Two years ago, PlayStation-style war games helped soldiers of 5th Battalion The Rifles (5 RIFLES) get ready for their tour of Iraq.
Before departing for theatre, troops spent hours in simulators and replica operations rooms at the Sennelager Training Centre in Germany, driving virtual vehicles and commanding computer-generated ground patrols.
Many of those soldiers are now gearing up for Op HERRICK 15 and once again the early stages of their pre-deployment preparation took place in cyberspace.
Major Jim Faux of The Rifles oversees mission-specific training at the Sennelager facility. He said the aim was to give personnel a full picture of southern Afghanistan:
We replicate Helmand as closely as we can without getting the real people - it’s not immersion, it’s teaching theatre tactics, techniques and procedures, as well as command and staff drills,” he said.
The simulation is absolutely critical to what we do because there is nowhere else we can exercise like this without putting hundreds of soldiers and vehicles out on the ground.
It’s not quite ‘Call of Duty’ [a popular computer war game] but it’s getting there,” he continued. “We’re seeing the guys go out the door and do very similar missions.
On HERRICK 12, [1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment] carried out an air strike they had rehearsed here, and it was a huge success. 42 Commando [Royal Marines] have also just undertaken an aviation insert with a ground link-up in Nahr-e Saraj district that was similar to one they practised.
Two different training units use the gaming-influenced technology.
The Combined Arms Staff Trainer allows headquarters personnel to fight on-screen battles during a week-long exercise which tests commanders’ plans and the performance of operations room staff.
A separate five-day course at the Combined Arms Tactical Trainer (CATT) sees drivers and ground forces drafted in to digital missions, using vehicle simulators to increase the level of tactical complexity.
Lifelike imagery from theatre is beamed onto flatscreens and backed up by real Afghan actors who are on hand to role-play situations with the exercising troops.
Vehicle Commander Lance Corporal Saul Brunt, 5 RIFLES, said he was impressed with the CATT facility:
I will be working in Mastiff and Husky armoured vehicles in Helmand, and these exercises are exactly what we will be doing on operations,” he said.
It’s good being able to look in-depth on the ground and the zoom is amazing - I can see details such as groups of civilians and herds of goats, and also where IEDs [improvised explosive devices] have been laid.
It’s a bit odd when someone knocks on the simulator door and I have to pull out my best Pashtu, but it’s good because it’s another thing to think about,” he added.
Mastering new weapons and vehicles such as the Sharpshooter rifle and Mastiff remains a key part of pre-deployment training, but modern warfare skills, such as language and cultural awareness, are playing an increasingly important role:
We are checking that these young boys - corporals and riflemen - have the ability to talk to someone through an interpreter and show themselves to be professional and in command of a situation,” said Warrant Officer Class 2 James Byrne, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, who oversees the simulator-based learning in the tactical trainer.
The Afghans will not speak to him if he doesn’t appear confident and starts asking them stupid questions.
I look to see whether they are using the language they have learnt correctly and how they interact with people because that’s a big part of being a vehicle commander.
In the Army today you need to be able to communicate as well as fire a weapon,” he added.
Every effort is made to ensure the simulated experience is as close to reality as possible so troops get maximum benefit from the real-life mission rehearsal exercises that follow:
We had the Close Support Logistics Regiment in here a few weeks ago replicating their communication kit, weapons systems, and spacing drills for vehicles,” said WO2 Byrne.
They were all sorted out before they got behind the wheel. It’s excellent preparation for them.
Perfecting their drills in Helmand-themed simulations will stand personnel from 5 RIFLES in good stead for their battle group role.
The next lesson for the infantry unit will be in using their cyber-honed skills on the proving grounds of the Stanford Training Area and Salisbury Plain, but they will have to wait until the autumn to see the true benefit of the virtual training, when it is put to the test in southern Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, HERRICK-bound headquarters personnel get a taste of computerised conflict during a week-long course at the impressive Combined Arms Staff Trainer (CAST).
The focus is on taking a problem and turning it into a set of military orders, with soldiers working in a brigade or company command setting.
Operations rooms are set up to replicate those found in the forward operating bases in theatre, which instruct Combined Forces responsible for specific areas such as Lashkar Gah or Nad ‘Ali.
All major units deploying to Afghanistan will pass through the CAST at either Sennelager in Germany or Catterick and Warminster in the UK.
The trainers see between 100 and 120 personnel coming together for the first time to form a mission control hub:
We start them off with the basic stuff for day-to-day living on operations, such as patrols, leader engagement and moving food, water and ammo,” said Lieutenant Colonel Nick Channer of The Royal Regiment of Scotland, responsible for running the course at the Sennelager site.
We build up the complexity by giving them a number of intelligence feeds that lead them to an objective, which they will plan to strike.
Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) detail from Afghanistan has been added to simulations, and those deploying on Op HERRICK 15 will be the first to benefit:
It’s as realistic as it can be,” Lt Col Channer said. “A commander will come in and sit with an Xbox controller and take his patrol out on the ground, and headquarters will see their men moving around on the screens.
Lockheed Martin’s Combined Arms Tactical Trainer is the world’s largest virtual reality training system, allowing up to 400 war-fighters to train together in an immersive computer-generated environment.
More than 140 mock vehicle cabs, turrets and firing points are housed in metal containers in a huge warehouse-like space that is roughly the same size as a football pitch.
Troops under training fight digital foes, with on-screen operations viewed through a simulator’s periscopes or weapon sights.
An adjacent room contains a headquarters from where commanders and intelligence officers can plan and view missions as they unfold.
Entire battle groups can be connected in cyberspace through a local area network that hooks up hundreds of control stations and allows their actions to interact and contribute to synthetic serials.
Personnel are routinely immersed in virtual wars for hours - and the level of reality is such that some will experience ‘simulation sickness’ similar to the effect of a roller coaster.
As well as lifelike graphics, realistic terrain and sound effects, small details - such as engines overheating if left idle for too long - are played out:
The level of detail is fantastic,” said Major Edward Whishaw of the Corps of Royal Engineers, in charge of the £330m facility, which boasts one the largest air-conditioning units in the world to prevent the mass of computer equipment from overheating.
We used to have stick men running around on screen, but now we have game-quality features with 3D lifelike human figures,” he continued.
It’s a modern gaming environment that, hopefully, a young 18- or 19-year-old soldier will appreciate; replicating theatre with a carbon copy of reality, and getting vehicle crews and multiples to come together and train.
It doesn’t replace the real thing, but it complements it by making sure troops are prepared to get the most out of field exercises that follow.
This report by Sharon Kean was first published in the July 2011 issue of Soldier - magazine of the British Army.