TCS Daily


No Train, No Gain

By James Pinkerton - April 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the third part of a four-part series.

FORT IRWIN, California -- "Sweat more now, bleed less then." That's the motto of Lt. Col. Charlie Jumper, one of the behind-the-scenes wizards of the US Army's National Training Center (NTC) here in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Jumper can't quite hold the world in his hand, but he can see everything worth seeing at NTC from his computer screen. And from the same vantage point, others, too, can see into the future, to a world where everyone and everything is "smart," because it's all embedded in a network.

As I saw for myself amidst the nitty-gritty of Tiefort City, the experience of being on the ground, in an even half-way realistic situation, is enough to get one going, suspension-of-disbelief-wise. And that makes NTC training a valuable experiential tool for the real thing on the battlefield, later on. As I saw while visiting the Operations Center, a.k.a. the "Star Wars" building, all the high-tech that's been grafted into the training experience has not changed its real-feel essence. Wargaming is still wargaming, under the day or night sky; what's new is that everyone else can be networked in to watch, too.

Yet even if sitting inside the Star Wars building is a videogame-ish experience, the game is being played outside. The challenge to those observing inside is to do their work -- that is, identify the best and worst of what they see, so that it can studied and remedied -- as intensely as those who are outside maneuvering in the dirt and heat of Fort Irwin. As the colonel says, "We have to be tough on ourselves," making sure that lessons are learned, then learned some more.

Indeed, in the past, US military trainers and simulators weren't tough enough in pressing home their lessons: twice in the decade before Pearl Harbor, the US Navy practiced sneak attacks on its own fleet on Oahu. Yet even so, at dawn on December 7, 1941, we were sleeping.

Jumper has a helluva title: "Director of NTC Instrumentation and Information Systems." Yet even as he looks after $750 million worth of equipment, he maintains a crinkly sense of humor; his business card features a cartoon-vulture carrying a camera and a computer, hovering over the words, "Nowhere to Hide." Indeed, he reminded me of his fellow Texan, Tommy Lee Jones, the actor -- the same understated style, but also the same sturdy strength of purpose beneath it all, in spite of it all. As a way of illustrating how he sees his job, Jumper showed a clip from the briefly famous EDS commercial -- first shown during the 2000 Super Bowl -- of cowboys herding cats. OK, it's not easy, he seemed to be saying, but somebody has to do it.

Jumper's Army background is in flying helicopters, but now he's a "simulator." And so to listen to him is to hear a language that's both old and new. The old lingo includes the familiar verities of solid soldiering: "Train like you fight; fight like you train" and "See the enemy before he sees you; 'cuz if you do, he's gonna die." The new lingo is drawn from high tech -- and the even higher tech to come. Three decades ago, the New Thing at NTC was the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) -- basically, laser tag. MILES evolved into the Tactical Engagement System Simulation (TESS), which is still an evolution-in-progress, but which already stretches far beyond shooting and getting shot (by a laser). Indeed, as Jumper conducts the tour of his Star Wars warren, one sees TESS-men and TESS-women watching everything from infantry to artillery to armor to aircraft, all from screens. The humans -- some in uniform, but mostly civilians -- barely take notes; they are there primarily to make sure that cameras and computers can record everything that might be happening at or above, say, Tiefort City. Later, the participants will get a full readout of what happened, allowing them and their superiors to draw forward-looking conclusions.

As Jumper explains, TESS facilitates three kinds of training. First is "live." That is, a soldier is actually out there shooting at something, using either MILES or real ammunition. Second is "virtual," in which an actual person, connected to a machine -- inside a tank out in the desert, operating the joystick of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) inside Star Wars--reacts to a simulated situation. Third is "constructive," which is to say, the combat on both sides is completely virtualized; humans are still the key players, but the combatants are "fighting" on screen. This last constructive level of training might seem PlayStation 2-ish, but it's no fun to play, because there's no freewheeling whatsoever; combatant commanders must obey strict rules of engagement, and must also manage their resources--fuel, ammunition, water--as if they were on the battlefield. Moreover, the constructive layer of simulation is built upon the live and virtual layers. And so each level -- live, virtual, constructive -- offers its own challenges and its combat-learning rewards, as trainees move up to higher gradations of abstraction and complexity.

