FORT EUSTIS, Va. A Humvee bumps along a dirt road fringed by mountains, their snowy peaks glinting in the sun. Rifle shots crackle from a rocky bluff, signaling a Taliban ambush. Suddenly an explosion rocks the vehicle, tossing it from side to side before it bounces to an uneasy stop, smoke billowing into the cab.
This is a roadside bombing, Hollywood style. But this is no film set. The Humvee is part of an elaborate simulator that prepares soldiers for one of the most hazardous jobs in Afghanistan today driving.
Training to defend against the Taliban’s most lethal weapon, the improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., can feel a bit like taking a ride at Disney World these days. Or watching a 3-D movie. Or playing an interactive computer game.
The simulator is just one example of how the Pentagon is trying to harness the high-tech wizardry of the entertainment industry to counter the low-tech bombs, which have killed more American troops in Afghanistan over the last two years than gunfire.
Known as I.E.D. Battle Drill, the system uses amusement-ride hydraulics that can make passengers feel as if they are hitting potholes or buried mines. Screens surrounding the vehicle on three sides display Afghan-like terrain in high-definition video sharp enough to discern rocks on the roadside and leaves on the scrubby bushes.
“This is better than anything I can recreate in the field,” said Maj. Michael Dolge, a Fort Eustis trainer who experienced several bombs attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I think my gunner would have had some unpleasant memories if he rode in it.”
The simulator is just one of several game playing or virtual-reality devices the Defense Department has hustled into operation as I.E.D. casualties have risen.
At Fort Bragg, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., soldiers and Marines have begun training on a program created by the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California that uses fictional video narratives and a multiplayer computer game.
In one video, an insurgent played by an actor demonstrates how I.E.D.’s are built, planted and detonated; in another, an American soldier describes how his team responded to a bomb attack. The session finishes with a 15-minute interactive computer game in which one team tries to avoid getting blown up by the other.
In another application of gaming technology, Defense Department programmers working in a strip mall near Fort Monroe, Va., have taken daily intelligence reports, surveillance data and satellite images from Iraq and Afghanistan to produce computer-generated simulations of the latest I.E.D. tactics and technology.
The high-quality graphics, which can depict Blackhawk helicopters or sandal-shod insurgents, are generated by a commercially available war-gaming software called Virtual Battle Space 2. Completed simulations are then e-mailed to commanders and intelligence officers around the world.
Mark Covey, who oversees the simulations unit, said many officers were initially skeptical about his simulations until someone compared an insurgent video posted on the Internet to one of his productions depicting the same attack. They were virtually identical.
The counter-I.E.D. systems are just one part of a broader trend by the military to use virtual reality, 3-D technology and computer game software to train deploying troops and treat combat-scarred veterans.
The firm that helped convert an actor into the creature Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Motion Reality, has created a 3-D virtual reality training program that simulates small-unit combat missions.
Therapists at several military and veterans hospitals are also using a system known as Virtual Iraq to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The system, based on a computer game called Full Spectrum Warrior, helps patients to re-imagine, with the help of virtual reality goggles and headphones, the sights and sounds of combat experiences as a way of grappling with trauma.
The effectiveness of the new technology is still being studied. But some critics warn that computer games and virtual reality systems used for training are only as effective as their software, meaning that programs that underestimate the creativity of the enemy may leave even the best-trained troops with a false sense of mastery.
But advocates say the new training systems can be easily updated to reflect changing realities on the ground. And they point to other advantages, including that most systems can be transported to the war front.
Trainers say that the I.E.D. Battle Drill’s greatest benefit may be in teaching soldiers to stay alert for unusual details in the landscape that might signal buried bombs or impending ambushes. Those clues could be as obvious as a speeding truck or as subtle as a pile of rocks. Crews that spot those clues and respond are rewarded by moving onto more complex scenarios. Those who do not get blown up.
“The best way to defeat an I.E.D is to find it,” said Master Sgt. David Richardson, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq who now trains soldiers at Fort Eustis.
Getting blown up is also instructive, trainers say, because it gives soldiers a taste of disorientation that might help them recover faster from a real attack.
“The first reaction is to freeze,” said Gary Carlberg, training chief for the Joint IED Defeat Organization, or Jieddo, a Pentagon agency. “But if I can build up your threshold through one or two explosions, you won’t freeze and become a target.”
The simulator grew out of the kind of alliance between the military and the entertainment industry that has become more common since 9/11.
At the behest of Jieddo, Richard Lindheim, a former film studio executive and past director of the Institute for Creative Technologies, recruited a team of experts. Cinematographers invented a high-definition camera capable of seamless 360-degree shots. A veteran sitcom writer plotted the training scenarios. Gaming programmers built those scenarios into videos. And a company that has created rides for Universal Studios and Disney manufactured the equipment.
Mr. Carlberg said: “We’re not going to armor ourselves out of this problem. But if we can, we take the most valuable, flexible resource we have, the human being, and maximize it, that will make a significant difference.”
As Seen On (The New York Times)