Marines try plug and play SIM

The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab looks to simulation to help build warfighting skills

Simulation has been a major element in training for many in the military, but it’s largely missing from training for Marine Corps ground combat troops, something a new research program is looking to fix.

The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL) is trying to find ways to provide realistic simulations to help troops in the short term, with the long-term goal of defining a broad technology architecture that would allow plug-and-play simulations using a range of systems. Given the budget, training area restrictions and time factors now pressuring the Marine Corps, they hope to start delivering interim solutions within the next few months.

As an example of the effect such ground combat simulation might have, program leaders at MCWL point to the training aviators receive with cockpit flight simulations. A similar quality of ground combat simulation has so far not been possible.

The technology hasn’t been up to the task, said Maj. James McDonough, modeling and simulations analyst at the Marine Corps Training and Education Command (Tecom) technology division. “When you put a pilot into a combat trainer, you are controlling the surroundings,” he said. “But that same capability can’t be provided for the guy on the ground because he’s moving around and doing a lot of other things.”

There’s also an intuitive pushback from Marines about using simulations because their tasks tend be tactile and manipulative, said Maj. Ray Pursel, modeling and simulations analyst in the Experiment Division at MCWL.

“You touch things, move things and coordinate with other folks,” he said. “The easier task for computer simulation would be the coordination and the ability to move through scenarios multiple times. That’s good management of resources and time, but still, the intuitive tasks of the infantryman are not yet touched by simulation.”

Pursel and McDonough are co-chairmen of the Infantry Skills Simulation Working Group, which has the job of developing a formal infantry simulation program. ISSWG, in turn, is a partnership of MCWL, Tecom, the Office of Naval Research and the Program Manager for Training Systems.

The idea is to use simulation for the more cognitive tasks in an attempt to gain better acceptance from Marines for the idea of simulation. A current focus, for example, is on the Deployable Virtual Training Environment). DVTE, which is in the prototype stage, is intended to help sustain personal skills using workstations linked in a simulation network that can emulate a wide range of scenarios. It addresses a large subset of Marine Corps combined-arms training.

MCWL is introducing DVTE to platoon commanders and squad leaders as a practical application helping them more effectively bridge the gap between classroom instruction and live training. One example would be training for mortar call-for-fire situations. In the classroom, there won’t be enough rounds for every Marine to go through an actual call-for-fire, McDonough said. Simulation can provide instruction in the basic skills and for mission training before going to live-fire training.

Other simulators already deployed or in development include the Marine Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer and its follow-on, the Reconfigurable Vehicle Simulator, which train Marines in basic and advanced combat convoy skills needed for various terrain and weather conditions.

The use of simulation in predeployment training is one area that the MCWL team is focusing on now, Pursel said. Because the training cycle is so short for these forces, he pointed out, the choice is between doing some things once or not at all and just concentrating on the few things they consider most important.

The goal of the Simulation Enhanced Predeployment Training and Rehearsal (SEPTR) program, for example, is to provide troops waiting to be deployed with the repetitions they need in various scenarios and give them at least some of the training they would otherwise not have time for.

It will also be a development platform of sorts for simulation technologies and techniques. The SEPTR team will evaluate several battalions’ training plans from now to fiscal 2010 and introduce various technologies where appropriate, distribute the lessons learned and best practices that result, and use the findings as input for future research and development.

SEPTR was introduced with the 7th Marine battalion in October, Pursel said, and the results will be evaluated during a training exercise later this year.

The intent is to push the technology as far as possible into ground combat training and produce settings and situations that are as realistic as possible. But Pursel and McDonough said it can only go so far.

“The thing you can’t do in simulations, and probably won’t ever be able to do, is provide the intensity that you get with live fire,” McDonough said. “You can go through [tactics, techniques and procedures] and recognition decision scenarios, but the real combat experience is what you don’t have.”

So the goal now is to identify infantry tasks that can be taught using simulation and that are in the best interests of the Marine Corps, then put the resources together to make that happen, he said. One longer-term target the MCWL team has in mind is to build a simulation system-of-systems, a scalable infrastructure that will enable a number of different systems to be integrated to meet whatever levels of instruction and effect are required, wherever they are needed.

It’s not possible to build one large system that can meet all training needs, McDonough said. “It’s not just one thing we want to get out, it’s the architecture we can use to support the troops from the individual all the way up the scale. That’s where we have to be smart.”

One scenario would be to have a single simulation running on a number of networked laptop PCs with the ability for Marines to easily plug in devices, such as laser weapons or live-fire weapons with instrumentation on them, and have the visual output displayed through a head-mounted display or projected onto a wall.

Pursel said the technologically difficult things could take five to seven years to develop. But the intention is to release systems such as the DVTE as they are ready.

“The operating forces don’t want to get the perfect solution in 2012, they want an 80 percent solution they can use this year or next and build off that,” McDonough said. “So it’s our business to provide the Marines with the best training capability we can now, while making sure we develop the best capability we can to support them in the future.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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