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Author Topic: Practicing war — and watching it — in real time  (Read 1232 times)


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« on: 13 June 2010, 09:45:34 »

Practicing war — and watching it — in real time
New military system offers bases such as Camp Edwards a unique training opportunity

CAMP EDWARDS — The soldiers of Bravo Company push toward a village where the police chief has been killed by insurgents. Suddenly, gunshots erupt from a nearby tree line, the soldiers drop to the ground, and a Humvee-mounted machine gun answers with a ferocious, sustained burst of 50-caliber rounds.

Shouts, noise, and movement mix in quick-time confusion.

But what might seem like the fog of war to Bravo Company is familiar choreography to battlefield observers sitting in a trailer a mile away, where they were monitoring part of the largest military exercise held at this Cape Cod base since World War II.

There, sitting calmly before a bank of monitors, Army and civilian analysts use 3-D images to study each soldier in real time as the unit moves toward a facsimile of an Afghan village. They watch the soldiers crouch, they watch them shoot, they watch the “enemy,’’ and they watch as the town is captured during a firefight with blank ammunition.

This armchair quarterbacking, made possible by a GPS device planted on each soldier, is part of a system developed by SRI International, a nonprofit scientific research institute that the National Guard uses to prepare units across the country for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We can pan and look in any dimension on this screen,’’ said Patrick Young, an Army veteran and SRI manager, as he watched another exercise unfold on Wednesday. “We can say, where’s this guy, where’s this vehicle? We can even ID the names of each soldier.’’

Now, instead of sending National Guard soldiers out of state to large Army bases for certification in battle drills, the system can be used at smaller installations such as Edwards, where 2,000 citizen-soldiers from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York are being channeled through a three-week program that ends June 21.

The mobile system, which uses six temporary towers to track the soldiers electronically, had never been used at Camp Edwards before and will be shuttled to other bases elsewhere when this stint is completed. SRI International of Menlo Park, Calif., which rolled out the system in 2005, is one of the world’s largest independent technology developers and does the bulk of its work for the Defense Department.

“It’s some of the best training I’ve seen,’’ said Specialist Kory Desmond, 21, of Peabody, who is preparing for his second tour in Afghanistan. “It’s teaching the guys all the vital skills you learn the hard way over there. Hopefully, we’ll save some lives.’’

Desmond did not appear to mind that he had been “shot’’ in the chest during the drill, which used role players dressed as Afghan insurgents and civilians in a crackling, fast-moving scenario.

“It gives us a level of realism and complexity that is key to our ability to stress the soldiers,’’ said Brigadier General Thomas Sellars of the Massachusetts Army National Guard.

That realism extends to gruesome “wounds’’ affixed to soldiers by a California special-effects company, vehicle explosions, and replicas of improvised roadside bombs that have inflicted thousands of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the goals, Young said, “is to disorient these soldiers as much as possible.’’ According to Brian Wright, an Army veteran and SRI manager, “the scenarios are about as realistic as they can be without being in combat.’’

Although mock villages, explosions, and role players have long been used in training, what makes this opportunity so valuable is the precise, instant feedback that the technology provides, said Lieutenant Colonel Jack McKenna, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Army National Guard.

After each drill, the 3-D images are combined with taped audio commands and handheld video from the battlefield to provide a comprehensive multimedia record that is critiqued at nightly review sessions by soldiers and officers, much like a football team analyzes its games, plays, and opponents.

“It’s like watching plays on the ball field over and over again,’’ McKenna said.

Although the technology lends a video game aspect to these war games, some age-old routines remain. After the “assault’’ on the village, dubbed Gardez after a real Afghan city, trainers engage the troops in a blunt question-and-answer session.

Staff Sergeant Dwayne Simmons, an observer from the First Armored Division, mixes praise with a dressing-down.

“In the midst of killing the enemy, someone killed this poor civilian,’’ says Simmons, placing his hand on the shoulder of a bearded role player. “You just can’t do that in our business. We close and engage the enemy, not civilians.’’

The unarmed civilian, Simmons said, was shot in the back as he ran from the scene with his hands up. “You’ve got to practice muzzle awareness and thinking on the battlefield,’’ added Simmons, who has served two tours in Iraq.

Out of earshot of Bravo Company, Simmons was more generous in his analysis.

“They did great,’’ he says. “They stayed motivated, and they continued to assault the objective as they were supposed to.’’

Next year, these soldiers — from the First Battalion, 182d Infantry Regiment, based in Melrose — are scheduled to test those skills in the villages and valleys of Afghanistan.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

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