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GIs Test Their Skills Walking Virtual Battlefields

Army Staff Sgt. Donald Kimzey looks constantly to his left and right as his partner struggles to open a gate into an Iraqi-style compound.

With his M-4 carbine in hand to provide cover, Kimzey nervously checks on his partner's progress.

"You got it?" he asks, moments before spotting the inevitable.

"I've got a guy with a gun over here!" he hollers while opening fire.

Inside the compound, it doesn't take long before unfriendlies appear atop buildings, around corners and up the stairs -- where Kimzey's partner is later taken down by gunfire.

If this were reality, the story would tragically end there.

But this is far from the real world. The entire mission stops abruptly, not with blood or death but when a virtual training expert essentially hollers cut. Kimzey and his partner take off their virtual training helmets and their eyes adjust to the lights inside a Fort Leavenworth auditorium.

The exercise was part of a demonstration conducted Thursday to show how the military has taken simulation to a new level. About 20 such systems are in use now, but the military expects them to proliferate and be used routinely.

The computer program, called the dismounted soldier training system, is the first time the military has used virtual training for a walking squad of soldiers on the battlefield. The training allows a squad of nine soldiers to communicate and work together with others just as they might on the battlefield.

Soldiers wear a helmet that provides a realistic display of the virtual training scenario, be it a mountainous terrain similar to Afghanistan or a busy traffic checkpoint. Soldiers can look ahead and behind, up and down.

Sensors are attached to their arms and legs to mimic walking, leaning, hand gestures and more. Soldiers carry weapons and move in place to react to obstacles, threats and signals from other soldiers.

Once the exercise is complete, a squad leader reviews it and the soldiers work together to fix problems and discuss mistakes.

"The things we learn the most are from the mistakes we made," said Mike Lundy, deputy commanding general of the Combined Arms Center Training at Fort Leavenworth. "It allows those mistakes, those experiences to be built up."

Imagine, Lundy said, if a football team could practice together and run plays together in a virtual environment without the risks of getting hurt.

The program won't replace the adrenalin rush and physical intensity of live training. But it does help a soldier practice and gain experience before going out to costly live training missions that carry safety concerns.

"You can take risks in a virtual world that you would not do live," Lundy said.

With the system, heavy enemy fire in the dead of night or obstacles that could injure soldiers or tear up equipment can become part of a regular training regimen without fear of injury.

The virtual system makes it easy to move from day to night, rain to sunlight, confronting a lethal enemy or a non-combatant, Lundy said.

"Combat is the ultimate full-contact sport and it is a very complex environment that we operate in around the world," he said. "It requires realistic training and repetitive training to be able to build the skills and use all the technology we have."

The program has 92 scenarios but almost limitless possibilities given the ability to change conditions at a moment's notice.

The military has used video game technology for years to simulate war with a mouse and a keyboard. It's used simulations for decades to train pilots and the like.

"You don't want to fly on a commercial airliner where your pilot hasn't logged thousands of hours on a flight simulator," said Dan Miller, a virtual training expert and military analyst.

But until now there was little virtual training that could truly help a soldier on foot.

Beyond the clear safety benefits of virtual training, there are cost savings. The new system is about $470,000; a large live exercise costs millions of dollars for two to three days.

Ideally, the virtual training will sharpen skills and help maximize live training, said Miller, who also is the project leader for TRADOC Capability Manager Virtual. That group, based at Fort Leavenworth, is the military organization that plans, manages and integrates Army virtual simulations.

He points out that training of this nature is key as military budgets shrink and available land for live exercises becomes more and more scarce.

The program has limitations, including hand and arm signals. The program recognizes some gestures, but it doesn't pick up all the fine-tuned details that can be important on the battlefield, such as holding up two fingers to suggest two enemies are present.

The Army also wants to enhance the avatars to reflect height and weight and so they'll even have a recognizable face. It all plays a role, Miller said, given that overweight soldiers tend to be slower. A shorter soldier will see things differently than a six-footer.

The system itself is portable and can be set up and used in four hours. The program allows the military to train large formations in small places.

Miller sees plenty of opportunities to enhance the technology.

He wouldn't be surprised if civilians start clamoring for a version of the program, which was designed by Intelligent Decisions Inc. Such translations wouldn't jeopardize the military's efforts, he said. The possibilities, he points out, are endless.

"You know who I could see using this -- SWAT teams."

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