Virtual-reality training plunges soldiers headlong into combat

Helmet-mounted system is one of several intended to improve ground-unit training

A new high-tech, helmet-mounted training system measures heart rate, pumps out smells and releases an electrical jolt when a soldier virtually dies. It might sound like a video game, but this is military-grade virtual reality, and it aims to save lives by priming service members scheduled for deployment to make sound decisions when they come under fire in combat.

The Future Immersive Training Environment (FITE) was developed by the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in coordination with the military services and a team of cognitive psychologists and human behaviorists to incorporate biofeedback into the system.

During system testing at military installations such as Camp Lejeune, N.C., supervisors have been able to monitor how immersed, excited or stressed a soldier or Marine equipped with multiple sensors on helmets, knees and weapons becomes.

“We want to focus on how young men, ages 18 to 24, think in complex environments," said Jay Reist, FITE operational manager at JFCOM. "Through this virtual experience, we can engage that and prepare them for deployments. We want their first firefight to be no worse than their last simulation."

FITE targets training and integration for small-unit, squad-level training so that service members are better able to handle tactical decision-making under stress, which is inherent to combat duty, before they arrive on the battlefield.

“This is about how they detect anomalies and make proper decisions," Reist said. "It enables them to go over countless repetitions in decision-making, and it’s rewards-based for good decisions."

The helmet-worn system toggles through a virtual world that features the smells, sounds and imagery of war, in addition to a shock device — all designed to realistically simulate the terrain of the southwest Asia theater of operations.

Scenes in the virtual reality include interaction with local Afghans — through virtual images paired with voices of cultural experts who collaborated on the project — and outcomes of the engagement depend on user response and even small details, such as the way the participants hold their guns, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rob Lyon, a JFCOM spokesman.

“We took strides in interviewing returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan to have a good view of lessons learned and get an understanding of what we needed to create,” said Clarke Lethin, technical manager of the FITE program at the Office of Naval Research.

It’s no coincidence that FITE has the feel of a video game. It’s part of the training strategy. “This generation adapts quickly to this virtual technology," Reist said. "They understand it and are comfortable in using it not as a game but as a training system.”

FITE, which successfully passed through the first phase of development, is still under evaluation, Lyon said.

The FITE program is part of a number of high-tech training projects that JFCOM is pursuing, spurred by a DOD mandate to improve small-unit training through immersive, virtualized, tactical-level combat preparation. Warfighters can use another training system, the Joint Theater Level Simulation (JTLS), in theater and access it through a Web browser. The computer-assisted simulation tool models an array of combat situations, including multisided air, ground and naval conflict, with logistical, special operations force and intelligence support, Lyon said.

JTLS uses graphical interfaces that can be customized depending on the device used to access the program, which could be one of the command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems already deployed to the theater.

Along with another program, Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation, JTLS has been used as a core training tool for joint forces and NATO modeling and simulation training.

Infantry-level training capabilities are set for an increase in immersive, modeling and simulation training capabilities, according to Capitol Hill testimony from JFCOM Cmdr. Gen. James Mattis. Mattis also called for increased focus on high-tech training for small units, such as the squads that the FITE program target.

“The deputy secretary of Defense has directed funding to the services and Joint Forces Command to support the urgent development of infantry immersive training simulators as part of a broader national effort for small-unit excellence,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Forces Committee March 9.

“Focusing efforts to enable small units to combine initiative, critical thinking, and joint warfighting experience will allow for brilliance in combat skill basics and agile responses to the enemies we face,” he added.

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