Virtual training companies offer products to military

Services seek “immersive simulations” to prepare future troops.

ORLANDO -- The palm trees are strung with Christmas lights here in the home of Disney World, and that's appropriate, because the military services arrived with wish lists in hand. At the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, companies large and small listen to what the services say they need, while showing off what they think the military might want.

The exhibit hall booms and cracks with the sounds of virtual bombs hitting targets and rifles firing. A number of booths are staffed with small villages of people in Middle Eastern garb, arguing, haggling and keening as they enact market scenes and arrests.

In the lecture halls, the interactions are more serious. Air Force Gen. William R. Looney opened the conference on Tuesday by noting that "today, our airmen are trained in the same structure that we trained in in 1942. A class shows up, is billeted and begins class with an instructor in a classroom." That format, he said, simply won't work for new recruits. "The young men and women joining our services are used to doing things on their own time. They don't want to wait until 0800 on Tuesday morning. They want to work at it on their PDA at 2 a.m. They prefer to take the test when they're ready, not when it's scheduled."

Retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, president of the Institute for Defense Analysis, reinforced the need for change. "We are asking soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to fight in cities among multiple cultures with different motives, affiliations, incentives [that] we never expected soldiers or Marines to have to deal with on a daily basis. It has created the strategic company commander, the strategic platoon sergeant, the strategic squad leader." How can the services prepare these new players? "Simulation is going to play a major part. We badly need those immersive simulations so they can experience the environment before they are in it."

And so it went all day -- flag officers, active and retired, admitting they are leading a generation of service members whose learning styles and needs are utterly at odds with military teaching tradition. Members of the generation known as the millennials "are coming into a Navy whose physical, program and policy structure was built for [baby] boomers," said Vice Admiral John C. Harvey, chief of naval personnel. "But we are on our way out." Boomers make up only 3 percent of the military. More than 40 percent of service members were born after 1985.

"It's digital immigrants versus digital natives, and soldiers today are natives. They are very comfortable with gaming, and it allows them to get more done in less time," said Maj. Gen. James W. Parker, who heads the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

So what exactly are the services looking for from companies in the simulation, virtual worlds and high-tech training arena?

For starters, help in leveraging network-centric -- or better, infocentric -- operations, says Welch. And training for service members in how to manage the flood of information now available to them in theaters of operations. "We have to face up to the fact that while we are in a world of explosive access to new knowledge, the ability of the human to retain the information is clearly limited," he said. "To prepare people for what we are going to ask, we need repetitive, tailored, highly accessible distributed training. . . . We need to teach people how to discover what they need to know when they need to know it."

Language and cultural training is critical, said Paul Mayberry, deputy undersecretary of Defense for readiness. People from all over government need training in working together in small teams on nation-building and training foreign nationals, he said. Several speakers at the conference had high praise for Tactical Iraqi, a game produced by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Mayberry also said there's a need for simulators to help the services find ways to train, especially with live fire and sonar, in ways that limit environmental damage and harm to animals. Whatever companies come up with must be interoperable, he stressed. "If companies develop products based on proprietary information, data or systems, it is a nonstarter from the very beginning."

For the Navy, especially, companies also must devise ways of delivering computerized training to a force that is routinely at sea. "How will we deliver it in a dispersed, expeditionary force without T1 lines trailing it?" Harvey asked.

Officers suggested that the proliferation of improvised explosive devices soon will be every bit the threat that nuclear proliferation has been. So IED detection is a vital need. Parker would like to find a way to tag and track soldiers involved in civil operations, and to get help in assessing which candidates will make the best Special Forces members.

To create the strategic leaders in the lower ranks required in war with an adaptive enemy, officers are seeking a way to better teach rapid decision-making in ambiguous environments, discrimination in the application of fire, and intelligence fusion. They also want better portrayals of terrain in simulation and simulated players with better artificial intelligence to react to service members in training scenarios.

With all the emphasis on digital natives and computerized training, you'd think it was a slam dunk that most soldiers are avid gamers. But according to a couple of recent studies, that might not be true. According to James Belanich of the Army's Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, only 30 percent to 40 percent of soldiers have video game experience. He and several other researchers surveyed 777 West Point cadets and found 60 percent had no or limited experience with video games. A second project showed that of 10,000 soldiers surveyed, fewer than 32 percent play video games weekly. While suggesting further study, Belanich said his results indicate that the wholesale embrace of game-based training could leave some soldiers offline.