Europe soldiers get shot at Army's virtual training system
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 21, 2013
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Bravo team is clearing rooms inside an Afghan compound when automatic fire rings out.
“Got enemy in the room!” a soldier calls.
“Contact!” another says.
“I’m dead,” the SAW gunner says.
Game over, man.
A nine-man squad from Company B, 3rd Battalion 66th Armor Regiment, was running a virtual scenario in U.S. Army Europe’s new Dismounted Soldier Training System, the Army’s first widely fielded virtual system for soldiers on foot and the first to reach Europe.
The long-awaited system is intended to provide infantrymen what vehicle replicators and command simulators have offered — a chance to train away from the ranges, and ideally on the cheap.
The Bravo squad ran five scenarios in five hours one day this week, according to Dave Darnall, program manager for Training Support Activity Europe. Doing the same in a live shoot house would take longer, he said, and the costs, which include ammunition and manning the range, would be higher.
“In a day, you’re talking about a maximum capability of doing that two times” on the range, he said, ”maybe three if you’re good.”
The virtual system places nine soldiers in a 10-by-10-foot room, each standing on a round black pad and wearing a 10- to 15-pound computer backpack and multiple sensors to track movement. A virtual headset swings down from the helmet like a night-vision piece; replica weapons like the M4 and M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon approximate the weight of the real thing.
Soldiers stand, take a knee or turn in place to register the same movements on the screen. They walk by using a thumb toggle on the weapon grip.
Dismounted Soldier employs the graphics of Virtual Battlespace 2, a video game long used by Army trainers for soldiers in front of computer terminals. Terrains in the game can be imported into the virtual system, such as a mock-up of the garrison created by programmers at the Joint Multinational Training Command here for emergency training or active-shooter training for MPs.
The controllers behind the virtual scenarios can also replicate weather, enemy numbers and assets such as Stryker armored vehicles or helicopters. They can manually control the enemy.
“The only limit is the commander’s imagination,” Darnall said. “We can make it dark, we can make it snow, we can make it rain storms from hell.”
The long-term goal of Darnall and others at the training command is configuring different simulations to talk to one another in the same scenario: Theoretically, a commander looking at his simulated battlespace on a computer monitor could direct soldiers in a vehicle replicator who might support soldiers on the dismounted system.
Yet merging simulator architecture is time-consuming and requires funding, Darnall said.
The dismounted system also has its hiccups to overcome. Technicians ran between soldiers during Wednesday’s training to adjust settings, troubleshoot the occasional software glitch and teach each man how to calibrate the replica weapon.
One team leader was forced to sit at a computer monitor to play his role after his virtual set stopped working. Yet by the fifth scenario of the day, the action appeared fluid, as team leaders called out instructions and soldiers learned to move around and through the compound.
Spc. Joshua Bruner, who deployed with the 3-66 to Afghanistan, said he appreciated the level of detail on the terrain and the people.
His squad leader, Staff Sgt. Chris Carpio, gave a more tepid appraisal, calling the game slower and less realistic than the video game Call of Duty.
“It’s a good ‘crawl’ phase” for moving into live training,” he said.
That’s all Darnall says he wants. Virtual isn’t meant to replace time on the range, he says, but to supplement it by reinforcing basic procedures so guys are better prepared when they get to the ranges.
“They wouldn’t get as good as if they were out in the field,” he said, “but they can get a lot better.”
Soldiers with B Company, 3rd Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, in Grafenwohr, Germany, prepare to begin a training scenario with the Dismounted Soldier Training System, a virtual simulator for an infantry squad. U.S. Army Europe recently received its first suite of the software and equipment, at the Joint Multinational Training Command.
Steven Beardsley/Stars and Stripes