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New 'fully immersive' virtual system helps train troops at Fort Leonard Wood

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Moving through a carpeted room at Fort Leonard Wood, a squad of soldiers – equipped with headsets, helmet-mounted video screens and rifles with virtual bullets – view their avatars taking action in a simulated firefight in Afghanistan.

It’s what’s called a “fully immersive” training session – a military gamer’s dream that involves footsoldiers with backpack processors who learn Army tactics and rules by watching their on-screen avatars move through a limitless number of virtual scenarios.

Last week, Fort Leonard Wood – which trains more than 80,000 soldiers and civilians a year – became the third U.S Army base to get the new electronics gear and a 1,600-square-foot room set up as part of the new dismounted soldier training system (DSTS). A dismounted soldier is one who is not in a vehicle at the time of the squad’s actions.

“When a soldier looks through his head-mounted display, he’s in Afghanistan,” said John Matthews, the Army’s project director for DSTS. “He looks around and sees other squad members with him, and they actually move through the [simulated] scenario without physically moving in real life.”

Fort Leonard Wood, in Pulaski County in east-central Missouri, was chosen to be one of the first bases to get the DSTS system because – as part of its designation as a maneuver support center of excellence – it provides training in such specialty areas as military police, engineers, and specialists in chemical, biological and nuclear response.

In an interview, Matthews said, “This isn’t a replacement for real-life training – it’s an enhancement.” The impetus for developing the system was to drive down the high cost and logistical demands of Army training exercises, including “the cost of getting an entire 300-man [Army] company out to the field – fuel, food, ammunition, coordination to get a training range.”

In contrast, he said, the DSTS system, which trains nine soldiers at a time, is relatively inexpensive and fast: “You plug it into a wall and everything’s electronic: virtual bullets, virtual gas, virtual field exercises,” Matthews said. “You can run through an entire scenario in an hour and a half,” as opposed to several days for a typical field exercise.

The new system was designed so it can train soldiers for five Army operational themes – major combat operations, irregular warfare, peace operations, limited intervention and peacetime military engagement. As part of that, the training covers the four main elements of unified land operations: offense, defense, stability and civil support.

Virtual training in the military is not new; the Air Force has been using programs like flight simulators for many years, and the Army has virtual training programs for soldiers who operate tanks, fly helicopters or perform other specialized missions. But Matthews said DSTS is the first such program for foot soldiers.

Unlike a typical shoot-‘em-up commercial computer game, the DSTS system is designed to allow commanders to review all the action, take notes in real time, and then go over the mistakes with the soldiers in training.

“We have two 54-inch screens that are basically capturing the entire scenario unfolds,” Matthews said. “The squad leader or commander will sit behind the large screen, the after-action review station, and use his mouse and keyboard to make notes to certain points where he wants to review.

“Let’s say Private Smith jumped out of a building too soon and got himself shot. You could go back and say: ‘Look, here’s the reason you got shot.' And show the soldier what he did wrong,” he said. “You show that at the soldier’s level and then say, ‘All right, let’s go try this again.’ You hit the reset button and go back and run the same scenario again.”

Over the next six months, Matthew’s crew from the Army’s executive office for simulation, training and instrumentation – responsible for fielding training and simulation devices worldwide -- is setting up DSTS units at 28 Army installations along with experts from the Virginia-based IT company that developed DSTS, Intelligent Decisions (ID), Inc. The company was awarded a $57 million initial contract to develop and implement the system.

Floyd West, who runs the company’s Florida-based simulation and training division, said in an interview Tuesday that the DSTS program differs from over-the-counter computer simulation games in many ways. “First-person shooter games are really built for entertainment – not for training,” he said. “We have to do things according to Army doctrine. We can’t have troops being overly aggressive or violating rules. They have to pick the right actions.”

While virtual flight or military training has been around in some fields for more than two decades, West said that – up until now – “dismounted infantry has had to do live training at major sites. Now we’re bringing that training to their home stations so they can maintain readiness and work on Army doctrine, tactics and procedures in a virtual environment.”

One of the major advantages of virtual training, West said, is that “the leader who’s training the unit can pause the action in real time, make corrections if necessary, or wait until it ends and go over the exercise. . . . All of the training is recorded, so they can play it back and jump to specific points. They can give feedback on things like shots taken, hit rates. And they can walk through their tactics and correct them right there.”

This spring, the Army began rolling out DSTS with a demonstration scenario that included Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Army’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno. The system had been tested at Fort Benning in Georgia and was officially kicked off at Fort Bragg, N.C., in late July.

If funding comes through, the Army plans to set up 240 such systems over the next four years. Last week, Fort Leonard Wood got the third DSTS unit and may be in line for more systems in the future, officials said – with another installation scheduled for next year.

“With the number of people you have going through Fort Leonard Wood,” Matthews said, “one DSTS squad with 9 modules isn’t going to be enough – and the Army realizes that.”

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