The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
Training Becomes Fashionable
by James F. Dunnigan
All of a sudden, the Training Advantage is being rediscovered. One of the generally unheralded reforms that came out of the Vietnam War was a vast improvement in training effectiveness. It worked. Big time. While everyone focused on the high-tech weapons used in the 1991 Gulf War, the troops knew that their edge came from their superior training, not better weapons.
While most soldiers, and some politicians, recognize the need for training, it's always a hard sell. Weapons projects are easier to sell to Congress than training. But this is beginning to change. For one thing, training is using more high-tech goodies - the kinds of things you can see and touch, and sell to politicians who need expensive gadgets built in their districts. This gets politicians reelected and that's how it's always worked.
Over the last 20 years, the military has built several high-tech training centers. These provide local jobs to build them and more jobs to run them. That's good politics. It's also going to save lives the next time there's a war. And it's all because of technology. Until recently, training meant going out and using your equipment and weapons. Effective, but expensive. And the politicians didn't like to pay for all the fuel and spare parts required.
This began to change when the military acquired aircraft. Pound for pound, these were the most expensive weapons ever, and the trickiest to use. Obviously, training was required before you could use warplanes safely and effectively. But new pilots were very prone to getting themselves killed, and expensive aircraft destroyed, before they could obtain minimal flying skills. The solution to this appeared rather quickly (the 1930s) in the form of ground-based mechanical (and today electronic) flight simulators. While crude at first, these flight simulators constantly improved -mainly because they had to. Lives and aircraft were at stake.
There was less urgency to build simulators in the Navy and ground forces. Ships could train on the high seas without much danger of making a bad move. Moreover, ships are operated by a larger number of people, making it easier to bring trainees up to speed safely. The Army had a different problem. An army was too vast for a simulator and equipment like tanks and artillery could be trained with safely.
During World War II, the first mechanized war, there was a mountain of data on what different amounts of training did for combat ability. The Air Force's faith in simulators was vindicated. Trainee pilots made their fatal mistakes on the crude simulators instead of in the air. That war also proved that there was a direct relationship between the number of hours a pilot flew in training and his success in combat. After the war, Army and Navy officers documented the key role of realistic training in battlefield performance.
Now this was nothing new, but the introduction of more and more technology into the armed forces left less time for training. Until the 20th century, troops had plenty of time for training, as there weren't a lot of weapons and equipment to take care of. Moreover, back then training didn't consume a lot of fuel and spare parts. But in the last century, training has gotten a lot more expensive. In the past, troops were poorly trained because the officers were corrupt or too lazy to do it. Now, it's mainly a matter of money.
But there also were problems with the quality of training. Until a century ago, combat was simpler and you knew that peacetime training paid off in battle. But with the development of more complex systems, and more stuff in general, it became apparent that if training wasn't done just so, it was largely wasted. This was vividly demonstrated in World War II when American infantry divisions, after more than a year of training, performed poorly in battle. An examination of the units that did poorly, and those that did better, revealed that how you trained, not how long you trained, made all the difference. After World War II, there was little agreement on which training approach was the best.
Then came the 1970s, and better training through electronics. Air Force and Navy pilots used aircraft with electronics and cameras that recorded every move and action. Practice dogfights in monitored airspace caught all this electronic data and allowed the training maneuvers to be played back later, and errors seen and corrected. Pilot performance improved, and continued to improve when more realistic ground-based simulators appeared.
The Navy created land-based electronic wargaming gear that would plug into a ship's systems when the ship was docked at pier side and allow sailors to train hard without burning a lot of fuel, or carrying all the additional wargaming electronics to sea with them. The sailors got better at their job and saved a lot of money. The admirals liked that. The Army copied the aviators and built "wired" training areas where every vehicle carried electronics that allowed every simulated shot to be recorded. Now the soldiers were better trained as well, although it still required a lot of money for fuel and spares to use all those vehicles.
Then came the 21st century, and electronics got smaller, smarter and cheaper. Ground troops, at least those in tanks and other armored vehicles, now had simulators as good as the pilots did. Training became a big business for people who made stuff besides fuel and spare parts.
The politicians were paying attention. And enough generals and admirals were willing to forego some new tanks, ships and warplanes to buy the simulators. The politicians also began to appreciate the training advantage. This new form of training didn't get much publicity, but it was bringing some serious changes to warfare. Those nations that could not afford the new training gear were at a serious disadvantage against those who could.
As always, training is an invisible weapon. But it becomes pretty obvious when the shooting starts.
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