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Soldiers get in the game with DISE

By C. Todd Lopez

BABADAG, Romania (Nov. 01, 2008) -- Imagine an exercise where Soldiers move around in full body armor, storm into Military Operations on Urban Terrain sites, travel in Humvees or Strykers, fire their weapons at "enemy" combatants, call in support from Army helicopters, encounter improvised explosive devices, conduct convoy operations, and maybe even take a simulated bullet.

During an after-action review, Soldiers watch the entire exercise re-created on a video screen in full-color, 3-D computer animation. A presenter zooms in on an individual participant, represented as a tiny animated Soldier. The Soldier's actual name and rank are displayed above the avatar as it retraces every step and action made by the real Soldier it represents.

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Shots fired are recorded and recreated on screen with colored lines from shooter to target. The terrain, the buildings, the vehicles and the aircraft are all faithfully reproduced. The presenter can watch any player or vehicle, at any time during the exercise, from any angle or distance.

That type of after-action review process takes place now at the Babadag training facility, about 30 miles north of Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase, Romania, courtesy of the Training Support Activity Europe, part of the Joint Multinational Training Command at Grafenwoehr, Germany. The JMTC, the Army's trainers in Europe, packaged the training and deployed it as part of the Joint Task Force-East training exercise, a monthlong, multinational exercise between U.S. Soldiers stationed in Germany, along with members of the New Mexico and Utah National Guard, and soldiers of the Romanian army's 21st Mountain Battalion and the Bulgarian army's 10th Company, 5th Infantry Battalion.

Soldiers at Babadag train on firing ranges, conduct MOUT training, and participate in exercises where they and much of the equipment they use can be instrumented with the "Deployable Instrumentation System, Europe," commonly called DISE.

The DISE is basically an instrumentation system for Soldiers, their weapons and their equipment. With DISE, Soldiers' weapons are equipped with a laser that sends out a beam when they fire, not unlike the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES. And like MILES, Soldiers also wear an array of sensors that allow other Soldiers to "kill" them during training. The DISE vest Soldiers wear also includes a Global Positioning System receiver, a computer that identifies the Soldier who wears it, and a radio that broadcasts user telemetry to an array of antennas around training ranges. The vest also comes equipped with a speaker that allows the onboard computer to keep wearers informed about their status in the exercise.

"You have a little computer with a loudspeaker on there," said Doug Meckley, the DISE mission coordinator. "Audio cues let you know what the heck's going on -- so when you get shot it can tell you if you are killed or injured."

It's not only Soldiers who are instrumented with DISE. Vehicles and aircraft can also transmit location and position information into the system.

"DISE can instrument just about anything," Meckley said. "You can put it on any kind of vehicle, from Romanian or Bulgarian trucks to OPFOR vehicles to Polish tanks."

At the core of DISE is its computer system that can track the position and firing activities of some 1,200 Soldiers engaged in an exercise over a training space as large as 1,600 square kilometers (nearly 1,000 square miles). While the exercise is underway, indicators for each player move about a computer screen in real time. They are plotted against backgrounds featuring the actual terrain Soldiers are training on. When Soldiers go into a building, sensors can track their every move, inside or outside, and relay that information directly to the DISE. The buildings themselves are constructed virtually inside the DISE computer. The screen looks similar to a video game, and Meckley said that is appropriate because the Soldiers themselves are very much in tune with game playing.

"A guy that knows how to do video games, and knows how to hook up his game machine - he's an ideal candidate for a Soldier to use DISE. That means about 50 percent of the Army would make a great DISE Soldier," he said.

During exercises, controllers can zoom in on any Soldier from any angle. They can also see when the Soldier has fired his weapon. And when a Soldier "kills" another Soldier during an exercise, the laser itself transmits information about the shooter to sensors on the target. In that way, controllers can see, on screen, which Soldier fired the shot, and which Soldier was hit and where. When a Soldier on the ground fires his weapon and hits a target, color-coded lines appear on the DISE laptop to indicate the relationship between shooter and target.

"If I hit you, you are going to see a line drawn out on the screen," Meckley said. "If it's a pink-coded guy shooting a blue-coded guy, you're going to see a pink line go out there. The system also reports fratricide. And when a Soldier gets killed, you see an 'X' through him."

With past systems, such as MILES, Soldiers could cheat the system during training, even when "killed" sensor vests would issue an audible alert to let them know they'd been hit. But the system didn't prevent them from continuing to fire their weapons to kill off other players. Some Soldiers even opted to reset their sensor vests by removing and replacing the batteries. That's no longer possible with DISE.

"The system is very sophisticated. If you're dead, you can still shoot people, but that laser's not 'killing' anybody anymore," Meckley said. "And if you were seriously wounded, and the system recognizes that you're running around too much and you're playing John Wayne, it'll kill you after 15 minutes because you're bleeding out."

During an actual exercise, commanders and exercise controllers are able to watch the scenarios play out on a computer screen. After all, the DISE allows them an overview of every Soldier and vehicle position. But the real value of the DISE comes after the exercise is over - during the after-action review process, where Soldiers can watch their performance on screen and discuss it with other Soldiers in their unit.

"When you see these battles, you say, 'Gosh, that was so frustrating! I wanted to do this, I wanted to do that,'" Mackley said. "It creates a need for Soldiers and leaders to ask how they would do something better in the real world. In one word, when they see themselves doing something stupid, well you can look to Homer Simpson when he says 'd'oh!'"

But as Soldiers and their leaders review the electronic recording of their performance on the DISE, they also learn from the things Soldiers did right, Mackley said.

"When they get somebody, they maneuvered right and they chopped up the OPFOR out there, they'll all say, 'Yeah, look at him, man! He's taking out everybody!'" Mackley said. "Then everyone says he's the hero for the day and what did he do right, how did we set him up for success? How can we replicate that down range?"

A tiny four-by-four grid of dots. A tiny representation of the Mandelbrot Set. An oscillator from the Game of Life. A twisty thing. A snowflake.