Members of Fort Riley's 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, had the opportunity to test out equipment in the running to become the Army's next generation of vehicle training simulators during the Synthetic Training Environment Cross Functional Team's User Assessment at Fort Riley's Mission Training Complex April 22-26.

The Soldiers, in conjunction with peers from Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division and Marines from both coasts, were called in to test several different vendors' prototypes for the Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer - Ground, which is a modern virtual training capability representing the Army's range of wheeled and armored platforms.

"This test is what we like to call an azimuth check," said Maj. Casey Crowley, capability developer with Training and Doctrine Command Capability Manager, Integrated Training Environment. "Just getting Soldiers on the equipment and getting their feedback. Is it good enough? Are we on track? Or do we need to make some drastic changes and go in a different direction?"

Crowley explained that the Army's goal is to field the prototypes the Soldiers and Marines are testing in the first quarter of fiscal year 21. So, as users, it is important to get their feedback now in case changes need to be made.

"The technologies that we're developing and fielding are on a much more accelerated timeline than traditional acquisitions methods," said Crowley. "It is absolutely critical that at this phase we get Soldiers' feedback on if we're running in the right direction or if we need to make drastic changes before we field something that is not going to work."

The Army already has an inventory of armored and wheeled simulators; however, the need to pursue upgrades became a priority for a variety of different reasons, including cost and time required to update existing systems.

"Existing platforms are getting old, said Crowley. "Some of the technology is dated. And because they are platform specific, if a newer variant of a vehicle is fielded, you have to upgrade all of those trainers at an immense cost, whereas if you have a reconfigurable system, the upgrades are less expensive."

"We want to figure out how to reduce the footprint and the cost of the current [Close Combat Tactical Trainer] that we use for our tank and Bradley simulators, and then also the aviation collective trainer as well," said Lt. Col. Brian Hanley, lead capabilities developer, TCM-STE.

One way to lower costs is to incorporate off-the-shelf technology into the new designs, which would reduce the cost of maintaining and updating hardware, said Hanley.

Another goal of the program was to use less hardware altogether.

"We wanted to use a software-heavy approach because by using software, it would be a lot easier for us to update," said Hanley. "And if we go to the cloud-based deployment methodology that we hope to achieve, that allows us to just update the software on the cloud and push it out and everything is updated at one time, we don't have to go from installation to installation to install those upgrades on the systems that are currently fielded."

Another goal was to really create a sense of immersion for the user, which is a possibility because of the latest technology developments.
"The gaming industry has moved forward, so we're taking advantage of that to train Soldiers," said William Sanchez, project director and assistant program manager for STE. "Before, it used to be that we developed everything and they learned from it and went to develop games. But now they move fast enough that we need to catch up to them."

Available technology allows for prototype designers to take into account even the smallest details and even incorporate the weather into training scenarios.

"The level of fidelity we are trying to get to achieve is, (to be) 'as accurate as possible,'" said Sanchez. "The Soldiers need to be able to move, shoot and communicate. So a lot of the training is muscle memory. The more they train, the more repetitions they get, the safer they will be when they go to war."

Aside from saving on upgrade costs and being universally reconfigurable to simulate any ground system in Army's inventory, another advantage of the RVCT-G is its smaller size, potentially making it more accessible to Soldiers at the unit level.

"Right now, the current technology is the Close Combat Tactical Trainer, you can see how large they are," said Crowley. "Whereas these are fitting in pelican cases."

The User Assessment was meant to identify if those benefits outweighed potential drawbacks.

"It is finding the balance," said Crowley. "In those CCTTs, you feel like you're sitting in the real thing whereas this feels like a little bit more of a tabletop-type thing. Some of the different technologies, monitors, goggles, haptics: You'll see them touching buttons that aren't there. Is that good enough? Or do they need to actually be able to feel the panels, push the actual buttons?"

So far, the jury is out among the prototype testers.

"The CCTT is a lot different," said Sgt. Jeremy Seaman, squad leader in B. Co. 1-18 Inf. Regt., 2ABCT, 1st Inf. Div. "It definitely takes some getting used to, going more virtual rather than having to turn switches and all that, but it's really cool to make this training work with smaller and less equipment, so you can really focus on the mission and not all the equipment around you."

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Harris, 2ABCT, 1st. Inf. Div. said he was still an advocate of the CCTT, but saw the value in the Army's goal to take the technology in a different direction.

"I do believe that the software upgrades that they're trying to introduce will help in the long term fight, said Harris. "It goes back to muscle memory. A lot of the equipment that they're using still replicates equipment that's actually in vehicles, so it translates over and gives us that repetition we need."

"It's really exciting that we're doing this," said Crowley. "To see these younger generations handle the technology that we're showing them, they're really receptive to it. It is a training opportunity, but they're having a lot of fun with it, and at the same time we are getting really good feedback from them on what's working and what we need to work on some more."