WASHINGTON Fort Benning, Ga., long known as the home of the U.S. Army’s infantry, also recently served as host for a precedent-setting Army-Joint Staff collaboration aimed at testing new technologies for infantry squad-level training.
Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Fort Benning-based Army Maneuver Center of Excellence run a program called the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments, or AEWE, which is now in its eighth year and focuses on network-enabled, small-unit warfare.
The Joint Staff, meanwhile, sponsors a series of coalition capability demonstrations and assessments dating back to 2001 and known as Bold Quest. From Sept. 17 to Oct. 19, the two programs’ staffs merged to assess squad-level live, virtual and immersive training in Army, Marine Corps and Canadian army forces.
The partnered event, known in military circles as AEWE-BQ12, also drew military observers from about a dozen partner nations, as well as Army Test and Evaluation Command analysts and evaluators to report detailed results.
Technology in Training
John Miller, the operational manager for Bold Quest and a member of the Joint Staff’s command, control and communications directorate, told American Forces Press Service during a recent interview that the Joint Staff’s involvement with Bold Quest “goes back well over 10 years.”
“In 2001, what we now know as Bold Quest began as an advanced concept technology demonstration,” he said. While the focus was initially narrow, Miller added, by around 2008 “it became apparent that internationally, there was an appetite … for continuing these capability demonstrations, and expanding their focus, on a regular basis. So we settled into a recurring series of what we now call Bold Quest operational demonstrations.”
Before the linkup with Fort Benning’s AEWE, Bold Quest had been a stand-alone event, he noted. The September-October partnered event was “a significant precedent” for the Joint Staff, he said, adding that partnering with the services for future Bold Quest cycles is something members of the Joint Staff want to continue.
Miller said AEWE and Bold Quest have similar goals.
“They call themselves an experiment. We call Bold Quest a capabilities demonstration and assessment, but the aims are very similar: bring warfighters, developers and analysts into an early partnership, provide the warfighters an opportunity [to work with emerging systems] … and get their feedback,” he said.
The Joint Staff exists, in part, to set the conditions for the U.S. and other nations’ military services to succeed and to cooperate effectively, he said.
An example of that condition setting, he said, occurred during the dismounted squad experiment. “Most people would think that something as basic as infantry marksmanship would be pretty standard around the world. … [But] it’s been eye-opening for all of us, this week, to bring these nations and services together,” Miller said. “Even infantry experts from those nations were … surprised [and] informed to find out that the approaches to basic marksmanship vary considerably from service to service and nation to nation.”
Encouraging varied militaries to congregate and learn together leads to shared viewpoints and exposure to new methods, Miller noted. “Everybody goes away better off,” he added.
The Joint Staff “is not in the business of buying things; we are in the business of making sure the overall capabilities, joint and coalition, get developed in the most efficient way they can for everybody,” he said.
Joint Staff planners approach Bold Quest in two-year increments, as in the current 2012-2013 cycle, he said. At the beginning of that cycle, “the Joint Staff puts out a memorandum of invitation, essentially saying, “The next cycle is beginning. What are your priorities and initiatives for demonstration and assessment?” Miller explained.
The invitation is widely distributed to NATO and other allied and partner nations, he said.
“Then over the next six months, we’re in the ‘receive’ mode,” Miller added. “Because we’re in touch with priorities and capabilities development, there are not a lot of surprises when [responses] come in. But we … get those all on the table, and when you see very clearly that a number of services and nations are all lined up and trying to achieve the same capability, then that tells us the kinds of venues we need to go to.”
Depending on the emphasis, the venue could center on littoral operations along a coastline, or an infantry post such as Fort Benning, he said. Once the location is identified, “then collectively we work out the timing: everybody is grouped up and aimed at the same capability goal: When do we all think we can get there within this two-year cycle?”
Analyzing the Action
Miller said the Army organizations taking part in the most recent Bold Quest divided objectives for the event into “learning demands” that included situational awareness at the dismounted squad level and immersive-system marksmanship, along with an overall emphasis on immersive systems in infantry training.
