NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — On a plane, Army Col. David Cannon struck up a conversation with a young man who said he wanted to "sign up" and join the Army.
Cannon, who wasn't in uniform and didn't mention his important role in training U.S. soldiers, innocently asked why.
"I want to play 'Mortal Kombat' for real," the young man replied.
That story got a laugh Wednesday when Cannon told it to Army leaders and defense contractors at Fort Eustis, who met to discuss educating and training the Army of 2025 and beyond. But what sounded like a flippant comment wasn't completely off track.
"I sat there and I thought to myself, 'you're going to have the opportunity, young man,' " said Cannon, an expert in integrated training environments for U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. TRADOC is headquartered at Eustis; Cannon works at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
With a shrinking force and tighter budgets, Army leaders must revise how they prepare soldiers to fight future wars. It won't involve a famous video game franchise like 'Mortal Kombat,' but it might mean taking a page or two from that book – and a lot of other books. At the forum, Army leaders spoke directly to defense contractors in the audience on what the future held and where gaps now exist.
At the morning kickoff, Brig. Gen. Joseph M. Martin described the daunting challenge.
As the Army gets leaner and has less money, soldiers must learn faster and continue training even while deployed, Martin said. The answer isn't simply more technology, but combining different technologies into new tools while making it affordable and easy to use.
Consider the concept of augmented reality, which has already made strides in the private sector.
The website mashable.com lists "Seven Ways Augmented Reality Will Improve Your Life." It includes virtual reality displays in museums that replace audio tours, and virtual maps that will allow first responders to spot underground power lines and other obstacles as if they had X-ray vision.
Applying that technology to a traditional Army training exercise allows planners to add virtual buildings, traps, artillery or gun emplacements. It allows trainers to customize exercises at less cost.
The technology is maturing to a point "where it is very possible to see realistic virtual entities in the live training environment," said Lt. Col. Jason Caldwell, chief of National Simulation Center Futures at Fort Leavenworth. "Augmented reality is a game changer. It will revolutionize the way we train as an Army. But there is still much work to do."
The Army has long employed gaming and virtual reality to train soldiers. What it must do — and where defense contractors can help — is combining gaming, virtual reality and live action training into one seamless system that is easy to use.
Another challenge for the military and defense contractors is to develop a massive "global terrain database" that includes not only land and sea, but air and outer space.
That mapping is well underway in some cases, said Todd Richmond, of the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.
"Pretty much the entire world, the land terrain, at least, will be mapped to 1- to 2-meter resolution within the next year or two," he said. "Low resolution data is going to exist ... but we also need higher resolution than that in certain areas and for certain needs. Where can we get away with low-res? How do we swap in high-res? These are all tricky problems."
Subjects such as augmented reality and one-world terrain fall into a category known in Army-speak as Future Holistic Training Environment-Live Synthetic, or FHTE-LS. If that sounds like a mouthful, consider what the Army was envisioning exactly 100 years ago, when the outbreak of World War I ushered in tank warfare and combat aviation, which revolutionized battlefield tactics for generations.
Taking another leap forward into FHTE-LS will involve a culture change in the Army, said Col. John Janiszewski, director of the National Simulation Center at Fort Leavenworth. It will have to consider all of its disparate systems as part of a whole.
"What we will attempt to do is break down these environments and create one holistic environment," he said."We're going to have to change our culture, change the way we're organized, to achieve that vision."
Cannon thinks that young man he met on the plane, and men and women like him, can pull it off.
"Our young soldiers, they think differently than we do. They socialize differently than we do. They entertain themselves differently than we do. They have an innate grasp of all the devices that are somewhat foreign to us."