GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — It was only a simulation, but it sure felt real.
On this clear, cool day, a slight breeze sent leaves tumbling through the air.
American soldiers with the 709th Military Police Battalion were in the process of securing a route from Lomza, Poland, to Suwalki, more than 90 miles away, when the peace was suddenly broken by an unmarked vehicle stopped at the side of the road. A woman stepped out of the car, moments before smoke began to pour from the vehicle.
With the MPs distracted, an enemy force was able to creep up from the woods to the west. From their hidden vantage point, they launched a rocket-propelled grenade, disabling an American Humvee and the soldiers within.
The enemy — a mercenary force of South American origins — disappeared back through the woods, covered by a blanket of covering fire. They left behind three American casualties and a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.
Every part of this unfortunate scenario — from the falling leaves to the smoke that covered the decoy’s escape — was created by the Joint Multinational Simulation Center on the Virtual Battle Space 3 training simulator.
The Humvee operators, members of the 527th Military Police Company, 709th Military Police Battalion, were far away from the dangers faced in virtual Poland. Instead, they were safe and sound in unassuming buildings at the training facilities in Grafenwoehr, where they each controlled their own avatar. Those avatars mimicked real-world roles each would have: Some were Humvee drivers, others gunners, still others commanders. The Humvees themselves were controlled with keyboard or steering wheel controls, much like the ones found in any video game store.
It was all part of a mission-rehearsal exercise, preparing 709th MPs for the Polish-led, U.S. Army Europe-supported training exercise, Anakonda 16. During the exercise, they’ll be clearing the roads of potential threats ahead of a larger convoy of 2nd Cavalry Regiment soldiers on their way to the Baltics and the massive USAREUR operation, Saber Strike.
Virtual-training simulators are nothing new to the U.S. military. Militaries have used virtual representations of battlefields for as long as there have been computers to render them. In fact, the JMSC has used a precursor to the Virtual Battle Space 3 for more than six years. But until this week, no full battalion has operated on this version of the technology.
Such a large-scale simulation doesn’t just save fuel; it gives troops a better sense of the terrain they’re likely to face.
“Believe it or not, it’s more realistic to do it in the virtual environment on the actual terrain that you’re going to be operating on,” Col. William Glaser said. “Obviously Anakonda isn’t taking place here, it’s taking place in Poland. So it gives us the opportunity to allow them to train on the actual terrain that they’re going to be operating on.”
Glaser’s command — made up of active-duty soldiers and Department of the Army employees and contractors — served as both the trainers and the opposition for the visiting military police. Some were responsible for creating the simulated world, complete with real landmarks, buildings and a stretch of road spanning 93 miles.
Others were responsible for acting as the opposing force. They have the ability to generate obstacles for visiting units on the fly. Anything from an angry mob blocking a vital roadway to complex attacks are at their disposal. The scenario set up for the military police this week imitated a hazard that could potentially happen in Anakonda later this year.
“In this scenario, we’ve used a South American mercenary group to come into Poland and conduct … disruption attacks on NATO forces,” said Capt. Tom Bruneau, the center’s opposing-force officer. “We’re trying to create the worst-case scenario in a real-world situation.”
The worst-case scenario underpinning this training mission is the same one that is directing many of USAREUR’s decisions these past two years: sudden Russian aggression. And while it’s unlikely that NATO forces will come under attack during this summer’s exercises across eastern Europe, it’s a possibility the members of the 709th now say they’re ready to handle.
“It’s easy to get drawn in — tunnel vision — and only looking at what’s going on here with this vehicle that got hit,” said Capt. Kara Manning, 527th Military Police company commander. “But you have to step away from that and process the whole situation. There’s other things you need to look at.”