Support: The Sergeant Major Saves Everyone's Ass


June 23, 2010: The U.S. Army has a new training simulation, to show troops headed for Afghanistan, how the Taliban build roadside bombs (IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices) and how they work out where and how to use them. This sim has enabled the troops to avoid unpleasant IED encounters.

The MCIT (Mobile Counter-IED Interactive Trainer) uses interactive video to teach, and test, troops on the IED basics. Then the troops play, in turn, both sides of a simple video game. The "Red" (Taliban) side plans and carries out an ambush, while the "Blue" (U.S.) side rolls down the road and tries to spot the IED and ambush, and avoid, or otherwise counter it. A squad (up to ten) of troops takes about 90 minutes to work their way through four 40 foot shipping containers that hold all the audio-visual and computer game equipment. Sort of a "serious video arcade", where the winners are more likely to survive in Afghanistan.

MCIT was basically the brainchild of a recently retired army Sergeant Major (Hideshi Sasaki), who went to work with the Department of Defense operation that develops new ways to deal with IEDs (JIEDDO). When he was Sergeant Major (the senior NCO in a unit) for an airborne infantry battalion in Iraq in 2005, Sasaki came up with the basic concept of MCIT (figuring out how the enemy plans their IED use and ambushes). Looking at the situation from the enemy perspective is an old idea, but for whatever reason, most troops have to be pushed into doing it. An airborne Sergeant Major knows how to push, and Sasaki's new techniques halved casualties from IEDs in his battalion.

Sasaki  had something else going for him when he pitched the MCIT project. Army and Marine Corps have come to fully accept video games for training. For many commanders, this was done, "warts and all." That’s because video games depicting ground combat were always seen as inaccurate, and likely to teach the wrong lessons. But the games have become more realistic, and customized military versions are very accurate. Based on experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders have come to appreciate combat video games because they drill into the troops important details of combat operations. On the battlefield, it's those little mistakes that get you killed. Spending a lot of time playing accurate combat video games teaches you what to do, and what to avoid. It saves lives. That's what Sasaki took advantage of, the fact that his troops knew all about video games, needed little time to learn how to play a new one, and were also very familiar with basic infantry tactics and capabilities. Sasaki also knew that a lot of his troops had actually learned some basic combat tactics just from playing video games. He took advantage of this when putting MCIT together.

For over a decade now, the U.S. military has been developing several generations of highly realistic training simulations, using video game and movie special effects technology. This makes the experience real enough to teach the troops life-saving lessons. The army pioneered the use of video game technology for combat and command training, especially for unusual situations. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Army PEOSTRI organization (which is in charge of developing simulations and wargames) has taken the lead in using commercial video game technology for military training systems. Noting that the civilian action and adventure games now possess very life-like graphics, and have no trouble holding the attention of military age males, PEOSTRI set up an operation in Los Angeles (the Institute for Creative Technologies, ICT) to help adapt these technologies for military training. Sasaki went to ICT to help get MCIT built quickly, and effectively. Each MCIT costs $1.8 million, and requires only one person to run (to turn it on and off, and do any maintenance needed.) One MCIT can train over 2,500 troops a month.

An often unspoken reason for this general acceptance of video games is that the current generation of generals are the first to have grown up with video games, the first generation of video games. In the next decade or so, the first generation of generals, who grew up with the Internet, will take over. That should be interesting.




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