THE WAR AT HOME 


;Weaving through the back roads of the Central Florida Research Park, beyond the eastward conclusion of State Road 408, it's difficult to get a sense that you are in the heart of Orlando's military machine. A right on Ingenuity Drive, a left on Science Drive, a right on Technology Parkway, another on Research Parkway and you're in terrain that's about as far removed from the streets of Baghdad as it's possible to be.

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But there's a war going on here nonetheless. Housed in a nondescript office building with a pebbled exterior is the U.S. Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI): virtual warfare, in civilian-speak. When people say that video games are good training for the battleground, they are, perhaps without knowing it, referring to exactly the kind of work done here in Orlando.

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;You may never have heard of the place, but PEO STRI is no small operation. It has a yearly budget of over $2 billion, more than twice that of the city of Orlando itself ($800 million); it manages a total of $6.7 billion in U.S. Army contracts; it boasts a workforce of 739 civilian, government and Army personnel who oversee the creation and implementation of some 334,000 military training devices at 472 training sites in 20 countries (two satellite offices are located in Redstone Arsenal, Ala., and Fort Huachuca, Ariz.). When a soldier is trained how to avoid a roadside bomb, odds are Orlando played a large role in the process.

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;PEO STRI is a giant piece of Orlando's high-tech industry, one that occupies the gray area between the military-industrial complex and the free market, with the University of Central Florida existing somewhere between the two.

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;Its roots date back to the cold war. The perceived threat of Soviet influence in Europe prompted the Army's development in 1974 of the Project Manager for Training Devices (PM TRADE) agency in Fort Benning, Ga., which in 1976 merged with the Army Training Device Agency under the PM TRADE moniker.

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;The PM TRADE offices relocated from the Orlando Naval Training Center (now Baldwin Park) to Research Park in the late 1980s, and following the success of their simulation and training processes in Operation Desert Storm — where they claim their method of combining technology and training was validated by a "swift victory" — the Army christened the entire operation PEO STRI Aug. 1, 1992, making it the military's premier simulation and training outlet.

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;Presently, PEO STRI's budget is provided directly by the Army and mission-support funds provided by other government agencies. The real money, though, is in the execution of Army contracts to outside sources, and PEO STRI has a list of deals that grows each year. In May of 2005, for example, they awarded a five-year, $71.7 million contract to Cubic Simulation Systems of Orlando for a combat training system; in April of 2006, they awarded a $5.3 million contract to Aegis Technologies in Huntsville, Ala., for distribution of its new OneSAF simulation technology. PEO STRI's Army contracts total nearly $7 billion.

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;In 2005, PEO STRI was on the Pentagon's chopping block, along with Nav-Air offices (also partially located in Research Park) and other Florida installations. A well-orchestrated campaign by then-governor Jeb Bush and local mayors — who were afraid of losing the $44 billion a year military operations contribute to the Florida economy — kept them here.

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;In order to maintain government approval, senators Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez, along with congressmen Tom Feeney and Ric Keller, sponsored a trip to Washington in early February 2007 for PEO STRI staff and their simulations.

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;"While our nation continues to fight the Global War on Terror, it is important to educate our congressmen and women on the extraordinary things the Army and PEO STRI are doing to support our Warfighters serving at home and abroad," said program executive officer James Blake in the company's press release.

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; PEO STRI divides its work into three areas: live, virtual and constructive. "Live" concentrates primarily on countering the roadside bombs that are proving so deadly in Iraq; "virtual" is the gaming segment; and "constructive" is the computer technology behind the games.

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;The counter–explosive improvised devices department, which represents the live domain, spends their time figuring out ways to keep American soldiers alive.

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;"We have different devices, [improvised explosive device] training devices, so when the soldiers go out, they know what to look for, be it a wire or a booby trap or a pressure-plate mine. We have all that stuff," says Maj. Frank Bridges, project director for the department. "It's not pyro, which means it shoots off a powder; it doesn't hurt them. It lets them know they made a mistake. Then we have counter-IED, which are the jammers. We replicate that and also train the soldiers on the jammers."

