By C. Todd Lopez
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (March 21, 2017) -- In advance of a late-March Stryker gunnery qualification, Soldiers here honed their communications skills on Stryker Virtual Collective Trainers.
The trainers were installed late last year at two locations on JBLM. Since then, they've proven to be valuable tools to better prepare Soldiers for actual live-fire training in the field.
The simulators provide a way for teams to inexpensively get multiple training repetitions on important Soldier tasks, said 1st Lt. Alexander Morales, a platoon leader with Bronco Troop, 1-14 Cavalry, as he prepared his Soldiers for live fire at Yakima Training Center.
AHEAD OF THE PACK
The Army is developing a Stryker Virtual Collective Trainer, or SVCT, that will eventually be fielded to all Stryker brigade combat teams across the force. But JBLM has an SVCT capability now, in advance of everyone else, because they developed it on their own initiative, in conjunction with the Combined Arms Center-Training Innovation Facility, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The eight JBLM simulators are made primarily of painted plywood and are designed to very basically mimic the shape of the inside of a Stryker combat vehicle.
Each simulator has a spot for each position that might ordinarily be found inside a Stryker. For Soldiers who might pop their heads up out of Stryker, such as a gunner, there are holes cut into the top of the SVCT to simulate vehicle hatches. When Soldiers stand and look outside the simulator through those holes, they are surrounded by computer monitors that display scenes from Virtual Battlespace 3 -- a computer-game used to tie the entire simulation together.
More than a dozen computer monitors, the computers that drive them, and the cables that hook them all together, adorn the SVCT. And each simulated Stryker is hooked into the next, so that every Soldier is included in the same virtual environment provided by VBS3.
What the setup lacks in aesthetic military authenticity, it makes up for in dimensional accuracy, said Capt. Aubrey Dustin, chief of small unit training at JBLM's Mission Training Complex. He was instrumental in developing the SVCT at JBLM.
Dustin said he and his team went out and measured a real Stryker when considering how to design their SVCT.
"We took maybe 400 to 500 measurements," he said. "I drew that all out in AutoCAD in order to gain an understanding of where things needed to be inside the modules that we were building ... I had to look at all the measurements I'd taken and then decide which ones were critical to duplicate in the model we built."
Additionally, Dustin was quick to point out that what was developed at JBLM was done in partnership with CAC-TIF at Fort Leavenworth. In fact, he said, both JBLM's SVCT and the SVCT design being developed for the rest of the Army by CAC-TIF have benefitted from the partnership.
The initial design measurements from CAC-TIF had proven to be not as accurate as the measurements that Dustin and his team took. So Dustin was able to give those measurements back to CAC-TIF for use in the design that will be fielded to the rest of the Army
The concept of the 360-degree view screens for Soldiers in the trainers came from JBLM as well -- and that is also now included in CAC-TIF's design. In addition to other things, CAC-TIF came up with the software modules that modify VBS3 to allow it to serve as the virtual environment for training within the SVCT.
Dustin said he calls the version of SVCT now at JBLM "SVCT 1," and refers to the simulators being developed by CAC-TIF as "SVCT 2."
He acknowledges that the SVCT models are much simpler than a real Stryker. But 100-percent accuracy isn't the goal. Soldiers who train in the SVCT already know what a Stryker looks like inside and out. They also know how to operate the vehicle. Familiarity with the Stryker isn't the goal of training with the SVCT. Instead, familiarity with team dynamics, working together, and accomplishing Stryker missions -- without having to use a real Stryker and fire real bullets and burn real fuel during a costly day at the range -- that's the goal of the SVCT.
So while the SVCT Strykers at JBLM are much simpler than real Strykers, "spatially, they feel about accurate," Dustin said. "Where the Solders sit and where the controls are that they manipulate, is exact, so it feels familiar when they start using it. And that gives them the ability to allow the simplification of this model to fade into the background and to mentally be more immersed in the simulation."
