Updated at 8:20 p.m. PDT to correct name of the M1A1 trainer to Abrams.
FORT BENNING, Ga.--There must be a million ways the U.S. Army trains its newest infantry recruits, but when CNET News.com comes to town to do a story, the service rolls out the latest digital simulators.
Not long after I arrived at this giant military installation near Columbus, Ga., for one of my last stops on Road Trip 2008, I was escorted into a building to see VICE, the Virtual Interactive Combat Environment trainer. It's a system from Dynamic Animation Systems that puts recruits through what the Army hopes is a realistic set of battle-like exercises designed to get them ready for physical training later on.
It's hard not to mistake VICE for a big video game, since it runs on several large digital screens on which you can see animated battles that would look very familiar to anyone familiar with most any modern war game, especially those that are multiplayer.
When I walked in the room, a squad of soldiers was playing with VICE, each one with their own station.
The idea is that a drill sergeant can take a squad through various battle scenarios using the simulator, and each soldier will see their own avatar in the digital mission, as well as those of his squadmates, and working with a weapon that includes an Xbox-like controller. At least those, that is, who each would be able to see if they were on a battlefield in real life.
At the same time, the sergeant has access to a set of screens that can show him everything that's going on with the squad, in real time. This way, he can see exactly how each soldier is doing in the scenario training and, later, use what has been learned to help each recruit work on what he needs to do better.
Because it's digital, VICE (see video below) allows the Army to change up almost any imaginable variable: Terrain, enemy strength, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan or almost anything else. Indeed, the system allows for running through digital versions of real-life missions.
All of this is aimed at two major things. First, getting new soldiers familiar with how to work together as a team before they ever set foot on a real-life training battlefield. And second, getting the recruits to that point without having to use any ammunition, which can be quite expensive.
Further, it can help insulate them against the shock of something like an IED--improvised explosive device--which is hard to do on a training battlefield. And even as I watched, the room shook with a loud boom as an "IED" was set off in the middle of the mission.
According to those who have used VICE, it is a great tool, even if it looks more like something you'd find in a video arcade than a high-level military training system.
"You can always tell the difference between" those who have used VICE and those who haven't, a private told me. That's because, he said, VICE-trained soldiers have better communications skills, both verbal and nonverbal.
But not every new Army recruit is getting access to VICE. Rather, it's limited to a single battalion at Fort Benning right now, due to budget constraints.
Finished with VICE, I was taken to another simulator on the base that is being used to help raw recruits with their efficiency.
This one was called the Engagement Skills Trainer, or EST.
Here Sgt. Darren Shavers demonstrated how the Army is using digital technology to help thousands of new soldiers become better marksmen and markswomen.
EST is a large-scale system that can accommodate up to 15 soldiers at once in training exercises designed to help them with their marksmanship, teamwork, and rules of engagement responses, otherwise known as "shoot/don't shoot."
Essentially, EST is a digital firing range. On one side of a long, dark room, a soldier lay on the floor, aiming a machine gun at a large screen with targets on the opposite end.
He fired several shots, which retorted loudly, but which weren't actually live-fire.
On the screen, however, Shavers was able to punch a few keys on his computer, and up popped a large-scale version of the soldier's target, showing how accurate he'd been.
With EST, the Army can learn exactly how accurate they're being, even down to how long they hold their triggers, how much they move their guns before and after they shoot, and whether they aim from the left or the right.
The idea is to drill fundamentals into the recruits, trying to get them to do things the same way every time, again without having to put them onto real training fields before they're ready.
Similarly, EST can be used to work on scenarios in which soldiers have to make split-second decisions based on the Army's rules of engagement. As Shavers put it, this way, recruits can screw up without having to be court-martialed for shooting a civilian by accident.
EST also helps teams of soldiers learn how to work together, since they can run through scenarios in groups--again, things that would be hard to do with traditional training exercises, Shavers said.
My last stop of the day was to the CCTT, or Close Combat Tactical Trainer. This facility at first looked like it just featured a bunch of large, nondescript yellow boxes and little more.
But look closer, and each of the yellow boxes contained a trainer for one kind of armored vehicle or another.
The idea here is that each trainer is equipped to look and feel almost exactly like the corresponding real vehicle.
That way, after a soldier has spent time in, say, the M1A1 Abrams trainer, they should feel right at home in a real M1A1 Abrams.
This is a common training system. NASA uses it for Space Shuttle crews, for example. The idea is to get people used to being in a vehicle, knowing where all the flips and switches are, how to use the weapons systems, and how to share the tiny spaces with fellow soldiers--all without having to deal with the reality of incoming fire.
You'd never know what was inside the big yellow boxes, of course, if you weren't told, but inside, you'd think you were in a real tank. And that's just the idea.
Plus, each of the training simulators is tied together through a networked computer system so groups of soldiers can run through exercises as if they were on a real battlefield, and a "commander" can put them through their paces, monitoring and measuring everything they do.
It's very much like what goes on with VICE and EST, and if one theme came out of my day at Fort Benning, it's that the Army is very much into using these kinds of systems as a way of increasing efficiency and saving a lot of money on the ammunition that would otherwise have to be expended during training.
This way, by the time these soldiers get their hands on live weapons, they actually know what they're doing, whereas generations of previous recruits were tasked with learning how to use real weapons on real training grounds.
And that's not to say that the old way wasn't good. But the Army clearly believes that there's a future in digital training.
Now, if only it can use digital systems to overcome 18-year-olds' natural aversion to authority and sense that they can do no wrong. Then technology would really be on to something.