Soldiers test new synthetic training environment

FORT CAVAZOS, Texas — 1st Cavalry Division Soldiers who normally take their Abrams tanks, STRYKER and Bradley combat vehicles to the field are testing a new virtual synthetic training environment indoors.

“We’re helping the Army develop its Synthetic Training Environment; what we call STE,” said Brig. Gen. George C. Hackler, commander of the U.S. Army Operational Test Command.

OTC is involved with STE as the Army’s answer to simulation training for the modern battlefield.

Hackler said the Army is transforming the way it trains Soldiers with cutting-edge advances in virtual reality, augmented reality and gaming technologies. Soldiers involved in the test provide their feedback to help the Army decide the future of STE.

“We can put people in simulated aircraft, ground vehicles, dismounts and units can train and hone their warfighting skills,” Hackler said.

STE will eventually allow Army air and ground warfighting units to rehearse missions together in the same environment from multiple different sites and locations around the world over a network.

The virtual trainers were set up in Fort Cavazos’ Close Combat Tactical Trainer facility, which has a massive amount of floor space for the STE system.

One 1st CAV tank platoon took the STE on an excursion to the field to see if the Army’s idea works as intended. Taking part in the test, they were able to focus on what the system could and could not do, essentially helping the Army improve upon the virtual reality training system.

“I think it’s very beneficial,” said Brownwood, Texas native Tank Platoon Sgt. 1st Class James R. Maxwell with B Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

“We get to pretty much play with it; figure out its left or right limits — what it can and can’t do, its capabilities, its downfalls. We get to see it all and then provide feedback before it comes out.”

One of Maxwell’s Soldiers, Spc. Tanner James Peake, a company commander’s loader on the Abrams tank said, “The fact it’s my first time ever doing something like this, it’s exciting that I’m testing out something Soldiers are going to be hopefully using for a long time.”

Peake, from Covington, Georgia, and a Soldier of two years, explained how his unit usually trains in a classroom, which leads to gunnery, culminating with a trip to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.

“I think the VR goggles are a major upgrade for the loader and the tank commander because you can actually see outside of the tank and see where you’re going versus having to look through a hatch all the time,” he said. “Those are really the upsides.”

Assistant operations officer with 1-8 CAV, 1st Lt. Julia D. Woodlief, acted as a higher headquarters tactical operations center, managing virtual opposing forces while heading up an after-action review with Maxwell’s tank platoon once their virtual mission was complete.

The 24-year-old infantry officer from Inykern, California, said, “After they were done (with their mission), we call them in, to give them a bird’s eye view from start to finish of how they looked on the ground.”

The training Soldiers experience is interactive and immersive, using real-time battlefield simulations that realistically recreate the uncertainty, stress and complexity found in today’s evolving battlefield environments, according to Mr. Robert L. Carroll, an assistant test officer at OTC’s Mission Command Test Directorate.

“You can do training virtually instead of physically going out in the field and having to spend the fuel, the ammo, and the logistics of moving chow and everything,” he said.

Carroll said the 1-8 CAV Soldiers’ excursion in the field tested how the STE could be set up and put into play to train at a field location.

“If you had to deploy, or STE had to be sent overseas for a unit deploying for six or eight months doing a rotation, the idea is, you could send some of this equipment over and you could set some of this up instead of those units having to leave to go out and do their training,” said Carroll.

“They could actually fire these up and do a collective training as well as — with this being networked — they should be able to reach back to wherever and still be participating in collective training with other elements.”

OTC Military Test Plans Analyst Mr. Shelby R. Schoolcraft said, “We put a unit of Soldiers to be trained on the Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer and then we test their ability to operate the system as trained by the program manager.”

He described STE as a collective trainer that can integrate all ground platforms with aviation assets within a battalion.

After Soldiers train on the STE, Shelby’s team of testers with OTC’s Mission Command Test Directorate hold focus groups to get in-depth user feedback on the system.

“We ask some fact-finding questions that get down into the details,” he said. “We also have data collectors with the Soldiers while they’re operating the system and then we’re recording the steps they’re taking.

“We’re looking to see if they’re running into an issue, how they overcome the issue and those Soldier interactions are recorded, so we really capture what is going well with system, what’s not going so well with system and how it can be improved for the Soldier if it gets fielded.

“We’re doing a test that evaluates the ability for the system to be effective, suitable, and survivable for the Soldier to train on,” Schoolcraft said.

All the data collected goes into database and then sent to the Army Evaluation Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland for review, and then a report is written for senior Army leader decision making.

Taking part in the operational demonstration with OTC were the Army Evaluation Center from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland; Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation from Orlando, Florida; The Training and Doctrine Command’s Proponent Office – Synthetic Training Environment; and III Corps units, to include Apache helicopter flight crews with the 1st CAV, along with 1st CAV mechanized infantry Soldiers, Maxwell’s tank platoon; and STRYKER crews from the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado along with Blackhawk and Chinook helicopter crews and Shadow Unmanned Aerial Systems (drone crews), also with the 4th ID.

By Mr. Michael M. Novogradac, U.S. Army Operational Test Command