16 May 2010

Wargames: Virtual BattleSpace Simulator

A few months ago, Marcus, a helicopter pilot in the Brazilian Army who runs the excellent "Tactical Flight" blog, wrote about the use of the Virtual BattleSpace System for military training. Based on the game "Operation Flashpoint", the VBS2, as it's commonly referred to, is used by the US, British and Australian militaries to train soldiers on battle drills, convoy procedures, and door gunnery. The 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum has embraced VBS2, installing the software on a network of over 30 laptops. (Trivia time: did you know that the Brazilian army and the 10th Mountain Division fought together in the Italian campaign, particularly at Monte Castello?) With the help of full-time simulator operators, the system can simulate foreign troops, close air support, and even local tribal leaders and translators.

We took advantage of this system in order to train our Downed Aircraft Recovery Team (DART) on convoy procedures, where it received mixed, although generally positive feedback. As is often the case with simulator-based training, the units which benefited the most from the game were the ones who took the "game" seriously. One of the best ways to take the training seriously, of course, is to ensure key leaders are present during simulator training, and that they bring the same materials they would bring on an actual convoy, such as briefing checklists and medevac request templates. Indeed, those that came prepared got excellent training on the little details that--when absent--can spell the difference between success and failure. Units that simply sent 30 people to the simulator to play video games all day, well, played video games all day.

While simulations will never replace real-life experience, simulators can at least serve as good initial training for new troops. Many units lack armored vehicles for stateside training, particularly as most equipment is loaded onto ships a few months prior to deployment. Simulators such as the VBS2 allow troops to train without vehicles, and allow them to make mistakes which would ordinarily be fatal in real life. Pilots in particular glean valuable lessons from simulator training, taking part in emergency procedures too dangerous to replicate in real life.

Although the VBs2 is only a video game, it was surprisingly good at demonstrating the confusion and proverbial "fog of war" which surrounds a battle, particularly in the counterinsurgency environment. In one of the initial levels, you are assigned as an infantryman defending Forward Operating Base Warhorse, an outpost near Baqubah, Iraq. In this level, you hear mortars slamming into the base, and follow your squad to a nearby observation post, where you see an oncoming insurgent attack. Looking through the optics on your M-4 rifle, you see several cars approaching the gate, many of which carry insurgents armed with AK-47s. A massive gun battle erupts between US forces and insurgents. While looking through the sight of your M-4, it's simple to lose track of key details of the battle. Some cars might hold insurgents, equipped with explosive devices, while others might simply be vehicles native to that area of Iraq. One civilian accidentally killed in the crossfire means mission failure in VBS2.

It's a lot harder than it looks in the simulator. Just imagine what it's like in real life, when lives are at stake.

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