It's the Big Daddy of combat simulation: the Army's Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command, known as STRICOM.
Video game developers might spend millions of dollars on a single title, but the STRICOM budget is a whopping $1 billion a year. Those dollars buy a system that army commanders say is the best possible preparation they can give their troops before deploying them to a dangerous battlefield situation.
STRICOM's simulators are designed to immerse soldiers in the sights, sounds, and even smells of real combat. They can be used to train a wide variety of soldiers — infantry, tank units, helicopter and jet pilots — for any situation and any theater, including the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.
"Our soldiers are virtual veterans before they even go into conflict," said Mike Macedonia, STRICOM's chief scientist. "What we do is we take you there, we take you to the edge, and we let you know that you're going to do all right."
Macedonia — who is known as Q, after James Bond's avuncular gadget guru — works at STRICOM's headquarters in Orlando, Fla. The program has attracted so many private high-tech companies that the area has been dubbed the Silicon Swamp.
Simulators Replicate Afghan Terrain
There are thousands of STRICOM simulators at U.S. bases around the world. The simulators vary in size and design, from small booths for pilots and tank personnel, to larger rooms with wall-sized high-resolution displays for squads of infantry. Their software can be programmed to simulate terrains ranging from deserts to jungles and crowded city streets.
The military is currently using the simulators to prepare soldiers for Afghanistan. STRICOM programmers have recreated the Afghan terrain in meticulous detail, copying the contours and elevations of real valleys.
In a program designed for infantry use, soldiers take up position in front of a large screen depicting a desert hillside in Afghanistan. Tiny figures emerge from the dunes at a simulated distance of 1,000 feet. As they get closer, they become recognizable as Taliban fighters. Using standard M-16 rifles equipped with laser points rather than bullets, the soldiers target the Taliban fighters.
Each of the enemy "fighters" is programmed with artificial intelligence to react to offensive fire. "If you shoot at them, they're going to take evasive action," said Lt. Col. Fran Fierko, who runs ground combat training at STRICOM.
At the end of the simulation, commanders play back the firefight, with the positions of the soldiers' shots appearing on the screen. The soldiers can review their performance, and learn from their mistakes — even if they "died" in the simulation. "If you go out on the battlefield and you make a mistake and you die, somebody comes home in a body bag," noted Maj. Sharlene Donovan, head of the group's special operations aviation training.