lectured, it's much more effective to actually experience the events.

It was in late 2003 that orders went out to create some convoy combat trainers, to be designed and built, quickly. The prototypes were available in a few months, and by the Summer of 2004, eight of these Virtual Combat Convoy Trainers (VCCTs) were on order. By the end of 2004, all eight were in use, and another four were on order. Each one cost $1.2 million and were built into four 40 foot cargo containers that could be carried on tractor trailers. The VCCTs were based on existing simulators used for weapons training. The students were set in a hummer, and in front of them is a wrap-around video screen they “drive” through. The weapons are hooked up to the simulator computer (as well as pneumatic line that provides realistic recoil). The trainees simulate driving through actual Iraq terrain, and face roadside bombs and ambush situations based on actual events. If they don’t spot the roadside bombs, they see a flash, and flunk that run-through. They are fired on, and must quickly and accurately return fire, or suffer casualties. Shoot innocent civilians by mistake, and you flunk the run as well. The eight existing simulators were all in the United States, and often ran 24/7 when there were a lot of troops to train. The simulators were of particular help to reservists, who don’t get as much weapons and vehicle training as the active duty troops. Training in the VCCTs was all recorded, so that the trainees can get a detailed critique of that they did right, and wrong. Even troops going back for a second tour in Iraq find the VCCT useful, because the simulator is constantly updated with the latest enemy tactics and methods.

Early on, it was noted that the simulators became less effective as the enemy adopted new tactics, which were not being depicted in the simulators. A few years ago, efforts to quickly get the word out on new enemy tactics led to the use of machinimas to quickly create realistic simulations of new enemy tactics. A machinima is a simulation made using video games that allow scenario creation. Actual machinimas are short movies, featuring a playback of a scenario, with the creators using spoken dialog for the game characters (whose actions are controlled by the scenario creator.) These machinimas were made possible by the growing library of battle videos (from helicopters or UAVs) showing the enemy in the act of setting up an IED, or deployed to attack U.S. vehicles after the IED went off. This provides extremely accurate data on how the enemy operates. In addition, the U.S. had digital maps of all of Afghanistan. Everything you need to produce some highly realistic machinima. The army used a contractor to create the machinimas, based on army intelligence selection of new enemy tactics and methods. It takes about four days to produce a machinima, and new ones come out at the rate of at least one a week. The new machinimas are distributed to troops in the combat zones, as well as units training before they head overseas. This led to new simulators that also had the new tactics and visual information added, and added quickly.

There are fewer convoys in Afghanistan, and more of them are manned by combat troops. But the larger proportion of dirt roads makes it easier to employ IEDs. On the positive side, the enemy is not as in touch with each other as was in the case with Iraq. So once the U.S. detects a new IED technique, they can create a machinima, and distribute it to all U.S. (and, increasingly, NATO) troops. The route clearance simulator gets a new scenario as well, if the new enemy stuff is different enough. Meanwhile, when that new techniques eventually make their way to other terrorist groups, American troops are already looking out for it, and know what to do. Thus all these simulators prepare troops headed for Afghanistan, so that when they arrive, their first mission is not a new experience.


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