He pointed out that while virtual and immersive systems played a central role in the experiment, each squad also completed several days of advanced situational awareness training, which was nonvirtual, real-world, classroom- and field-based instruction intended to train soldiers and Marines to be human “sensors.”
“The analysts have taken varied looks at what’s the best progression here,” he said. “How do you take the live and virtual pieces and best sequence them so the soldiers and Marines come out with the optimal outcome?”
ATEC analysts will compare results from each squad and each training sequence, Miller said, noting that some of the most valuable Bold Quest results can come from simply putting systems in troops’ hands. Service members often suggest changes to increase ease of use, field of view and other variables, he explained.
“All kinds of very specific warfighter subjective desires always come out of these things, but you never get them until you get everybody together,” he added.
The Joint Staff is not finished exploring dismounted infantry squad capabilities, Miller noted.
“As we always are in Bold Quest, we’re executing one and in concept development for the next one. … This effort's going to continue, so the outcome of AEWE-BQ12 doesn’t put a wrapper on these efforts,” he explained. “This will provide a foundation for similar partnerships in  and beyond. It’s a building block.”
In the experiment’s aftermath, developers will “tweak their systems” based on feedback, Miller said, while Joint Staff members will plan the next logical level for further demonstrations.
“There was a wrap-up comment made by one of the Army representatives that I think we all agree with,” Miller said. “The most bang for the buck is in training, and that’s what this event was all about, … [and] the results will be widely distributed. The outcomes will be eagerly awaited.”
Training for the Future
Several key leaders for AEWEBQ12 detailed the experiment for defense reporters during a telephone interview Oct. 16.
“We’re not an acquisition experiment, so there won’t be any recommendations coming out of this experiment for the procurement or acquisition of anything, said Gary Daniel, an AEWE Maneuver Battle Lab project lead. “Rather, we're going to provide insights in terms of the ‘goodness’ … of virtual and/or immersive training systems to help inform a couple of efforts: one, to help the [directorate of training and doctrine] here at the Maneuver Center of Excellence develop the future training strategy for 21st century training.”
Secondly, he said, the experiment will inform the Army initiative known as Squad: Foundation to the Decisive Force.
“We’re really looking to see what capabilities have been brought to bear in the experiment that have promise for the future, [and] what limitations are out there from an immersive training environment [perspective] that we need to overcome through live training or technology development,” he said.
Immersive training will never replace live training, Daniel said. “But how can it enhance a training program at the small-unit level,” he added, “to make their live training more effective and more efficient?”
A standard eight-man infantry squad can use immersive training to “do lots of things to some benefit,” he said.
“They can practice their tactics, techniques and procedures for a given mission; they can practice their squad and platoon battle drills; they can actually conduct an upcoming mission in a virtual environment to refine their scheme of maneuver and to modify their [standard operating procedures] inside the unit if necessary,” he said. “So those are the things that are jumping out at us right away.”
Virtual Training Strengths, Weaknesses
Army Lt. Col. Aaron Lilley, lead ATEC analyst for the exercise, told reporters training technology improves each year, but hasn’t reached the point at which a soldier can suspend disbelief. For example, he explained, immersive training can’t yet replicate real-world sensations.
“Motion is a critical part of that,” he said. “A soldier wants to move his character in the system by actual movement, so of course then you start getting into questions of scale, for instance. A basketball-court-sized space supports some number of soldiers training; what is that number?”
Sensory “feel” in the systems is a challenge too, he added.
“[A soldier preparing to enter and clear a room] should be able to feel the soldier he is moving up to and behind, who is immediately in front of him in the stack,” Lilley explained. “He’d like that feel of the soldier behind him saying, ‘Yes, I’m here, we are ready to go.’ Obviously, that’s a sophisticated concept … [and] it could be years away.”
Jim Morris, chief of the Maneuver Center of Excellence training development division, discussed how well an infantry soldier’s performance in simulated training matches up with what his real-world results would be.
“We don’t know, necessarily,” he said. “That's part of what we're trying to get to. … In virtual tools, we're trying to find the art of the possible, and reasonable, and cost-effective … new capabilities for better-trained soldiers to accomplish their mission.”
Lilley noted that virtual tools offer trainers advantages the real world can’t match.
