Support: Why The First Mission Is Not A New Experience

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November 27, 2010: The $20 billion the U.S. has spent to defeat roadside bombs, mines and suicide car bombers has created a lot of unexpected side effects. For example, there is now a huge amount of data on what these weapons have done, who did it and how they did it. In the past, this treasure trove of past experience would gather dust in some warehouse. But because of cheap computers, powerful database software and video games, it's been possible to turn all that knowledge into custom training exercises for troops and commanders headed overseas, or already there. This collection of databases (and over a million records, some of them video clips) came to be called The Training Brain. These databases are constantly being added to, and depict the recent (last decade) history of these bombs being developed, and countered. This information is used to create training exercises in the form of video games. Troops of all ranks can quickly get into this sort of thing.

Over the last seven years, all those billions of dollars has led to the creation of several generations of increasingly accurate combat simulators for training troops to deal with roadside bombs. Initially, the training concentrated on teaching soldiers guarding convoys how to better survive the growing number of bombs found along Iraqi roads. But now the action has shifted to Afghanistan, and the conditions are different. The simulations have kept up, and now are able to quickly incorporate the latest enemy bomb designs and tactics. There are also more specialized simulators. For example, some troops, often engineers, are assigned to route clearance duty. That involves going out each day and patrolling well used (by the military) routes for bombs that may have been planted overnight. Sometimes the locations of the bombs are already known, via intelligence systems that have UAVs or aircraft to take frequent pictures of the route, and detect any changes that might indicate a bomb had been placed. But the route clearing patrols also look for bombs the UAVs and computers might have missed.

Early on, it was noted that the simulators became less effective as the enemy adopted new tactics, which were not being depicted in the simulators. A few years ago, efforts to quickly get the word out on new enemy tactics led to the use of machinimas to quickly create realistic simulations of new enemy tactics. A machinima is a simulation made using video games that allow scenario creation. Actual machinimas are short movies, featuring a playback of a scenario, with the creators using spoken dialog for the game characters (whose actions are controlled by the scenario creator.) These training machinimas were made possible by the growing library of battle videos (from helicopters or UAVs) showing the enemy in the act of setting up an IED, or deployed to attack U.S. vehicles after the IED went off. This provides extremely accurate data on how the enemy operates. In addition, the U.S. had digital maps of all of Afghanistan. Everything you need to produce some highly realistic machinima. The army used a contractor to create the machinimas, based on army intelligence selection of new enemy tactics and methods. It takes about four days to produce a machinima, and new ones come out at the rate of at least one a week. The new machinimas are distributed to troops in the combat zones, as well as units training before they head overseas. This led to new simulators that also had the new tactics and visual information added, and added quickly.

The machinima approach led to more elaborate video games, aimed at different levels. For commanders, there were games that required the use of detective and management skills to figure out the best way to hunt down and destroy the gang that has been planting bombs in your area. Other games enable the troops to practice getting past bomb ridden routes (by learning how to spot the bombs up ahead and get rid of them or simply avoid them.)

There are fewer convoys in Afghanistan, and more of them are manned by combat troops. But the larger proportion of dirt roads makes it easier to employ IEDs. On the positive side, the enemy is not as in touch with each other as was in the case with Iraq. So once the U.S. detects a new IED technique, they can create a machinima, and distribute it to all U.S. (and, increasingly, NATO) troops. The route clearance simulator gets a new scenario as well, if the new enemy stuff is different enough. Meanwhile, when the new techniques eventually make their way to other terrorist groups, American troops are already looking out for it, and know what to do. Thus all these simulators prepare troops headed for Afghanistan, so that when they arrive, their first mission is not a new experience.

 


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