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;Bridges has agreed to a quick interview at a giant conference table in the Marroletti conference room at PEO STRI headquarters. The caveat, though, is that he is not able to speak about anything that may be construed as classified. To be sure he doesn't cross that line, he's flanked by project coordinator Robyn Ingerham, whose job it is to speak up if he strays into sensitive territory.

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; Bridges details a recent development in his department, the "suicide vest," a device developed to help soldiers know when they've made a potentially fatal mistake while training to deal with suicide bombers.

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;"You could wear it under your jacket or anything," he says. "It's got tubes with just powder … burst tubes that give off a pretty good sound. It's not going to make you deaf, it just kicks off a powder, probably from here to the door there, that just lets you know that somebody walked in who shouldn't have and set off a vest. That means the soldier wasn't doing his job at checkpoint; they should have searched the guy, so they let him know he made a mistake."

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;IEDs, also called roadside bombs, account for the largest percentage of American casualties in Iraq: 39 percent of the 2,100 dead as of November 2006. Bridges himself visits soldiers returning from the conflict for input on what developments are necessary to improve the training systems.

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;"Right now the money is coming from the customer funds. But the department of the Army has decided, ‘Look, this is our No. 1 killer. We're going to give you $30 million over three years to improve what you have now.'"

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;That improvement, referred to as IEDES (improvised explosive device effects simulators) has been slated to roll out over three years, beginning in 2008. But given the recent surge, things may need to speed up.

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;"That's a good point, because like I said, we're not supposed to build the new system, the improved system, until 2008," says Bridges. "We're being asked, ‘Could you do it this fall?' We could probably do that, but that puts a big strain on the team. We've got a lot of documentation; there's a lot of paperwork that goes along with that. You've got to go out there and visit the vendors who make the devices. So we've got this great plan, and now we're going to have to shift it to the left. Usually you're told to shift it to the right. But we're saying, ‘Could you make it happen this fall?' That's how important it is."

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;Bridges says new developments and upgrades to the counter-IED system are increasingly necessary. The war is changing.

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;"There's one IED they use that's very deadly. There's like a piercing, like a round that once it goes off, it's a …"

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;"I would stop right there on that one," Ingerham interjects.

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;"They're getting better in what they build. We're trying to adapt to that," he continues. "They're getting smart, but they're also going back to the very basics: pressure or trip wires. With our technology, it's getting tough for them to improve. So they're going back to the old pressure plates where if you run over them, they go off. It's tough to jam that. You actually can't jam that."

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;In the past year, C-IED training has been effective at reducing casualties, he says. Soldiers are getting better at knowing what to expect, thanks to training devices that mimic the real thing.

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;"It's very realistic, you know. It's not like a real one with the flames and the scrap metal. But when you hear that boom and the powder, it really hits them that ‘Hey, that could have been a real bomb.' So they really go back and do a better job next time with their training."

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;The gaming and non-standard training department, which represents the virtual domain, is in charge of gaming as a means of preparing new recruits to react to threats.

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;"Most of the people coming up are already gamers," notes Leslie Dubow, the department's project director, who says acclimating new trainees to the keyboard and mouse controls gets easier with each year. Dubow has been with the military for 25 years, 15 of those as an active reservist.

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;She sets up a laptop demonstration of DARWARS Ambush, the Army's main virtual game simulator, while discussing some of the skills it is meant to sharpen.

;;"Leadership, decision-making, team-building, communications, reaction to particular activities, improvised explosive devices, how to run a convoy and talk to each other," she says. "One of the things that Ambush has been touted for is, take a group that's never worked together before, start them in Ambush. When they first start, they're not talking to each other, something blows up nobody tells anybody else in the convoy. But by the end, they understand how to speak. They've worked the synergies and become a team."

