LOGGED ON: TRAINING ON VIRTUAL BATTLEFIELD; TANK CREWS ENTER COMPUTER COMBAT.
The tank exploded in a roar of gunfire and a burst of flames. ``Black Six, this is White Three,'' the radio crackled. ``White One is dead, I'm in charge.''
Despite its dwindling numbers and overwhelming opposition, Alpha Team kept up the fight, retreating at high speed across lush, green fields, pausing only to pick off the occasional enemy tank as it raced to its secondary combat positions.
At a row of computer monitors, the ``dead'' crews of Alpha Team's tanks gathered to critique the battle while it still raged.
The virtual world of SIMNET - short for simulation network - is where future tank crews learn the basics and experienced soldiers hone their skills, skills that will help them survive on the battlefields of tomorrow.
For the Army, the investment in SIMNET has multiple returns, not the least of which is the reduced costs of training tank crews: The cost of driving an M1 tank for 1 kilometer is about $90; a SIMNET unit can be run for an hour for about $5, over many kilometers of virtual terrain.
Housed in a nondescript warehouse-like building at Fort Knox, Ky., the SIMNET facilities use virtual reality simulators to replicate 41 M1 Abrams tanks and 10 M2 Bradley fighting vehicles.
Developed in the mid-'80s, the simulators, in row after row of black pods, allow crews to enter a virtual reality battlefield, in which they can move, communicate and fight on common terrain.
In the pods, which roughly simulate the interiors of the vehicles, the crews can see other vehicles, the enemy and the terrain through monitors hooked up to vision ports, simulating the conditions a crew would encounter when the hatches are closed.
This day, students of Alpha Team at the 16-week Armor Officer Basic Course are using SIMNET to fight a defensive battle, one they are rapidly losing.
At the bank of ``god'' screens - which allow instructors to view and control any portion of the battle - Alpha Team commander Capt. William Glaser and other instructors have been orchestrating the battle, directing enemy helicopters into the fray and generally making life miserable for the second lieutenants in the course.
A monitor below the god screens displayed the battle as a series of icons on a topographical map, with red tanks for the enemy and blue for Alpha Team. As the battle continued, the number of blue tanks steadily dwindled until the last was eliminated.
Calling an end to the exercise, Glaser turned from the control station and addressed the group, telling them to prepare for their after-action review, a critique of the battle.
``We'll show you what actually happened, rather than what you thought happened,'' he said.
The after-action review is the heart of the training with SIMNET. Instructors point out errors, but more important in the Army's eyes, the review allows trainees to critique themselves and their peers.
In a room dominated by huge monitors, they are able to replay each portion of the battle, pointing out what went wrong and what went right. Any action or event can be evaluated and scrutinized, from any angle and at any time in the battle.
Maj. David Thompson, division chief of the Armor Officer Basic Course, likened SIMNET to a bicycle with training wheels. It allows tankers to learn the ropes without taking the risks inherent when novices begin moving 63 tons of metal at high speeds.
Both beginners and experienced units can train on a wide variety of terrains, including those they might see in the near future: SIMNET databases include Korea and Bosnia.
Such training eases the transition as soldiers progress to their assignments across the globe.
``Our operational tempo is pretty high,'' said Thompson, referring to the deployment of U.S. troops abroad. ``We've got to bring these guys up to a higher level, and that's why we use simulations.''
Most important, the combination of live and virtual training will allow soldiers to survive and triumph on the armored battlefield, one of the most lethal places in modern combat. With 120-millimeter slugs flying at hypersonic speeds, the time to kill or be killed is measured in seconds.
Simulating the future
The sophisticated SIMNET system looks a little like the ancient video game Pong when it's compared with the next step in the Army's armor simulators, the Close Combat Tactical Trainer or CCTT.
CCTT cranks the level of fidelity up a few notches: Shadows lengthen, the weather deteriorates, and the stars come out at night.
Couple the detail of the displays with much more accurate, realistic training pods, and you've got the Army's armored simulator for the next century.
CCTT allows vehicles besides tanks and fighting vehicles to enter the battlefield, including humvees, trucks and other combat support vehicles, further enhancing the realism.
Using a combination of weapons, weather and enemies, the Army will be able to train all levels of soldiers.
2 Photos, Box
Photo: (1) Jim Glenn works with the Close Combat Tactical Trainer at Fort Knox, Ky., which allows soldiers to experience virtual battles.
(2) U.S. Army Major David Thompson gives advice to officers before training using virtual reality simulators.
Knight-Ridder Tribune Photo Service
Box: Simulating the future (See text)