Army trains virtually

Before the first shots were fired in Iraq, many American soldiers in Kuwait trained in a virtual urban battlefield

Before the first shots were fired in Iraq, many American soldiers in Kuwait trained in a virtual urban battlefield this month so they could better prepare for what could be fierce fighting in Baghdad or other Iraqi cities.

Soldiers in Kuwait began training March 15 in a simulated city complex called Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain. Soldiers move through replicated city streets and buildings, facing simulated gunfire, typical city noises, booby traps such as trip wires connected to simulated bombs, smoke and other battle situations on a mission that may involve anything from recovering a stolen weapon to freeing a hostage.

Cameras and special microphones digitally record soldiers' movements, even in total darkness, and discussions as they move through the mock city. After the exercise, soldiers review the videotapes with commanders and discuss successes and mistakes.

"This is exactly the kind of facility that soldiers and small units need to practice the skills they have to have to operate safely in those kinds of operations," said Col. Rob Reyenga, project manager for training devices in the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation in Orlando, Fla.

The exercises are intentionally made difficult to improve soldiers' chances of survival in real situations. "All the training comes from an [Army] text, but this is live. They're not in a classroom or on a computer," said Dick Coltman, vice president and general manager of Anteon Corp.'s integrated instrumentation division. "This gives them the athletic and cognitive skills so they remember what to do, and what not to do, to cover their comrades."

Results indicate that soldiers may be learning those skills. Virtual casualty rates dropped from 80 percent to about 5 percent as soldiers increased their training in the simulated city, he said.

Army commanders are eager to give soldiers urban warfare training because they may face stiff resistance in Baghdad's streets. The U.S. military also wants to avoid an outcome similar to that of a 1993 fight in Mogadishu, Somalia, that killed 18 members of Special Operations forces.

"One of the concerns of our forces is the potential for combat operations within cities, even within Baghdad," said Reyenga, who returned from the Middle East about three weeks ago.

Under a $6.8 million contract, Anteon recently built two urbanized terrain units for use in Kuwait and Afghanistan. It delivered one unit to Kuwait March 9. Each mobile training unit container is 40 feet long by 9 feet high and 8.5 feet wide with movable walls. Containers can be joined together in different configurations — side-by-side or stacked — to create large one-story buildings or multistory buildings. An Army platoon of about 30 to 40 soldiers can train in each unit.

Anteon developed the first permanent site at Fort Polk, La. The site is called Shugart-Gordon Village, named after two soldiers who were killed in Mogadishu.

In the future, Army officials would like to make the experience more realistic by using technologies that can simulate weapons capable of firing through soft walls and by including tanks in simulations. n

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