;;The game is designed to train soldiers in groups of four to 400 in geography-typical landscapes (geography-specific, while a goal, is beyond the current technology). The Army doesn't have to pay for the game's development — it is built on the commercially available Operation Flashpoint video game — but they do have to pay for the licensing. She says that just under $3 million has been spent by the Army so far on the Ambush program. Its commercial compatibility adds to its versatility; any soldier provided with a laptop can join in.

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; "This is when you can fire, and don't do it ever in this particular situation," she says, starting a demonstration. "You also get your gear, which you can set up ahead of time depending on your mission. You can do it either way. You'll have an M-16, with all of your magazines, a smoke grenade, and your binoculars and night vision goggles."

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;Trainees navigate the game with a mouse. An on-foot obstacle course, a driving test track and a firing range follow, as do a number of accidental, self-inflicted wounds and their requisite medical treatment. In the orientation program, the goal is to get a feel for the controls, not to engage in any actual conflict. Sort of.

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;"See the guys over there? Shoot at them," Dubow says. The soldiers fall over. "Now shoot at those guys. They're good guys, but just shoot at them for practice. They should duck eventually. It takes them a long time to learn."

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;Once shot, they stand back up.

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;"They're not scared of you," she says.

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;Over in the constructive domain, the goal is to unite all of the training simulations into a single, virtual battleground.

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;"Think war gaming," says Lt. Col. Robert Rasch, the project director for the Army's latest constructive simulation, OneSAF.

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;OneSAF stands for "one semi-automated force," meaning it's the one map that stands behind — and effectively unites — simulations being acted out on a two-dimensional battlefield. Previous (or "legacy") constructive simulations required extensive input from those commanding them. OneSAF, after six years of development, is programmed to understand historical statistics and basic military doctrine and tactics. It is, says Rasch, "enhanced decision-making in a complex battlefield for leaders and their staffs — probably not, in its purest sense, used at the individual soldier level."

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; OneSAF also allows for a less expensive means of testing new weapons.

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;"It's cheaper to build a model of a new thing than to actually build the new thing. You can test out parameters and characteristics of the inflight and how big the burst radius [is] when it explodes," says Rasch.

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;Ultimately, the goal is to streamline training with a focus on the bottom line: Fewer real-life situations means lower costs.

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;"Right now, on the future platforms that we're building, there will be an ability for the soldiers to sit in the motor pool, in their vehicle, never even have to go into the field — going into the field costs money; costs money in training areas, costs additional dollars — sit in the motor pool in their vehicle, and bring up a scenario, and they're all fighting a fight that's uploaded on to their screens and their systems. So as far as they know, they're in Afghanistan, but actually they're sitting in the motor pool, and they're all synchronized and they're conducting operations in the battlefield. And OneSAF will be the system behind that that's driving that event. They'll never know what OneSAF is; it's just the system on their computer."

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;Rasch says that OneSAF operates on or around a $20 million budget yearly ("obviously a lot of money," he says. "In the big picture of [Department of Defense], it's nothing"), and it serves as a uniting force in the local simulation community and among the armed forces who are all work together at Research Park. He himself oversees 100 contractors from nine different companies in one building working on OneSAF.

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;"We call it a badgeless society," he says. "Nobody really knows who works for who. Nine different companies, normally they're at each other's throats trying to get a bigger piece of the pie. Over in my building, you wouldn't know that this is an [Science Applications International Corporation] guy, this is a Lockheed Martin guy and this is a Northrop Grumman guy."

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;He also cites the immersive simulations at Disney World and the simulation schooling at UCF as fertile context for the success of PEO STRI. But Rasch is a realist. Throughout his technological explanations of all of OneSAF's potential uses, he remains humble to the realities of war.

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;"There are limitations in models. Anything that's not real, you're cutting down on the level of fidelity," he says. "I mean, nothing's like having a real bullet shot at you. But that hurts."

; bmanes@orlandoweekly.com

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