Army training ‘digital natives’ on virtual battlefield

The Army is using virtual trainers and simulators to prepare its soldiers behind the wheel, beside an operating table and on the battlefield.

Raytheon’s Vice President of Training Solutions Bob Williams told Federal Drive with Tom Temin that the Army has embraced gaming technology and “engagement skills trainers” to provide the tools young soldiers can use to safely — not to mention more affordably — prepare for their missions.

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Bob Williams, Raytheon’s vice president of training solutions

“As you look at the U.S. Army, it’s a very high tech organization,” Williams said during this week’s Association of the United States Army conference and exposition in Washington, D.C. “The kids next door gladly populate our ranks and they demand high quality, high fidelity training; in fact we owe it to them. When you look at the technology that we put on the battlefield today and the necessity to ensure the training is adequately presented, but more importantly that those young men and women as they go forward in these difficult missions have the tools at their disposal to do the great things they’ve got to do.”

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While books are always a good place to start when learning how to operate expensive, complex or dangerous equipment, a virtual trainer can help a soldier safely learn how to use the equipment while not digging too deep into taxpayer pockets, Williams said.

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“One of the things we’ve discovered is that this generation, they are genuinely digital natives,” Williams said. “They grew up on Xboxes and game technology, so they take to this kind of training much quicker. Their ability to take the training on board is very quick, much quicker than others would be, and so we find it much more efficient to train them in this way.”

‘Blood and guts realistic’

The training technology can range from how to drive a type of vehicle to firing a weapon to combat medical procedures.

Williams said there are “engagement skills trainers” that provide the sound, feel and sense of a weapon, even down to the recoil, but the soldier is only shooting at a screen.

“It’s kind of like the best game that you’ve ever been in if you’re in to that sort of activity, and of course, a lot of these young men and women who we have in this great army today are in to that,” Williams said.

Williams said combat medics are also trained in simulation environments, using a “3-D theater” that puts them in various scenarios they might find themselves in on the front lines.

“Blood and guts realistic,” Williams said. “They come out of there, those exercises, extraordinarily well trained. And of course we also put them under great psychological stress in that environment, which is quite frankly part of the task and skillset that a combat medic must have. You don’t want that combat medic for the first time dealing in a situation like that in real life. And we make sure that they don’t.”

Time to do a reset

Williams said Raytheon works primarily with the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training & Instrumentation in Orlando, Florida, to learn what is needed for good simulations. Soldiers are also given the opportunity to provide input.

“We have a whole population of soldiers in our army today, they’ve all been to war,” Williams said. “They all know what ‘right’ looks like, or in this case what real combat looks like. We solicit their activities, their feedback.”

But as companies like Raytheon work to stay at at the edge of cutting-edge technology, one fact that has become obvious is the age of the Army’s tools, Williams said, which is something the service will need to consider in the not so distant future.

“One of the things the PEO struggles with today is a vast majority of our current simulation devices, our virtual trainers, are really 30-years old, with a whole host of patches … and updates that have been put on them,” Williams said. “So budgets being what they have been, the war, there haven’t been significant investments in those training devices, and they need that. It’s time to do a reset of our training devices for this country.”

Listen to more of the Federal Drive’s coverage of the 2015 AUSA Annual Meeting & Exposition.