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Army Goes World of Warcraft; Virtual Training To Soften Budget Cut Pain

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

How do you modernize without money?

Army brass are test-driving a new message at the annual Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) conference in Fort Lauderdale: Modernization is about more than new equipment – which, by the way, we can’t afford. There are plenty of other things we can do to keep our cutting edge.

Above all, the Army will emphasize innovative training methods that use a mix of both computer simulations, some even modeled on popular games like World of Warcraft, and real-world scenarios tied to specific areas where “regionally aligned” units are likely to deploy.

“Normally, we talk in modernization about equipment, but it’s about more than just our equipment,” said Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, the chief of “futures” for the Army’s Fort Eustis, Va.-based Training and Doctrine Command. Shrinking budgets – compounded by lousy requirements, contractor disputes and technological troubles – have forced the service to slow a host of high-priority hardware programs, from helicopters and airborne sensors to the new Ground Combat Vehicle. But, Walker told reporters on the eve of his formal presentation to the AUSA conference this morning, “we can mitigate some of our equipment delays by being smarter in the way we organize our forces, train our forces , develop our doctrine, and so on.”

“This is not about additional money,” Walker emphasized. “It’s about taking our new environment into account and improving the way we invest what we have.”

New training techniques look particularly promising to Army leaders. “There is so much we can do in immersive training that we have not yet done… using our existing network and using our existing sensors,” Walker said.

While Army leaders hasten to say they don’t want to do away with live training in the field, they see new – and inexpensive – ways to supplement it with simulations. “Some people almost do jack into the Matrix,” said Col. Pat White, deputy commander in charge of training for the Army’s Combined Arms Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. “You can’t replicate bullets flying at you, you cannot replicate the mortars and the rockets that are in combat itself, the physical-ness of that; but what we can replicate is the complexity of that.”

Though computers can’t yet simulate the gut-wrenching reality of combat, there are some “complexities” of modern warfare that are prohibitively difficult to replicate on the training range – especially in a tight budget environment – but doable on computer. For example, in Afghanistan even lower-level commanders are used to on-call support from drones, helicopters, and manned aircraft. Back in home station because we are in the united states of America that becomes problematic to replicate,” said White. “Airspace is restricted; the FAA doesn’t necessarily allow us to fly our UAVS over towns like Phoenix.” Instead, the Army wants to add virtual aircraft to real-world training events.

The goal is to integrate simulations and live exercises into a single wargame. “Take Fort Hood [Texas] for example,” White said. “If a brigade commander wishes to train his brigade, there’s not enough maneuver spaces nor are there enough live fire ranges to take his entire brigade out” as a unit” – but he can put one battalion out in the physical desert, a second in tank simulators, and a third in a command post exercise where leaders and staffs track virtual events on the actual computer networks they would use to direct their troops in combat.

The 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division will test drive the new “Decisive Action Training Environment” (DATE) next month at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. Just as in a traditional training exercise, “you will see soldiers in their vehicles in the dirt at NTC,” said White, but new virtual elements will be overload on the wargames. “We’ll do two or three of those this year… Next calendar year, we’ll begin to see more of those.”

Beyond the National Training Center, Fort Hood, Texas is slated to receive installation of advanced training systems to serve as a pilot for the new approach. Ultimately, the Army wants to integrate real-world intelligence into the DATE network so “regionally aligned” units slated to deploy to a specific region can do their wargames in virtual versions of the real terrain. “If you’re regionally aligned for a Korean contingency,” White said, “you would go to the Korean part of the [virtual] world and begin your training… so you understand what Korea looks like in your particular area you might deploy to.”

The Army even wants to take a lesson from popular “massively multiplayer” online games. “My son plays World of Warcraft,” said White. “It’s amazing how quickly they can distribute information and make a plan,” he went on. Players who may be thousands of miles away from each other in real space use their headsets, keyboards, and screens to coordinate the actions of their characters in the game. Some in-game events involve hundreds of players interacting online at once.

“Many, many people can participate in an event and learn from it,” White said of the technology’s potential for Army training. “We are attempting to create a [virtual] world… where we can link individual soldiers and leaders in a training environment that is not necessarily part of your 9-5 job at work, to allow them to learn on their own at their own pace 24-7… We’re in the pilot phase of that right now.”

But can any number of wargames and simulators make up for the Army’s real-life lack of new equipment? Even in the demoralizing drawdown of the 1990s, young officers had the new technologies of the “digital division” to get excited about. How can today’s Army prove its continued relevance in the post-war era to a generation of post-9/11 veterans deciding whether to stay in uniform or get out?

“This is an incredible challenge that I know the Army senior leadership is very much concerned about,” said Lt. Gen. Walker in a follow-up call to Breaking Defense,” he said. “My oldest daughter and both of my sons joined the Army and they’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan a lot, so I get plenty of feedback… If you ask some young leader, ‘What is it that keeps you in the Army,’ it’s not cool equipment; it is leading people.”

So, Walker went on, “the challenge we’ve got is to make sure those opportunities are there even though it’s not war.” The Army’s betting that virtual training can help provide those human interactions that keep soldiers motivated and sharp.

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