March 13, 2013: The U.S. Army has expanded the use of combat simulators in order to allow troops in virtual tanks and helicopter gunships to work with infantry (and any armored vehicles they have with them) on the ground (in an instrumented training center). The use of combat simulators for tanks goes back to the 1970s, and aircraft combat simulators have been around even longer. But rarely was the army able to get simulators working with ground troops in real time. Now that is possible because of the increase use of networking (mainly because it is cheaper and more reliable than in the past) technology. The new capabilities allow troops in tank simulators in one part of the country and crews in helicopter simulators in another base to train with ground troops in one of the army’s instrumented training centers. The other big benefit of all this is that every action of all concerned is captured, along with radio traffic and weapons use, and can be played back for all participants using videogame type graphics and capabilities. This makes it more likely that troops will learn from their experience in the cooperative networked combat exercise. The troops not only come to clearly understand what they did wrong but also what they did right.
Simulators and other electronics for this new system are now installed in two army bases in Texas and is being expanded to 18 others (including one in South Korea) over the next four years. These new systems save a lot of money (in fuel and wear and tear on vehicles) and allow difficult and dangerous maneuvers to be tried with minimal risk to the troops. Normally, helicopter gunships and ground units don’t get a lot of training together, mainly because of the expense and the use of weapons is limited. Not so with the new system, where the weapons are virtual and ammo is really cheap. Virtual training, at least for the tanks and helicopters, costs about 90 percent less than the real thing.
This is all a further development of a breakthrough training system developed by the U.S. Army in the early 1980s. This began when the National Training Center (NTC), a 147,000 hectare (359,000 acre) facility in the Mohave Desert at Fort Irwin, California, was established in 1982. There the United States Army revolutionized the training of ground combat troops with the development of MILES (laser tag) equipment for infantry and armored vehicles and the use of MILES in a large, "wired" (to record all activities), combat training area. Other countries soon realized the importance of these innovations and a growing number have built their own NTC clones. NTC type training centers are usually built to enable a combat battalion or brigade to go through several weeks of very realistic combat exercises.
Over the last decade South Korea, Russia, and China have followed the American example by building instrumented combat training ranges for its ground forces. Part of this involves forming a combat unit to play the "enemy" (opposing force or OPFOR) in these battalion and brigade sized training exercises. Each country finds, as did the Americans, that this OPFOR brigade or battalion becomes the most formidable combat unit in the country. That's because the OPFOR unit gets more combat practice than any other outfit.
Other countries joined the NTC even earlier, Israel has been using and expanding its own NTC since the 1990s. Their 39,000 hectare (98,000 acre) Tactical Training Center (TTC) at Ze'elim in the Negev desert is very similar and was built in the 1990s. In addition to wide open areas for the training of armor, infantry, and artillery units there are several villages and urban areas wired for training troops to fight in close quarters. Israel has now developed a portable version of this technology and many other innovations as well.
China recently opened its own version. The Chinese NTC is a big deal. It means the Chinese are really serious about training their ground combat troops to the highest standards. This kind of training is serious stuff, in part because it's expensive to use an NTC. Not just the fuel and other supplies the troops will use but the expense of a staff to run the NTC and perform as OPFOR (opposing force). American intelligence officers track which units go through the Chinese NTC and mark them as likely to be much more effective in combat. Russia opened its own NTC four years ago. Most major Western military powers have also adopted the NTC approach to combat training. Ft. Irwin itself has been expanded and since the 1980s, the United States has established many similar training centers, all using a lot of electronics to assist the trainees in having a realistic experience while also enabling them to see their mistakes and learn from them.
Israeli and American manufacturers have individually, or through collaboration, developed new features for NTC type facilities. These include portable equipment that can allow any area to be wired to provide the same effect (constant monitoring and recording of everything everyone does). There are also VPUs (Vehicle Player Units) that make Hummers appear as armored vehicles (tanks, infantry vehicles, or artillery) to the monitoring system and save a lot of money (by not using the real thing). There is also a system that releases different colored smoke when a vehicle is hit, indicating if it is damaged or destroyed. Helicopters and warplanes, for example, are being wired to operate as part of NTC exercises.
NTC type training is not only very close to the experience troops get in actual combat, but it also stresses commanders the same way actual combat does. This enables commanders to test themselves, and their subordinate commanders, before they get into a real fight. You can also use NTC type facilities to experiment with new tactics, in addition to keeping troops well trained in whatever the current tactics are. This includes counter-terror operations as well as the kind of novel combat tactics that might be encountered in the future.
One of the critical aspects of this type of training is the playback. Instructors can edit the electronic record of who did what, when and shows commanders and troops where they made mistakes. This feedback makes the troops much more effective in the future.