PRINCETON, N.J. - The staff ride has long proven its effectiveness as a tool for educating military professionals. For the U.S. Army, the analysis of a battle or a campaign by examining the actual terrain is a concept that Maj. Eben Swift introduced in1906 at the General Service and Staff School, the forerunner of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. The staff ride concept included a detailed classroom study of a campaign followed by a visit to the battlefields associated with that campaign and an in-depth analysis of the actions that occurred there. Later staff ride leaders added an integration phase to discuss the insights learned in the classroom and field study.
Today, the Army continues to use staff rides for officer and noncommissioned officer professional development. Units can study the many campaigns of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian Wars in the United States by visiting the battlefields associated with those wars. However, while the proximity of those sites make them fairly easy to visit, it is still expensive-in both money and time-to take a unit's leaders on a staff ride. Furthermore, battlefields from 18th and 19th century's wars do not allow study of this century's technology as it impacts combat. To address these two challenges, the Army's Combat Studies Institute (CSI) provides virtual staff rides that provide Army leaders the opportunity to study in detail the terrain and decisions from battles of the 21st century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A virtual staff ride is conducted using terrain models based on current mapping software, real-world imagery, and video footage taken from battles. For example, the virtual staff ride for the battle of Wanat in Afghanistan on July 13, 2008 incorporates video footage taken by Taliban fighters as well as declassified footage from U.S. Apache helicopters that were involved in repelling the insurgent attack. The combination of that video imagery and the virtual terrain model allows viewers to "fly" throughout the battle space creating an immersive experience.
"We can give a unit or a staff a powerful sense of what it was like to be on the ground and making decisions during battles in places like Wanat and Fallujah [Iraq]," said Kevin Kennedy, the chief of the staff ride team at CSI.
Virtual staff rides are guided by a team made up of military historians and virtual staff ride technicians who study and build virtual simulations of battlefields. Team members travel to military units around the world to give leaders the opportunity to enhance their study of battles by "seeing" the terrain.
"Some battlefields are not accessible for study for many reasons, but that does not diminish their importance or value. The ability to build virtual models gets us at least some access to what happened in those places," said Dr. Daniel Jordan, a contract senior military analyst and historian on the staff ride team.
One group that benefits from the virtual staff ride experience is Army ROTC cadets, who are required to participate in a staff ride before being commissioned as Army officers. As students, they study military history and battles, but most have little or no experience in combat and few opportunities to visit battlefields with experts who analyze the decisions made during those battles and the effects of those decisions.
"The VSR [virtual staff ride] was detailed enough that I could understand the tactical, cultural, and precedent-influenced factors of each decision," said Zach Shaw, a senior cadet at Princeton University after a Wanat virtual staff ride.
"The virtual flying through the terrain and village helped facilitate learning," added Shaw. "The aerial video footage of the firefight forced us to orient ourselves and point out different features of the village and the COP [combat outpost] throughout the battle. This is an invaluable skill, and there is little opportunity to practice it [without being] in the field," he said.
The staff ride team is able to tailor rides to the audience. For example, a staff ride presented to an Army brigade combat team command group and staff could focus on the operational and strategic decisions that led to an engagement, while a ride presented to company-level leaders or ROTC cadets could focus on the tactical decisions made during the engagement.
The entire staff ride experience is designed for one purpose: to prepare for future operations.
"We exist to develop leaders and to make them think about situations that they may find themselves in before they get there. Our motto is 'The past is prologue.' We want leaders to gain insights from the past that can be applied today and in the future," said Kennedy.
The staff ride team and Combat Studies Institute is part of the Army Press, a directorate under Army University. The Army University creates learning environments designed to produce agile and adaptive leaders for the Army.
Learn more about the staff ride team at http://usacac.army.mil/organizations/cace/csi/srteam.