Indeed, NTC's horizon now extends way beyond its own 642,000-acre patch of California desert. Just to the northeast of Irwin is the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station; across the state line, in Nevada, is Nellis Air Force Base. Aircraft from both sites are frequent co-participants in "jointness" - enhancing exercises. Meanwhile, most of the way across the country, at Fort Rucker, Alabama, the Army's Aviation Center has given rise to a complementary simulation system; it's routine for soldiers in both places to "fight it out," constructively. And that's not all. As Jumper explains, the goal is to extend the simulated battlespace all over the world, and beyond the world, into outer space.

The Texas colonel is at the cutting edge of a whole new career track in the Army, called "simulations operations." And because it's the military, the Simulation Operations Officers not only have their own acronym -- FA 57, for Functional Area 57 -- but also declare their own credo: "Simulation Operations Officers: the elite cadre that trains the force today . . . and enables the Army's Transformation for tomorrow." At the top of this particular cone sits the Army Model and Simulation Office (AMSO), which is directed by a civilian, W. H. "Dell" Lunceford Jr., who in turn reports to the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Army G3 (Operations, Plans, and Training).

In the future, when the Pentagon is completely "netcentric" -- that is, networked and thus transformed -- everything, as the simulators say, will be "smart." Not only will each man or woman be completely "situationally aware," but each piece of equipment -- maybe even each bullet -- will have an info-identity that will enable it be tracked as it is stored, even as it is fired, or otherwise expended. And those same tracking systems will help make sure that bullets and other projectiles reach their intended targets.

Yet while it is tempting to get lost in a high-tech reverie, the stone-cold reality that unites all these acronyms -- NTC, FA 57, AMSO, G3 -- is training. Training for anything, high-tech or low-tech. And so while developing successful scenarios for future warfighting against advanced powers is always on the mind of Jumper & Company, it's just as important to simulate earthier missions, most notably, Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). Which is why there's so much action at Fort Irwin's Tiefort City.

Indeed, it is in the human-scale realm -- of learning, identifying, and acting -- that one can get a glimpse new vistas of "NTC-able" missions. Ready-for-anything police training, to name one example, would benefit from a dollop of NTC wizardry.

Moreover, one realizes that many functions in the private sector -- from education to commerce to entertainment -- boil down to the same cycle of learning, identifying, and acting. So after awhile, one observes an underlying unity between what's happening in the military and what's happening in the workplace. In both sectors, public and private, there's an electro-trinity that undergirds all operations: the network, the applications, the edge devices. If it's the Army, that trinity might manifest itself as a soldier at the edge -- the "tip of the spear," as the Army would say -- sending back information, sometimes consciously, oftentimes automatically, via specialized applications that the secure network can process, for the benefit of the entire military network, if need be. If it's Wal-Mart, the "edge" might be an ordinary employee keeping track of inventory, using a handheld device with special applications that feeds data back to the company's proprietary network. In both instances, of course, the robustness of the network is critical, and so is security.

Speaking of security, arguably the most urgent unmet need is for better homeland security, from watching ports and coastlines to monitoring airports, train stations, and other public places. And it's in the homeland security realm that one sees the overlap -- or, more ominously, the potential gap -- between public and private safekeeping. Because if the American military was grievously unprepared for 12/7/41, the larger American society was egregiously unready for 9/11/01.

Already, much cross-fertilization exists between the public and private sectors. Both uniforms and suits have an obviously conjoined interest in national security and homeland security, and increasingly, they draw upon the same tools. Of these tools, the most valuable is a strong and secure network -- the key to both security and profitability.

So what does the future hold? Will the martial sector and the commercial sector grow closer together? And what will happen to people as networks get smarter?

We'll take up those questions in the fourth part of this series.

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