When my platoon returned from downrange, we had a new toy to play with. It was a new simulator at our post to help units train for future combat patrols, specifically mounted convoys. The Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer (VCCT) is an excellent tool to train future units; but unfortunately, the capabilities of digital training remain mired in the same problems as past attempts at using virtual reality to train soldiers.
The VCCT impressed me and is probably near the top of what the Army can offer in virtual training (I have a feeling it is still costs the Army much more than it should). Sitting in two large mobile trailers were four open HWMMV shells. My guys and I donned headsets that covered our eyes with a virtual reality screen for each eye. The driver had a steering wheel and three screens mimicking the front windshield. Each soldier also had a weapon linked to the system to fire at the enemy (attempting to do so, however, would prove futile).
For our training, we used scenarios based realistically on Iraq. For our first movement, we moved forward on a bridge, made a left hand turn and pulled security. Taking a left hand turn may sound simple, but in a convoy in a foreign country on the ground for the first time, it can rapidly become a chore of immense difficulty. On this occasion my platoon aced our movement.
Acing the bad guys, well that was a different story. In our scenario, RPG gunners would pop out windows almost invisibly to annihilate our trucks. They fired quickly and accurately. Returning accurate fire proved difficult.
Quickly in our first engagement, the first truck went down. The fog of war crept in and the true training began. Every unit since the dawn of drilled infantry regiments in the sixteenth century have had two unique experiences when it comes to war: the parade ground and the combat zone; what is easy on the former quickly descends into chaos in the latter. The VCCT, unlike live fire maneuver exercises designed to make us feel good, challenged the communication abilities of the trucks maneuvering under my command.
In that particular scenario, we ended up losing a few trucks, but we learned several lessons about communication and coordination. For those particular lessons--communication under confusing circumstances and the diffiulty of coordinating elements--the VCCT succeeds in its mission. Having said that, the system still needs improvement.
The catch-22 of the VCCT is that it’s success in training soldiers in convoy operations was not designed into the system: the problems with communication and confusion on the battlefield are more due to poor graphics than design. Intentionally or not, the VCCT drastically limits your field of view, has malfunctioning communication equipment and an unwieldy .50 caliber machine gun that can barely hit targets. Fortunately, these are all good things and make training much more realistic. Radios malfunction all the time, weapons miss and inside a HWMMV you can barely see outside of the armor, let alone move. The fog of war, whether from poor programming or designers intention, lives in the VCCT and that breeds excellent training.
The most glaring flaw in the VCCT is the poor Artificial Intelligence of its enemy. The simulated bad guys move slowly and deliberately in straight lines; no matter how frequently you fire at the people in the simulation, including the civilians, they continue on their pre-designated track. Simply put, this trains soldiers in expecting to face mindless enemies on the battlefield. It trains us to think about enemies as if they were ducks on a carnival style shooting game: targets to simply plink down and move on. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, in 4th Generation war, and in political war, the enemy will think, move cautiously, attack with speed and vanish. For our scenarios and virtual reality, we need to face this new enemy, not a computer on a track.