The SVCTs at JBLM provide simulated training for Stryker crews like that of Bronco Troop, 1-14 Cavalry.
In early March, Bronco Troop's 2nd Reconnaissance Platoon -- one of two such platoons in the troop -- trained on the SVCTs.
Platoon leader Morales, who has served in that role for almost a year now, has about 30 Soldiers working for him who operate with six Stryker vehicles. They are a reconnaissance platoon.
"Our job is to create reaction time and maneuver space for the brigade. We are the eyes and ears of the brigade commander," he said. Sometimes conducting reconnaissance and security operations calls for the platoon to be kilometers ahead of the infantry battalions in the brigade, Morales said.
With the SVCT, Morales said he is able to provide Soldiers with more than what might be possible out on the range. Virtual training is less expensive, it's easier to "reset" a scenario and start over if mistakes have been made, and a lot more can be configured into a virtual scenario than what can be put out on an actual range.
During one day of training in the SVCT at JBLM in early March, Morales' Soldiers crawled into the Stryker simulators, taking up spots they'd normally occupy in a real Stryker.
Morales had asked facilitators to set up a scenario where the reconnaissance platoon would do recon on an airfield.
"They were able to practice maneuver, how we get to the named area of interest, tactically," he said. "We practiced bounding, practiced actions on contact. On the route from our tactical assembly area to our objective, we had the contractors just sporadically place enemies in our path. So we were able to train that skillset -- how will we react to enemy if we come across them."
At the airfield, the team was able to practice reconnaissance skills, Morales said. "Where do we deploy dismounts. How do the dismounts do when it comes time to report what they see. What's our proficiency when we call for fire on the enemy we are observing."
ANY SCENARIO POSSIBLE
Morales also had the simulation facilitators build into the scenario the appearance of 14 tanks -- something a Stryker is not really capable of confronting in real life -- to evaluate the reaction of his platoon.
"I wanted to see how the platoon would react to an overwhelming force," Morales said. "I think they did really well."
Adding those tanks is something that would not be possible at nearby Yakima Training Center. The only likely place those tanks could have made an appearance would be the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. But he doubted his ability to make that happen even at NTC. But within the SVCT simulation, he said, it's all doable.
"They have everything there," he said. "An entire spectrum of enemies we can face."
Training on the SVCT doesn't just allow the addition of any enemy -- it also allows Soldiers to train in any environment, Dustin said. It's all possible within the simulation.
"We have any terrain they will operate in, anywhere in the world," Dustin said. "So if they are going to Iraq ... they can learn all about that location in the game. We can put them anywhere on any training terrain, in the United States or a foreign country, so they are able to have geo-specific terrain. Also, we can build any time of scenario necessary in order to accomplish their training objectives."
Ideally, Morales said, training for that mission would happen with real Strykers, on a live range with a lot of space. But that is neither cost nor time-efficient. Training on the SVCT allows him to accomplish a lot, he said -- at a fraction of the cost.
"We were able to practice those skills in an environment that is more forgiving," he said. "We were able to identify those mistakes and commit some muscle memory to them, so we are able to execute later on with live ammunition. It gives these guys a chance to kind of visualize themselves in those platforms and practice their fire commands and make sure they are cohesive as a crew, so when the time comes to actually shoot rounds down range, they are more proficient."
Training in the SVCT both mitigates risk and saves resources, Morales said, adding "I think it's a great tool."
Not all leaders or Soldiers have started off as supporters of virtual training such as in the SVCT, Dustin said. But opinions have changed when Soldiers got hand-on experience with the simulators, he added.
"Any initial skepticism that the Soldiers have seems to fade very quickly as they get in and start to do Soldiers' work on these systems," he said.
"Some people come in feeling like it might be like a game they play at home, like Call of Duty. But as soon as you incorporate leadership and training objectives into it, and you get busy doing training, they quickly fully invest themselves in what we are trying to accomplish.," he said "And they all seem to come away feeling that they have gotten a lot of value for their time and effort."
