Murphy's Law: The Speed Of Need Has Changed Everything

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December 2, 2013: The American military has a difficult time justifying (to Congress) the expense of training simulations. These training tools increasingly use the same technology as popular video games. This means the games can cost over a million dollars each to create. Over the last decade there has been growing use of commercial gaming software for military training. The navy is using these video games for training sailors to handle high-stress and dangerous situations like damage control and boarding potentially hostile ships.

Back in 2001, the U.S. army ordered a training simulation for infantry using the same underlying software found in popular video games. This was successful and led to later adopting the underlying software for the Crysis games to produce realistic combat simulations for training. A more recent U.S. Army training simulation licensed CryEngine 3, a software development system (or “game engine”) created from the Crysis game software. A game engine is the basic computer code for a game. Add your own graphics and scenario information and you have what appears to be another game. Most commercial games either build their own engine, or, more frequently, rent one from someone else. The CryEngine 3 was developed for Crysis, a first person shooter (FPS) wargame acknowledged as the most graphically stunning ever. Crysis first appeared in 2007, and the three versions of CryEngine have been used to create dozens of other commercial games and training simulations.

The army used CryEngine 3 for its DSTS  (Dismounted Soldier Training System) and that made it possible to have the sim ready for use within a year. DSTS was extremely popular with the troops. That’s because combat troops tend to be fans of video games and DSTS put them right inside a very realistic video game. To do this, each participating soldier stands on a 3.22 meter square (10x10 foot) mat that records the soldier's foot movements. This mat enables (along with other sensors) the game to record the soldier's movement. Meanwhile, the soldier will be totally immersed in the game via tiny goggle displays. The small video screens inside the eyepieces mean that, when looking straight ahead, there is a high-resolution display of what the soldiers should see. There is still some peripheral vision to help avoid moving off the mat or bumping into nearby soldiers. Earphones provide realistic audio. A hand held controller handles weapons and equipment. Running in place moves the soldier forward and a turning motion allows movement in any direction within the game's virtual world. Each soldier has the equivalent of a high-end gaming laptop in their backpack, to drive the system. All soldiers in a training exercise are wirelessly networked and use existing commercial software to enable them to coordinate their movements. Troops can enter buildings, duck behind cover, or hit the ground. If they are "hit" they will be disabled to varying degrees, or killed (and go off line, leaving only a virtual corpse behind for surviving players to see). DSTS is used to train fire teams (four to five troops) and squads (two or three fire teams), and each DSTS system can be set up in a shipping container and moved around to different units as needed.

The problem here is that most politicians see this as entertainment for the troops, not worthwhile training. The troops and their commanders disagree but, according to many members of Congress and their staffs (most of whom have not been in the military), this user enthusiasm is not convincing. The training experts sometimes hired by members of Congress (or, more frequently, Congressional committees) only have experience in commercial operations where you can quickly see if a computerized training system has a worthwhile impact on what the employees do on the job. But the military trains for something they rarely do and, short of a war, there is no way to conclusively prove a computer simulation is helpful. Of course there has been a war on terror for the last decade but experience there does not convince a lot of politicians because the military must train for so many different forms of combat and there is a persistent hostility to training simulations among many politicians and journalists. The military believes they have all this under control but constantly come up short in convincing politicians and journalists who have little or no experience with what the troops do for a living.

Meanwhile, the military, especially the army, has found new ways to get feedback from the troops on a wide variety of subjects using the Internet. This sort of thing, while often anecdotal and unscientific, is often more successful at persuading politicians and journalists to leave the troops and their training sims alone. This approach has a track record of success going back 70 years. That’s because the U.S. Army has long conducted surveys of what the troops are thinking. Now they are doing it online and only members of the U.S. Army can reply. Back in 2008, the army began a system of online surveys that made it possible to continuously monitor troops opinion on equipment, training, and many other subjects. It wasn't always that easy before the Internet but the army has been surveying troop opinion for a long time.

It was during World War II that the U.S. Army surveyed the troops on a large scale, using newly developed polling techniques, to see what they thought about their training, leadership, and a host of other items. This was a program that went on throughout most of the war and was conducted all over the world. The surveys were published after the war in a two volume work called "The American Soldier" (Stouffer, et al, still available via Amazon.com). One of the more surprising things to come out of these surveys was the feeling among combat troops that their training wasn't tough enough. World War II "basic" was generally quite intense, more severe than anything recruits experienced in the last fifty years. But actual combat quickly revealed that even more intensity in that training would have been a big, often life-saving, help. The troops also believed that some of their equipment and weapons were wanting. Basically, the troops wanted more realism in their training as well as weapons and equipment more suited to actual needs on the battlefield. These surveys took months to conduct, gather the results, and process the data. Despite that, the army did respond to what the surveys revealed. After World War II surveys continued, but on a lower level of frequency and intensity. That all began to change when the Internet showed up in the 1990s.

For over a decade now the troops have been on the Internet and, like never before, were in touch with each other via military related message boards, listservs, and chat rooms. Troops have always been coming up with new ideas about how to use civilian gear for military purposes. But before the Internet came along, each soldier’s discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new discoveries gets spread army wide within hours. The troops also compared notes about combat experiences, and this led to detailed and compelling critiques about what worked, and didn't work, with current army gear.

The army has established official message boards for discussions, and online surveys are simply doing what is already happening all over the Internet. But it isn't just for show. An earlier survey on proposed changes to uniforms attracted 80,000 replies (when there were 1.4 million people in the active army and reserves). If  survey results don't bring forth requested changes, the army either has to make a very compelling case why not or face the Internet based consequences. The army has found that the survey results and trends monitored via Internet “chatter” are usually quite accurate. This has changed the speed and intensity of transformation within the army. Politicians and media have had a hard time keeping up.

 

 

 


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