Army Training Moves Beyond the Power Point

A U.S. Army Landing Craft Vessel provides a bird's eye view of 3rd Port, Fort Eustis, Va. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt First Class Kelly J. Bridgwater)
A U.S. Army Landing Craft Vessel provides a bird's eye view of 3rd Port, Fort Eustis, Va. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt First Class Kelly J. Bridgwater)

Waging war in today's complex world requires more than the ability to shoot straight or drop a bomb squarely on target.

It means understanding the politics and culture that surround a battlefield. Criminal networks and shady characters can complicate a mission. Winning the war on Twitter and Facebook plays a role, too.

Just ask the folks who run the new OETSC at Fort Eustis.

The name is a mouthful. It stands for Operational Environment Training Support Center. Stacked with flat-screen monitors and visual displays, it represents a deliberate attempt to ditch textbooks, PowerPoint slides and lectures in favor of interactive gaming scenarios that speak to younger soldiers.

It is part of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, headquartered at Eustis. TRADOC operates Army schools around the country. It recruits and trains soldiers and is home to the Army's leading future-thinkers who develop doctrine on how to fight and win.

The grand opening of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command G-2 Operational Environment Training Support Center at Powers Hall inside Ft. Eustis Tuesday morning.

In a short ceremony Monday, officials opened the new center, naming the executive conference room in honor of Maxie McFarland, a former TRADOC deputy chief of staff. They also re-dedicated the building to Private 1st Class Leo J. Powers. He received the Medal of Honor after knocking out a fortified German defense position near Cassino, Italy, in 1944.

Just how far the Army has come since those days was evident during a tour of the facility. For example:

--The Army has created a set of fictional countries, complete with elaborate back stories, so soldiers can play out different scenarios. The website of one such country, Donovia, was on display Monday.

--Army leaders who must develop training exercises can download exercises created for others in order to jump-start their effort. They can also lean on a checklist that one official likened to Turbo Tax, so you don't forget any planning aspects.

--One program is called -- no kidding -- the Mad Scientist Initiative Supporting the Operational Environment Enterprise. It's not about finding the next Goldfinger or Lex Luthor. Rather, the Army is attempting to harness America's intellectual power by reaching out to academics and business leaders who are not the usual suspects -- those defense contractors and analysts who deal with the Army on a regular basis.

The effort is not brand new. TRADOC had operated a facility in the Oyster Point section of Newport News. It moved that operation back to Eustis, renovating a building that wasn't being used.

John Wrann, the center's director of operations, said it made sense economically, and it helps TRADOC to have the center closer to home.

He stressed the first two words of OETSC: operational environment.

"When we are in theater, anything that is within the environment you might deal with -- whether it's political, insurgents, economy -- we define that as the operational environment," he said.

Soldiers who deploy have to absorb a ton of information, Wrann said. With tools developed at the center, they can sit in their barracks with a laptop or computer tablet instead of attending a class or poring through a textbook.

"We literally replicate reality," Wrann said.

Even fictional Donovia has a real-world ring to it. It is among five fake countries that occupy the region between Russia and Iran. Why not train against real-world enemies? One reason is flexibility. The training tool allows designers to update and tweak it to simulate new world conditions.

Joel Williamson, an operational systems engineer, said some scenarios force soldiers to react to a public relations problem. What if a soldier kicks a dog and a video of the act goes viral on YouTube? They can create Facebook and Twitter posts, requiring commanders and public affairs officer to address that problem.

The Mad Scientist initiative represents another twist. The Army is trying to go beyond the "echo chamber" of always talking to the same experts, said Thomas Greco, TRADOC's deputy chief of staff for intelligence.

For example, the Army sent members of the 101st Airborne Division to Africa during the Ebola outbreak. That was a worthy effort, but Greco asked, "Did the whole intellectual might of the nation go with them?"

Linguists, immunologists and other experts might have supplemented that mission.

"Who are the folks we don't talk to," Greco asked, "who have ideas that can really help us?"

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