Right now, many Soldiers on JBLM don't know that the trainers even exist, and so they don't know the value they could provide in the way of training, Dustin said. He aims to improve awareness of both the availability of the SVCTs and their capability across the installation.
TRAINING vs. GAMING
A lot of young Soldiers are already "gamers," playing combat-like video games on their home computers or game systems. A lot of older Soldiers are not. Both initially have problems in working in the VBS3 simulators, Dustin said -- but for very different reasons.
"The older generation has a difficult time manipulating a gaming system," Dustin said. "They aren't gamers. They have to be taught how to use the computer and what a gaming environment is. The younger Soldiers have those skills. They don't need to be taught that. But they do have a habit of playing games. And we don't play games. We train. So the younger generation needs to overcome the mindset that this is a game."
Cpl. Daniel Urena, a cavalry scout with Bronco Troop, is one of those younger Soldiers, part of Morales' platoon, who has trained on the SVCT.
The SVCT, he said, is "a good tool to get the crew more comfortable with each other."
Urena hammered home on the improvements in crew familiarity that can be gained with the SVCT.
"You're going to be able to talk to your driver," Urena said. "And he's going to get the sense for being in the Stryker and looking through tunnel vision, the periscopes. The gunner is going to be able to be on top of the Stryker and manipulate the weapons system. And for the TC, you can actually sit up inside the Stryker and manipulate the Stryker and get a feel for your crew and how they move and react to what you say and different ways to communicate. And you're kind of getting a better gel for each other."
Even though he's only a young Solider, Urena understands how the virtual trainer allows his team to get in plenty of quality repetitions of critical Soldiers skills, and working together, that wouldn't be possible if they tried to do it in real Strykers out on the range.
"This is a good way to get the training, crew training, without being involved with the Stryker," he said. "You don't have to get a Stryker ready to go. You don't have to get fuel, you don't have to get supplies ready. You don't have to go out and request land to do this. This is a good precursor to going live. This is a good starting spot. You can get a little more comfortable with the Stryker."
Pfc. Christian Jordan, a Stryker driver with Bronco Troop, agreed with Urena. He's a video gamer. And like in a video game, where players get more than one "life," he said, working inside the SVCT in a virtual environment is much more forgiving than what would be possible inside the steel shell of a Stryker, with live rounds in gun.
"It allows you to make mistakes," Jordan said. "And you learn from it without it being costly. I've met a lot of people in the Army that don't play Call of Duty or Battlefield. If they don't like playing video games, this might be a learning curve. They might have to figure it out and get used to it. But value-wise? The risk is lower. You can make a mistake. You can actually shoot somebody and it's not a real-life injury, it's just a video game. And you re-generate and you move on."
Spc. Anthony Bonilla, a one-time Stryker gunner turned dismount with Bronco Troop, agreed that training in an SVCT before going to the field was less expensive. But he put a finer point on that assessment when it comes to working with live ammunition.
Training in the field, he said, is "more than expensive. God forbid, it could be somebody's life," Bonilla said. "You want to learn from what you are doing here now. If you can learn here, and make mistakes here, you can fine-tune your team and your truck internally, when it comes to the real thing. That's why I think this is a great trainer."
The Army recently changed the way Stryker scout teams operate, from using four vehicles, to using six vehicles. At JBLM today, Dustin said, there is a set of four SVCTs on the south-base Mission Training Complex where he works, and an additional four trainers set up in a complex on the north side of base.
Dustin said he expects that he'll build at least two more of his own version of the SVCT to bring one of the two four-Stryker sets on JBLM up to the new six-vehicle standard. Eventually, when the new SVCTs are fielded to Stryker brigades around the Army, he expects to get two sets of six.
All those trainers are connected together so Soldiers using them can play together in the same virtual space. He said JBLM will be able to train four Stryker platoons at a time with all the gear in place.
"Gaming is a huge savings for the amount of familiarity and repetitions it allows a Soldier to get as he prepares to go to war," Dustin said.