Infantry: Killer Games For Grunts


July 24, 2010: Everyone has realistic computer combat training simulations these days, except the grunts (infantry). The U.S. Army is making a serious effort to change that. The big problem is that infantry combat is very physical. For the training to be most effective, the troops have to move around. There are no sims that do that, but the army believes that recent technologies (the Wii controller and eyeglass type video displays) make it possible to get around that problem. The army has several research efforts going to produce a prototype. There is good reason to believe the army will succeed. That's because the army, and the marines, have been adapting existing commercial computer game tech for military use since the 1990s, with growing success.

For example, there are already some useful computer sims for infantry that aren't stationary. Some of the most successful include the EST (Engagement Skills Trainer) 2000 systems. Each of these consists of a movie theater size screen (but at ground level, not raised) with back projection target situations displayed as interactive movies. The troops use rifles, pistols and machine-guns that are actual weapons, but modified to fire "electronic bullets", and, via a thin cable, use a pneumatic system that provides recoil as well. There is a sound system to depict the sound of the weapons firing, as well as a computer controlled tracking of ammo fired, letting users know when they have to reload.

 Because it is a simulator, it captures a precise record of exactly where the soldiers weapon is aimed, how well the soldier pulls the trigger, and how long it takes to find and fire at the next target. This enables instructors to much more rapidly detect problems troops are having, and correct them. Tests have shown that you can take people with no weapons experience, put them through four hours of EST 2000 training, and take them to a rifle range, and they will be able to fire accurately enough to exceed military requirements.

The simulator can be used for training troops in ways that are impractical using live ammo. For example, when used for "shoot/don't shoot" situations, the appropriate visuals (either an enemy soldier, or a civilian) are shown on the video screen. Soldiers train in a group, positioned as they would be in a real situation. The scenario then plays out, allowing the troops to practice when they should shoot, and when they should not. Training can be for day or night scenarios, and for a wide variety of situations.

EST and similar system, are sometimes built into standard shipping containers, so they can be moved around to where they are needed (like a combat zone). The more useful of these "sims in a box" are the "encounter" and "convoy" sims. The encounter sim puts troops in a container containing video screens on three sides that portray an encounter between troops and foreign civilians (as they would encounter on patrol or manning a checkpoint). The troops are then allowed to deal with typical problems encountered in situations like this. While not combat (although some gunfire can be introduced), it is extremely useful training for troops headed for the combat zone.

Another popular "sim in a box" is the ones that let troops get some experience in convoy operations. These have been around for over five years, and gone through several generations of improvements. This has led to another class of sims the troops have long been asking for; mission planning software. The troops want something that is easy to use, does what needs to be done, and fits on a laptop computer. The latest ones combine digital maps and 3-D gaming technology with military procedures and equipment specifications to produce a program that enables commanders, and troops, to quickly put together a simulation of a mission. This is what mission planning is all about.

For the last decade troops were already putting together their own mission planning software. This led the U.S. Army, two years ago, to create their own version of "Google Earth" for combat. This computer application isn't from Google, it just looks like Google Earth. The troops call this mapping software TIGR (Tactical Ground Reporting System). It's inspiration wasn't Google Earth, but mission planning software the U.S. Air Force and Navy have been using for decades.

The most recent versions of the mission planning stuff looks like a commercial (as in from a software store) flight simulator, but with a lot more information displayed. Combat pilots have long used systems like this, which have been on computers for over twenty years, to plan their missions. Before that, it was done manually, on paper maps. Mission planning was not just about who would be where, when and doing what, but also where the enemy defenses were, and the lay on the land. That's because the best approach, to get under the radar, is on the deck. For that, you have to know where the hills and valleys are.

For years, army and marine infantry officers who knew of these mission planners, suggested to their bosses that similar tools be developed for the troops. Patrols, tactical movements and all manner of combat missions could be more quickly, and effectively, planned with mission planner support. Civilian wargame and simulation experts were also eager to do it, and knew, especially in the last five years, that the technology was there. The Department of Defense had already created a huge digital database of maps, and laptop computers were powerful enough to handle the graphics and data storage. The military had Internet type access in the combat zone. Over the last few years, all this agitation resulted in a growing number of infantry mission planning systems showing up.

Now the infantry have better mission planning tools, and these are even more useful than the one the pilots use, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's because the ground troops are doing most of the fighting. The infantry run about ten times as many patrols and other combat missions, than do the aviators. And the ground troops are far more likely to get shot at. Just as the pilots discovered decades ago, mission planning tools and combat simulators can be a lifesaver.



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