“[When] a soldier goes to either a live range or a virtual range, what the soldier with the weapon is going to do is practice, and that’s not going to change, whether it’s live or virtual training,” he noted. “But to the observer standing near him on a live range, the outcome of his next shot is rather random.”
A coach at a live range can’t share the shooter’s sight picture or aim point, so can’t reliably identify sources of error, Lilley pointed out. “Various [simulation] systems can present the soldier's point of aim, live, as he is drawing his sight picture on the target in the virtual system,” he said. “And then the coach can see where the round impacted after the trigger squeeze. … So the coach gets an incredibly valuable [after-action review] tool that doesn’t exist on the real range.”
One question the Army has “on the fringes of the experiment,” he said, is what the right mix of live and virtual training would be.
“Can you avoid live [training] time on a range or at a MOUT site and still gain … a trained and ready squad?” he asked. A MOUT military operations in urban terrain site typically has several mock buildings where infantry troops can practice cordon-and-search, entrance and clearing procedures they’d typically carry out in a real-world town or city.
With improved technology, virtual training alone could probably get close to that result, he said. But as a leader, he added, he still would want to evaluate that squad on the live range.
Morris pointed out training simulations allow troops and leaders to learn some things they otherwise couldn’t. “How many opportunities does a [squad] leader have to employ a UAV, an unmanned aerial vehicle? Not very many,” he said. “In an immersive environment, every single soldier can do it, and it doesn’t cost much money.”
Similarly, he asked, how many helicopter pilots have trained live on what to do if their aircraft loses a tail rotor? “None,” Morris noted. “However, they’ve all practiced it in immersive trainers. … There are a lot of things that we can do in immersion that you really can't do any other place.”
Lilley pointed out an immersive trainer also allows the leader to alter the training environment, and with a few keystrokes take his squad from city to desert to jungle to grasslands. “Even on a very large training footprint, I don't know that you can get that variety of environments at one home station,” he noted.
Morris and Daniel both noted virtual trainers also allow easy changes to training conditions, so the training leader can dial in factors such as the number of enemies present and the behaviors of noncombatant civilians.
“You can present [soldiers], in a very short period of time, multiple scenarios that are a pretty good training ground for developing leaders and creating conditions where they have to make a rapid assessment of the situation, develop a course of action, implement a decision and pass out instructions to their soldiers,” Daniel said. The same variation in training conditions would be much harder to effect in live training, he noted.
Lilley explained the latest experiment allowed service members three days of training with a virtual technology before they moved to field demonstrations.
“We’re taking each of these several squads, on the fourth day, out to the McKenna MOUT site here at Fort Benning and giving them the opportunity to execute the same tactical mission, in scenario, in the live environment that they were practicing for the prior three days,” he said.
That sequence, he said, allows observers to measure troops’ performance “according to a mission success profile we developed, looking at the key tasks identified by the commander … and how well the unit is able to accomplish those tasks.”
Lilley said service members taking part in the experiment also complete several surveys on their experience and participate in thorough after-action reviews to capture their opinions and experiences during the training.
Each squad trained on each virtual system in isolation, one squad per system, but the squads came together on field assessment days for the assigned missions: area reconnaissance, cordon-and-search and deliberate attack, Lilley explained.
During field assessment, the squads worked together to perform platoon-level missions. “They execute in round-robin fashion, and each squad has the opportunity to become the main effort of the platoon,” he said.
Daniel said the experiment’s designers didn’t include specific objectives for multi-squad training beyond gaining more insight through joint and coalition participation.
“We’re seeing, as an aspect of the Marines’ and the Canadians’ involvement, different ways of doing things [and] different tactics, techniques and procedures, different approaches to learning inside the system so it’s been pretty good for us,” he noted.
Harry Lubin, chief of the Maneuver Battle Lab’s live experimentation branch, said the experiment was “the first time we’ve worked at this level of detail with the Joint Staff.” Based on what the level of success in the first partnered experiment, he added, “We do anticipate this carrying on … as an annual event.”
That yearly look into new systems and simulators from the joint and combined, small-unit perspective, he said, will ensure continued exploration of new and evolving training systems and techniques.