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Pacific edition, Thursday, May 31, 2007

CAMP CASEY, South Korea — Characters from “The Matrix” might feel perfectly at home as battalion commanders in Iron Focus II.

The 2nd Infantry Division, 1st Brigade’s ongoing exercise principally evaluates its commanders’ decision-making skills during battle.

However, technology has blurred the line between real and virtual so much that as far as performance evaluation goes, that line is almost irrelevant.

The battlefield includes soldiers and machines in three ways:

Those created entirely within a computer program.

Real soldiers fighting in virtual simulators in a building at the Camp Casey Close Combat Tactical Training Center. The simulator replicas include Bradley fighting vehicles, tanks, Humvees, helicopters and rooms for dismounted infantry.

Soldiers physically present at Rodriguez Range or other training ranges. The soldiers wear vests with tags that beam their location to a satellite and then back to the control center at Camp Casey Warrior Training Center.

All of these soldiers and machines reappear digitally on training center battlefield screens with graphical precision that rivals top-selling commercial video games.

At the same time, all three categories of soldiers and machines appear as icons onscreen to battalion commanders in the field.

“The commander doesn’t know which one of those icons are virtual, or from the construct or whether each of them are real,” said Maj. Shannon Ayers, 2nd Infantry Division deputy operations officer and chief of exercises.

The emphasis on technology was born out of necessity, Ayers said. Ranges in South Korea don’t have the space for full-scale, high-intensity conflicts. By combining the training grounds with virtual battlefields, the scenarios can accommodate whatever elements an exercise’s script writers throw at commanders.

The writers, who take their lead from brigade commander Col. Chris Queen, can throw “curveballs” into the script such as computer-simulated civil unrest, followed by “protesters” actually showing up at Rodriguez Range in front of the live soldiers.

Putting the computers, the virtual machines and the live soldiers together is a new step for the Army, which will review 2nd ID’s after-action reports as it decides how to incorporate technology into evaluation exercises Armywide, Ayers said.

The brigade broke new ground in January when it incorporated the Initial-Homestation Instrumentation Training System into its Iron Focus I exercise. The system tags soldiers and displays their individual movements on computer screens.

The January exercise had its share of technological bugs to be worked out, Ayers said. If officials hadn’t learned from those mistakes, the brigade wouldn’t have been able to integrate the computer-created elements with the live soldiers and simulators this time, Ayers said.

The dozens of simulators cost $4.2 million, which sounds like a lot, but rivals the cost of one tank, Ayers said. The simulators allow soldiers to retrain at a fraction of the cost and time of a battalionwide live retraining, he said.

The simulators re-create Army equipment in exact detail, and even include motor and artillery noises, though they don’t include the grit and grime. They also are portable, existing in cubicles or in trailers like the Apache attack helicopter simulators at the training center Tuesday.

“Any aircraft in the Army inventory, we can replicate,” said contractor Arthur Yearby, a retired chief warrant officer.

Young soldiers weaned on video games pick up the new technology very quickly, but it still amazes some of the experienced veterans who have seen Army training change so much in the past 20 years.

“We had one computer when I was a company commander,” said Lt. Col. Don Wilkerson, simulation cell officer in charge. “If you would have told me then that I would be spending 80 percent of my time using a computer as a tool, I would not have believed it.”

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