The Emerging Power of Interactive Virtual Simulation Training Environments — A Force Combat Multiplier in Austere Times
Article by: Tom Rozman
Leadership manifests in many forms. Visionary and strategically significant leadership may operate in realms not often thought of by analysts and commentators. The following vignette considers a way station in a less analytically traveled byway of leadership that had significant strategic effect.
Two officers from the 1st Armored Division’s G-3 (Plans, Operations and Training) Section of the division’s general staff were traveling north on the Autobahn from the division’s headquarters in Ansbach, Germany to its sister VII U. S. Corps division’s 1st Brigade’s headquarters location in Northern Franken, the northernmost region of then West Germany’s Bavarian State. The 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division was located in Schweinfurt, scene of one of World War II’s most costly strategic air attacks by the U. S. Army Air Force daylight bombing in an attempt to cripple German ball bearing manufacturing, Schweinfurt being the center of this industry for Germany at the time.
For one of the officers it was a return engagement, his father having been assigned as a staff major to the brigade’s 30th Infantry battle group 23 years earlier. His son would be assigned as a lieutenant to the brigade’s tank battalion 9 years later for the remaining months of the division’s assignment in Germany before it’s relocation to Ft. Stuart, Georgia and redesignation of the brigade in Schweinfurt as a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division.
The officers were interested in learning as much as possible about a new form of training technology being introduced into the Army’s formations with tremendous actual and potential ramifications for the immediate and later future of the heavy force. This was especially the case for affordability of individual and collective mission essential task training. The ever spiraling cost challenges the Army faced as emerging weapons and systems technology came on line were rapidly outpacing training affordability using the combat system itself, i.e., the tank or infantry fighting vehicle as the primary training device for initial and sustainment task and skill training.
To underscore the sense of urgency the officers had in getting as up to speed as possible on the Army master program deployed for the new technology was an around the corner milestone for their division. The about to occur transition from the 1st Armored Division’s fleet of M60A3 tanks and the L7 105mm main gun training ammunition round to the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank (MBT) ultimate configuration with a 120mm gun and its training round, was an anticipated quadrupling of the per unit training ammunition costs. Traditional gunnery of 50+ rounds per 50+ tanks per armored battalion was a sustaining training “no go” for annual gunnery training strategies in the developing austere federal budget environment. Even in the interim program to employ the 105mm gun in the initially fielded M1s, the gunnery table’s ammunition allocations were being cut almost in half. This cut would coincide with a gunnery training system and device in the process of being fielded. The system had already been deployed to the units of the 3rd Infantry Division.
The Army was leveraging developing technology that had become increasingly possible with the revolution occurring in computing technology. Programming work using the increasing computational power of the ever more capable new generations of computers had made remarkable strides in creating interactive virtual simulation environments.
These environments increasingly allowed replication of individual and collective mission crew tasks on ever more sophisticated and functionally faithful to actual operational equipment simulators. In the case of gunnery tasks for individuals and crews of a tank, a simulator had been developed that completely replicated the interior of the fighting compartment of the tank turret. When the gunner and tank commander looked through the gun sight in the simulator, a digital graphic representation of the terrain being negotiated appeared, to include terrain features and enemy. Movement on the digital terrain was dynamic and interactive as was the array of targets. The system could even scale levels of difficulty into engagement scenarios. It could then record all aspects of individual and crew performance in the engagements for feedback and lessons learned sessions with the tank crew.
This capability was being deployed in a one per tank and mechanized infantry battalion allocation. The Unit Conduct of Fire Trainer (UCOFT) simulator system when installed on its contractor constructed concrete pad and connected to its power line was a somewhat U-shaped installation of three steel shipping container type structures—the left arm of the “U” housed the servers and computers, the bottom of the “U” provided the simulator entry point and an initial briefing and debriefing station, and the right arm contained the simulator and a facilitator station.
The 1st Armored Division team was enroute to study the systems and obtain feedback from the 3rd Division team who had now fully integrated the UCOFT’s into their annual gunnery training cycle. The brigade had, using the UCOFT’s in preparatory training negotiated the live gunnery tables on the reduced ammunition allocations. The 3rd Division’s 1st Brigade Team had hands on feed back on the true capability of the UCOFT as a viable training multiplier and system to allow gun crews to reach battle standards of proficiency, even with less training ammunition.
The criticality of this learning curve was underscored in the case of the mechanized infantry units that would be turning in their venerable M113 Armored Personnel Carriers with the pintle mounted .50 Caliber M2 Browning Machinegun for a true fighting vehicle. The M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle’s about to be issued with their turret mounted 25mm Chain Gun and two tube-launched, optically-tracked, wireless-guided TOW Missile pod affixed to the left side of the turret were true fighting vehicles that would require dedicated crews.
The M2 as a weapons system placed an expanded gunnery proficiency challenge on the reorganizing division’s mechanized battalions not unlike the challenge that confronted the tank battalions. This was a new environment for the mechanized battalions. The importance of the UCOFTs in achieving and sustaining mission readiness would clearly hinge on the effectiveness of the integration of the devices into each battalion’s gunnery training program. If the power of the device was to be effectively leveraged, effective integration was critical.
