Tank mechanics who train at Fort Knox now have a new tool to learn the ropes of Abrams maintenance, thanks to the efforts of members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment's Abrams Training Division.

The "tool" is a complete mock-up of an M1A1 Abrams turret, which allows trainees to test their ability to identify and correct any diagnostic problem they might run into in the field.

"It takes the place of the Abrams tank," said Marshall Rountree, an instructor and subject matter expert for the Abrams Training Division's AIM program. "A student can go in there and actually troubleshoot the AIMS tank."

The team responsible for designing and coordinating the construction of the "M1A1 Hands On Turret Trainer" hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday, capping off a two-year design and production period that required $12.5 million and cooperation between software designers, hardware manufacturers, design engineers, and Army requirements.

"We've been working seven days a week for the past month," said Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Irby, a senior instructor-writer and subject matter expert for the AIMS program.

The trainer incorporates not only the physical mock-up of the tank turret, but also 35 separate lessons programmed into the trainer's software. The software was created by RTI International, a research and development firm based in North Carolina, and the turret itself was built by DEI Services Corp. in Orlando. DRS Technologies in Huntsville, Ala., developed the software-hardware interface, and it was up to the Abrams Training Division at Knox to coordinate the three and match each with the Army's training requirements.

An additional 35 lessons will eventually be added to the trainer's software.

One of the key skills trainees will learn on the turret trainer will be the use of the "Maintenance Support Device," a laptop-like box that plugs into Abrams systems and helps mechanics identify and repair problems.

"The student can troubleshoot the system by following the instructions on that device ... It makes it a lot easier for the Soldier in the field," Irby said.

In the past, he explained, a maintenance worker would have to lug as many as

seven different diagnostic "boxes" to a malfunctioning tank. The MSD reduces that number to one.

"It saves the Soldier a lot of time not having to drag those cables and boxes out into the field," Irby said.

Irby, Rountree, and their team still had a few kinks to iron out before the first students entered the trainer's hatch for the first time. Some of the computerized lessons, for example, haven't been completely debugged.

"We've had problems with the lessons," he said.

When the team finds a problem, a deficiency report is drawn up and sent to the appropriate engineers. They make their corrections, and the Abrams training team again puts the program through its paces.

"We keep repeating that until we get it right," Irby said.

"It's been enjoyable, challenging, and a lot of long hours," Rountree said.

Irby said he's enjoyed the challenge posed by the complex project.

"It's been very interesting," he said. "We've worked hand in hand with the engineers... it's a lot of data collecting.

"But it's all worth it in the end-the trainees have a decent piece of equipment to work with... I feel a lot better about sending them out into the force with this knowledge. (The M1A1 AIM) is a new tank to the fleet, and a lot of the Soldiers leaving here now know more about it than NCOs."

The Abrams training division will spend a week training the instructors on the new equipment. Irby said he anticipates the first class of trainees will begin using the turret trainer Monday.