Over the last few years the U.S. Army has cut way back on training troops to fight Islamic terrorists and irregulars and is restoring the pre-2001 training for conventional war. The military calls this “near-peer” (against someone who has similar weapons and abilities) warfare. That means many Army veterans of ten years’ service, including several years in a combat zone, are now, for the first time learning how to deal with a near-peer foe. It’s an unsettling experience, especially in the U.S. Army, which uses some very realistic training methods. The realistic training these troops had used for years for learning how to cope with ambushes, raids and roadside bombs now involves dealing with enemy tanks, guided missiles and aircraft. It’s scary stuff for a veteran of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This is all based on a breakthrough training system developed by the U.S. Army in the early 1980s. This all 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 few began building 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. It turned out to be very effective
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 included 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 show commanders and troops where they made mistakes. This feedback makes the troops much more effective in the future
Ft. Irwin itself has since been expanded. Since the 1980s, the United States has established many similar training centers in the United States and abroad, all using lots of electronics to assist the trainees in having a realistic experience while also enabling them to see their mistakes and learn from them.
Other countries noted the success of the NTC (especially after the 1991 Gulf War). Israel has been using and expanding its own NTC since the 1990s. This is their 39,000 hectare (98,000 acre) Tactical Training Center (TTC) at Ze'elim in the Negev desert. 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.
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.
Over the last decade South Korea, Russia, and China have followed the American example by building instrumented combat training ranges for their 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.
The United States has also been developing improved electronic tools for these instrumented training areas. For the ground troops this involved the use of MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) equipment that the troops came to call “laser tag”. MILES has undergone several upgrades since first introduced in the early 1980s. The latest upgrade is a major one and is called I-TESS (Instrumented-Tactical Engagement Simulation System). The U.S. Marine Corps has taken the lead in this upgrade and the army is adopting it (or major parts of it). The big change in I-TESS is that it provides more data and more realism. Hits now cause more realistic damage (to individual troops or vehicles) and all troops and vehicles are tracked (and recorded) in real time. In addition to providing more compelling after action briefing (where lessons learned are absorbed) the real-time monitoring allows the training staff to change the action in the middle of an exercise. This makes the training more realistic and useful. The more realistic damage includes dealing with the impact of grenades, shells, and bombs as well as chemical weapons. The marines are already phasing out their MILES gear as the new I-TESS equipment arrives.
China recently opened its own instrumented training area. 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 in 2009. Most major Western military powers have also adopted the NTC approach to combat training.
The retraining of American army troops for near-peer combat takes time, and the trip to the NTC is the final exam as well as excellent training. By the end of 2014 only six of the army’s 38 combat brigades is expected to have completed the conversion to near-peer capability and ready to be sent into combat. Meanwhile all troops will still get some training for irregular warfare and some brigades will be more intensively trained for that, just in case.