December 18, 2011: The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have a training problem. A decade of combat and so many troops who have gone to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times has produced troops who are more difficult to train in peacetime. That's because decades of training efforts were directed at instructing troops who had not seen combat. But these techniques were not exact simulations of combat. These techniques were meant to get rookies better prepared to survive their first hours, days, and weeks of combat. After that they were experienced or dead (or in a hospital somewhere). The problem now is that many, in some cases a majority, of troops in a platoon have combat experience. Try and run them through that rookie stuff and you will have morale problems.
So the army and marines are confronting this situation as an opportunity, not a problem. In the last decade a lot of new training technology has been developed and proven. But this stuff was still directed at rookies. The best example was the convoy security simulators that quickly got combat, and non-combat, troops up to speed on how to survive running convoys through hostile territory. Experienced troops found these simulators a form of practice, or even entertainment, as long as they kept up with battlefield changes and maintained a useful level of realism. The realism element was very important. It was a matter of life or death.
But it will not always be possible to maintain wartime levels of realism in training. One of the biggest problems will be the budget cuts, which mean less firing of live (as opposed to simulated) ammunition. In the last decade, the military spent billions of dollars a year to provide the troops with lots of live ammo for training. This made a difference. That has led to developing even more realistic simulated ammunition. This may solve the problem.
This has led to a new type of combat simulator, which was a side-effect of attempts to create accurate combat simulations for infantry troops. Making accurate simulations has always been a challenge. But then sims, like VirtuSphere showed up, using technology and techniques right out of video games. These came a lot closer than any previous attempt to provide infantry with a realistic computer training simulation.
Think of VirtuSphere as the ultimate FPS (First Person Shooter) video game. It works like this. The player (trainee) uses a goggles display, which makes it appear that a huge computer display is right in front of him. The player then enters a ten foot diameter plastic sphere that rotates, in all directions, on a stationary track mechanism. The motion of the sphere is linked electronically to the game software, and the trainee sees the movement he makes, walking or running inside the sphere, reflected in his display of the photo-realistic battlefield. His weapons are similarly wired into the game. A similar system, VIRTSIM, has up to twelve soldiers moving around in a 50 by 100 foot area that is wired to record their movements in a video game (seen through the goggles type display.)
Both systems have found customers (like the U.S. Army, the FBI, and other police organizations), at least for evaluation. There are twenty VirtuSphere systems in use now, with two of the latest ones bought by the U.S. Air Force. These were installed at the Air University which trains officers to handle command and staff jobs. VirtuSphere is used to expose these officers to past and future ground combat situations in a very realistic manner. The air force got VirtuSphere because their officer students are very much into technology and would quickly get into VirtuSphere, and benefit from the more realistic and immersive simulation experience. The Air University also uses their VirtuSphere systems to network and train with other schools that also have the equipment (West Point, Harrisburg University, and Stanford University). While VirtuSphere was designed with infantry training in mind it has attracted more interest from schools that train officers, not troops. The air force has found that its commanders and staff officers are more effective if they have a good understanding of ground combat and how troops on the ground operate. VirtuSphere gives officer students some exposure to all of that, quickly and effectively.
The military knows that they will not be able to simply use less realistic training and wait for the combat veterans to depart (via leaving the military by not reenlisting or retiring). That's because another new development (started back in the 1980s) was to capture experience in databases and multi-media formats. Thus it's not possible to go back to ignorance (about how actual combat works) as has happened to combat troops for centuries. Thus there is a lot of enthusiasm for maintaining and improving more realistic combat simulations. Another reason for this is to speed up the retraining of troops for different kinds of warfare. In the last decade, all the combat has been against irregulars. But there's still the possibility of war with an organized and well-equipped force. Handling that requires a different set of skills, and more effective training methods and simulators makes it possible to get you troops ready quickly and effectively.