As it happened, the senior officer of the 1st Armored Division party, a promotable major, had witnessed much of the Army’s ongoing training revolution with ever improving simulation and virtual systems. Eight years earlier as a mechanized infantry company commander his company reconfigured with attachment of three tank sections into a unit capable of replicating a Soviet Motorized Rifle Battalion tactically. A sister company from his battalion would reconfigure with platoons organized with the then current mechanized mount, the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier, and the Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicle (MICV), a prototype that later became the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The companies would oppose each other in battle scenario after battle scenario for four months as part of the MICV Operational/Developmental Tests 1 and 2.
The vehicles were equipped with a suite of sensors, laser weapons simulator and a smoke/whoopee light alert pylon that would allow them to engage each other on actual terrain in the closest thing yet to active combat. Each vehicle had a data feed system to pylons positioned around the battlefield that would transfer all engagement data to a digitized map of the battlefield terrain. The data collection would allow detailed reconstruction of the engagement and the capability to extract relevant assessments of performance. This was the prototype system that would become the Army’s MILES (Multiple Integrated Force Engagement System). It would be fully deployed at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California and later to centers at Ft. Polk, Louisiana and Hohenfels, Germany.
Two years before the MICV test, the major had been given an intimation of the coming force on force training system while serving as an escort officer for then Brigadier General Paul Gorman (later General). General Gorman was directing project work on several important training developments projects. He was briefing the U. S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Commander, General William DuPuy, at the U. S. Army Infantry Board at Ft. Benning, Georgia. The briefings concerned the then prototype system that he would experience on the MICV tests. The briefings coincidentally examined aspects of the emerging MICV program
From these and other exposures the major was privy to, he knew that a massive Army training and new equipment revolution was in progress that would greatly leverage the training system beyond anything previously known in the Army. The training system, particularly in its ever more powerful simulation capabilities, would assume an almost combat multiplier effect.
The officers after an hour and half drive arrived at their destination, the UCOFT facility that had been emplaced at Conn Barracks one of the Schweinfurt Garrison’s installations, a World War II Era Luftwaffe airfield.
The visit, having been pre-coordinated, the non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) and the brigade S-3 were at the site to greet the two 1st Armored Division officers. A quick tour of the U-shaped facility followed with an excellent description of how each of the three elements operated separately and as a whole. This was followed by a summary of the brigade’s learning curve in integrating the systems into their pre-gunnery training program and the impact the system had had on their gunnery performance. There had been some teething problems such as the very basic aspect of getting over the “it’s a toy” syndrome and getting to the hard application of the device as a combat training system. Then the 1st Armored Division party was walked through the crew gunnery site-training event, observing several crews use the devices.
In the following question and answer session, it was clear to the 1st Armored Division officers that the system was a training game changer. It more than compensated for the reduced per tank training ammunition allocations for live gunnery. Integrated in the garrisons with some existing systems like the sub-caliber devices, it allowed a tremendous improvement in task skill replication with real time feedback for correction that simply didn’t exist in the current system. Very powerfully, given the effect on crew mission effectiveness if a gunner or tank commander, for example, was replaced, the system could be used in a focused way to bring the reconstituted crew to proficiency in much less time.
The two 1st Armored officers concluded their business and returned south to their division. The work of installing the division’s 11 UCOFTs (one per mechanized/tank battalion/armored cavalry squadron—the 1st Armored at the time had ten maneuver battalions and a cavalry squadron) and educating its battalions on their use would clearly be a top priority. The systems would initially be used in an interim configuration for the existing fleet of M60A3 tanks then upgraded in some 8 months for the M1 Abrams tanks. There was much work to do.
The major would by then be assigned to the Department of the Army’s Armored Family of Vehicles Task Force where he would interface with even more advanced development such as the simulation networked system (SIMMNET) that would allow platoon and higher formations to maneuver in deadly combat on large swaths of digitized terrain. Among other positions he would advocate while on the task force would be the integration of the simulation capability into the vetronics architecture of future fighting vehicles with intent to allow a virtual individual vehicle crew to formation training capability that would deploy with the vehicle on any contingency thus assuring a readily available battle training system when deployed.
In the event, the powerful battle readiness capability these training systems represented became clear during the operations in the first Gulf War and the Second Gulf War. As it happened, the visit of the 1st Armored Division party to the 3rd Infantry Division’s, 1st Brigade’s UCOFT training site at Conn Barracks, Schweinfurt, Germany was a stop on a way station of a great Army training revolutionary journey. One that was moving toward an unprecedented battle training capability whose effect would be demonstrated 6 years later and again some 16 years afterward.
The vision and perseverance demonstrated by the Army’s leaders in its training developments community must be credited with much of the success achieved. Often in bringing on new technologies and methods of training, there are significant cultural inhibitors typically characterized by such as, “we’ve never done it this way before and I like the old way.” But the budgets were going to be cut, and some visionary leaders saw electrical current as an alternative for the lost training ammunition as a viable alternative…one that might even leverage readiness well beyond traditional levels. And these leaders had the courage and tenacity to bring the concept to reality. The results again were truly spectacular.