AUSTIN, Texas – The Army’s commitment to placing Soldiers at the forefront of efforts to evaluate and evolve new equipment was evident during this month’s Synthetic Training Environment Live Training System Soldier Touchpoint led by PEO STRI’s Agile Acquisition Response (STAAR) Team at their modernization testbed located at Fort Hood, Texas.
The event, which commenced on June 1 and concluded on June 15, brought together a myriad of stakeholders at the request of Army Futures Command to assess the effectiveness of prototype training systems that more closely mimic the reality of modern warfighting.
Approximately 40 Soldiers – the majority of them from Fort Hood’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division (2-5 CAV) – provided support to the touchpoint in the form of hands-on equipment testing and detailed feedback on the accuracy and utility of multiple high-tech training systems.
The Soldiers offered verbal feedback as well as written survey responses throughout testing and at the end of each day. The format allowed participants to speak frankly about benefits and challenges of the training equipment, including limits or inaccuracies.
Conversations frequently touched on what was appealing, what was tedious or time-consuming and what the user experience felt like, as well as the Soldiers’ desire for realistic recoil, noise and ruggedness.
Concerns highlighted included improvement opportunities related to size, weight and power (SWaP), weapon simulator accuracy, range, repeatability, network persistence, system reliability, sensor feedback, communications redundancy and resilience, interoperability and other elements of the training experience assessed by the STAAR Team in coordination with the Army Futures Command Synthetic Training Environment Cross-Functional Team.
Soldiers with the 2-5 CAV, who also used portions of the touchpoint to conduct drills for an upcoming mission, found the experience of participating in the touchpoint to be both interesting and useful.
Spc. Christopher Prater, a cavalry scout with the 2-5 CAV, described the sensor-equipped vest he used during the touchpoint as “an upgrade,” noting it was “lighter, easier to put on” and compatible with his existing kit.
“I thought it was better, from what I’ve seen so far,” he said, caveating that, as with any training, Soldiers need to “buy into the immersion” to gain the most benefit.
Spc. James Abernathy, also of the 2-5 CAV, agreed that the systems undergoing testing at the touchpoint offered more advanced capabilities and greater training integrity than some of those encountered during previous live training exercises.
“We were kind of behind with it,” Abernathy said of the technology present at past trainings, adding that “it feels pretty good” to see new, high-tech gear in play.
Abernathy specifically observed how the addition of sound effects improved the dynamics of the exercise, and shared that he looks forward to seeing the tools on display become more rugged and weather-resistant as they evolve.
Pfc. Daniel Riffe enjoyed the chance to evaluate the equipment from the lens of a relatively new Soldier. “I haven’t used the old stuff, so I can’t compare it to that, but what I’ve seen here, I like it,” he said.
Riffe found the touchpoint to be an effective model for making adjustments to training equipment and appreciated the opportunity to “give our opinions and our feedback, so they can then take it and improve upon it [the equipment] and create the most optimized version of it, based on what we tell them we want and don’t want.”
Spc. Steven Barnes also appreciated the chance to deliver candid feedback, as well as test out new devices.
“Overall, I like it, it’s better,’ Barnes said of the equipment, citing a noticeable improvement “from where we used to be.”
His only comment on how the touchpoint might be improved was less tied to the simulated environment and more evaluative of the actual one: “if it wasn’t so hot,” he said.
Soldiers also participated in the exercise as observers and subject matter experts.
Sgt. Jesse Gainey, an indirect fire infantryman with the Mortar Training Company at Fort Benning, Georgia, observed the event to lend his insights on mortar training.
He noticed some areas for improvement with computer information processing times and other mechanic elements but was confident in the ability of Soldier feedback and daily after-action reviews to inform future iterations of products under consideration.
“I definitely think the Soldier feedback is essential,” Gainey said, adding that having Soldiers test systems ahead of time can minimize operational challenges in the field, and reflects the reality of operations on the ground.
Extensive Soldier feedback on equipment is valuable because “they’re going to be the ones using it,” Gainey said.
By the end of the touchpoint, the Army had collected nearly 400 Soldier surveys linked to the STAAR Team’s pre-defined user acceptance measurement levels to inform the next iteration of STE LTS prototype testing. The surveys will also provide actionable feedback to the entities developing training systems, in turn benefiting the future Soldiers who will use them.
Senior non-commissioned officers also participated in the touchpoint to observe and contribute to Soldier learning and development.
Sgt. Maj. Jason Wilson of the Maneuver Center of Excellence Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate at Fort Benning, Georgia, traveled to the event as a representative of Army Futures Command to weigh in on what Soldiers need to succeed in training as well as in the touchpoint itself.
He emphasized the importance of continuity in evaluating and requesting upgrades to new systems, as well as the need for Soldiers to speak up and be specific when lending their opinions.
“I say, hey, right now you’ve got the chance,” Wilson said. “If you don’t say anything, when you do get that piece of equipment, you can’t talk about how bad it is, because you failed to say what was wrong with it or what went well with it when you had the opportunity to test it.”
His hope is that Soldiers involved in the event “understand the value of what they’re doing as part of this touchpoint” and can remain engaged in further touchpoints.
The event was additionally attended by organizations such as the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence, with the understanding that further training scenario mechanics – including the need for emergency medical care – may be layered into exercises that utilize new equipment.
Future touchpoints will expand the types of weapons systems being developed, as well as test new materiel in a cold-weather and other environments associated with Multi-Domain Operations.
The next STE LTS Soldier touchpoint, the fourth in the series, will take place at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, this fall.
Multiple Soldiers and next-generation prototypes will be in attendance.