Support: Lifesaving Machinima In Afghanistan


November 27, 2009: Five years ago, the U.S. Army began creating simulations to train troops to deal with (mainly avoid) IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device, or roadside bomb). Since then, it became obvious that a critical factor in this kind of training was keeping up with changes in enemy tactics. The foe in Iraq and Afghanistan adapted to U.S. countermeasures, and troops succeeded by quickly becoming aware of the new IED attacks, and coming up with ways to deal with it.

The latest innovation is 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 contracted CAE USA (a simulation manufacturer) to create the machinimas, based on army intelligence selection of new enemy tactics and methods. It takes CAE about four days to produce a machinima, and over thirty have already been created. 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.

Training for dealing with IEDs began with the need to train non-combat troops running the hundreds of convoys a day that ran all over Iraq starting in 2003. About half the convoys are manned by non-combat troops. But by the end of 2003, special training courses had been established in Kuwait for these soldiers. Here non-combat troops were allowed to practice firing their weapons, from moving vehicles, at realistic targets. This sort of training made a big difference, but there were thousands of troops in need of this training, and it was expensive to use vehicles and live ammo.

In late 2003, orders went out to create some convoy combat trainers 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 are all in the United States, and can run 24/7 when there are lot of troops to train. The simulators have been of particular help to reservists, who don’t get as much weapons and vehicle training as the active duty troops. Training in the VCCTs is 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.

This made clear the importance of the information weapon. Intelligence troops constantly collect detailed information on enemy tactics and weapons. This stuff was immediately sent back to the training centers, where VCCTs, and other training courses, can have the new enemy moves accurately represented in the training. New troops arrive in Iraq ready to fight current enemy tactics, not old ones that might not be in use any more. But the intelligence is used for more than tracking tactics and roadside bomb designs. The enemy gunmen belong to specific gangs, and operate in specific areas. The intelligence people also track which roads are currently “hot” and issue regular reports of where attacks are more likely to occur, and what kind of attacks. This makes it possible to send out more alert convoys, and provide additional escorts, and air cover. Not every convoy has air cover (except for fuel and ammo convoys). Often the air cover is a UAV, which sends video down to the convoy commander. Thus the convoy always knows what is around the next curve, or who is where when going through a built up area.

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. So when that new technique eventually makes its way to other terrorist groups, American troops are already looking, and know what to do.

The Department of Defense recently bought 2,300 PlayStation 3 game consoles. It wasn't said what these were for, but such devices are excellent for playing machinimas, as well as the latest video game release.


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