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WASHINGTON — As the Defense Department prepares to expand the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by tens of thousands of troops, the Pentagon wants to provide more computer simulation training and online education for small units of joint combat ground troops who are expected to engage small bands of decentralized enemy fighters, a top official said Tuesday.

"I think it needs to be a substantial investment," Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward, the new deputy commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, said at a media breakfast in Washington.

"Our forces need to be prepared to fight and win in both a conventional fight and in irregular warfare, even hybrid warfare."

The comments echo those of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who, amid a shrinking economy, is emphasizing that Defense spending should meet the rapidly changing nature of warfare over big-ticket budget items intended for traditional conflicts between nation-states.

Harward said that the Pentagon was drawing from combat experiences in Sadr City, Iraq, which until earlier this year was the stronghold of fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the 2006 fighting between Lebanon and Israel. In those battles, small bands of insurgents and Hezbollah who operated among urban populations used "technologies that were only available to state actors previously," Harward said, citing such things as sophisticated rocket attacks and listening communications.

"We have a lot of nonstate actors who now have the access and availability of this technology which enhances their fighting capabilities tremendously. That’s going to be a challenge in the future."

As a result, joint combat units will be expected to take the lessons learned from the past seven years and work in smaller and more fluid joint units. That places a premium on training individual unit leaders to operate more independently, Harward explained.

Harward most recently was deputy commanding general of Joint Special Operations Command. He is a Navy SEAL with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. At a recent visit to the live-fire National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., he observed a convoy run through a costly live simulation training of an ambush in a small village that uses role play actors.

"Why couldn’t I have done that all with [computer] simulation?" he asked, envisioning running troops through 10 or 20 simulation scenarios at home before sending them into the live-fire exercise.

Pilots, especially those of single-seat aircraft, receive extensive and costly simulation training, Harward said. "We need that same sort of individual [training] for the infantryman … that individual on the ground so he can have that same sort of experience and corporate knowledge before he goes into the fight.

"I was finally one of the lucky ones who got a Wii for my daughter for Christmas," Harward said. "My daughter stands in our living room with a little handle and she can play tennis, watching the ball come and go, and she can bowl, spin — it’s an amazing simulation. We don’t have anything like that for our troops."

"But if I can get that sort of simulation for the village in Afghanistan, driving boats going through a maritime — all that sort of simulation? Incredible benefits for our fighting force," he said.

"There’s a lot we can do from what we’ve seen over the last seven or eight years," he said, learning from "those guys on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan."

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