Welcome to the armed forces; here's your computer

Avatars like these in Barry Silverman's NonKin village populate the training programs used throughout the military.
Avatars like these in Barry Silverman's NonKin village populate the training programs used throughout the military. Barry Silverman/University of Pennsylvania/MCT

QUANTICO, Va. — U.S. military trainees talk to Afghan elders, earn the trust of villagers and roll over Humvees — all without interacting with another person.

The use of computer programs to simulate combat situations is growing in the military, despite concerns over their limitations. And as budget cutbacks hit the Defense Department, cheaper computer-training options will only become more attractive.

Computer simulations have been important training tools in the military for decades. Digital computers were first used for flight simulation in the 1960s. But the gaming aspect to some simulations is relatively new. The Marine Corps bought Virtual Battlefield System 2, which creates a virtual reality environment similar to the popular Sims game, in 2001.

The Marine Corps Training and Education Command boasts at least 14 different virtual training programs. Their gaming aspect, leadership at Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Simulations Division said, is irrelevant. What's important are the decision-making cycles that the simulations reinforce.

"It's like 'Groundhog Day,' " said University of Pennsylvania professor Barry Silverman, who works on computer simulation programs for the Marine Corps, referring to the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray keeps living the same day over and over again. "But at the end of the day, hopefully, you've made your mistake in software and you won't make them in the real world."

Although the new technology is cheaper in the long term than live training is, new technology is expensive, especially as many departments struggle with shrinking budgets.

As the Department of Defense recovers from what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called "the delays, cancellations and mitigations we have been forced to put in place this year," President Barack Obama's proposed budget for the Army cuts research funding for next-generation training and simulation systems from almost $26 million in 2010 to about $18 million. Research on manpower training technology is reduced by almost 15 percent.

"There's a fallacy that virtual training is cheaper than live training. Well, maybe in the long run, but this is one of those things you've got to spend money to save money," said Dennis Thompson, a retired Marine colonel who's the director of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Simulations Division. "What you do save in a simulation is you can run different scenarios in a shorter time and can give the people more repetitions."

Simulators allow units to practice situations that are impossible without virtual reality, such as rolling over Humvees or driving convoys over mountainous Afghan terrain.

The next step, according to retired Marine Dave Dunfee of the Squad Immersive Training Environment, is allowing different units from multiple bases to train together on the simulations, because that's how they'll operate when they're deployed. Often these units don't get to train together in person until 30 days before they deploy.

Before this cross-unit training becomes a reality, though, Dunfee and Thompson said, the military must have the capability to protect the information across the networks.

Skepticism about gaming persists, and the Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith Simulation and Training Technology Center, an organization of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, is studying why some might be reluctant to embrace the virtual training.

"It comes from a bit of ignorance," said Doug Maxwell, the science and technology manager for virtual worlds strategic applications at the center, which is in Orlando, Fla. "What (we) have to do is be patient with those folks and try to educate them and bring them up to speed."

Doug Campbell, the director of the Center for Strategic Leadership at the Army War College, said there were limits to what a computer could handle and that simulations were best left for basic organization.

"The difficulty with simulations is they don't add the fog and friction of war," Campbell said. "Very rarely do platoons or tanks get stuck in the mud in simulations, but that happens a lot in real life."

"What a computer simulation is giving me is background for a less complex issue," he said. "The level of options that the humans may choose to do ... is much more complex than a computer can understand."

But Silverman. the University of Pennsylvania professor, said virtual reality was getting more and more complex, with new technology such as his program NonKin Village, which could be rolled out for the military during the upcoming year.

"The agents are cognitive, they can make decisions, they are aware of their world, they are aware of the issues, they are aware of what they are deprived of," Silverman said. "They're aware of what you do in that world."

Ultimately, researchers, Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Simulations Division directors and strategists think that computer simulations help optimize scarce live opportunity, as each type of simulation counterbalances the defects of the other.

Silverman said that in 10 years simulations would become as crucial to ground forces as flight simulators were to the Air Force. And most military experts agree that budget cuts will enforce the importance of cheaper simulations that don't require live actors.

As Thompson noted, "The old days of just going live, they won't be able to do that anymore."

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)


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