MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- The three-vehicle convoy slowly passed through the crowded streets of Fallujah, Iraq. The tension rose as the citizens milled around the vehicles carelessly. A celebratory event was taking place at a nearby mosque, adding an uneasy alertness to the Marines in the convoy knowing crowded areas hide insurgents and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. The Marines’ daily patrol turned into absolute chaos when an IED exploded 100 meters ahead of the last vehicle.
The convoy halted instantly, dust kicked around the vehicles, while two Marines stepped out of one of the vehicles, rifles at the ready, assessing the situation. The Marines checked under their vehicle for possible IEDs and found none. The Marines were ordered to quickly come back inside the humvee to move the convoy along. They jumped back into the vehicle and after driving another 50 meters, the city instantly disappeared. The buildings, roads, citizens and endless landscape were instantly replaced by white screens surrounding them in a full circle.
This wasn’t a scene from a Hollywood movie, but an actual simulation suited for the Marines of Weapons Company, Task Force 1st Battalion, 4th Marines during the Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer course.
“It was really great,” said Cpl. Adam Bosley, a vehicle commander with Weapons Company. “It was probably the best videogame I’ve ever played.”
The VCCT places Marines in a convoy where they can view the battlefield in a 360 degree interface during a real-time scenario. The program looks like a virtual-reality game found in some higher-end arcades but it is meant to train Marines for patrolling in Iraq.
“The communication was really stressed here because vehicle commanders couldn’t just yell at one another,” said Pfc. Michael Vanderen, an assault man with Weapons Company.
The vehicle commanders, or VCs, were able to see the other vehicles in the convoy on screen but weren’t able to physically view them because each vehicle was in its separate building connected through a local area network system. The VCs only form of communication was through a headset similar to the communication systems used in regular humvees.
The simulation humvees looked similar to regular humvees with tan-coated bodies and a similar shape. There was a turret in place for a gunner and four seats for a driver, VC and two dismounts. But the frame was aluminum and the wheels were stationary. Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer weapons, or ISMT weapons, replaced the traditional rifles and machineguns found in today’s combat environment.
Marines normally complete IED Awareness drills, or IA drills in controlled environments without citizens or IEDs. The platoon commander normally sits in a VC position and sends information over their radio system as to where they are taking fire from or which vehicle was hit by an IED. The Marines then respond to the role-play in turn, shooting blanks at an invisible enemy.
“Normally I have to tell my Marines where the fire is coming from,” said Lt. Patrick Vanhorne, a platoon commander with Weapons Company. “The VCCT forces them to react to a situation instead of me dictating the situation to them.”
The Marines become more alert because the area on screen is new, whereas the normal training areas are on familiar Camp Pendleton roads.
“My Marines know Camp Pendleton like the back of their hand,” Vanhorne said. “We’re fighting in Iraq and not Pendleton, so this is more geared to where we’re going.”
“Marines can really feel the situation and participate a lot more because there are actual objects to shoot and they will shoot back at you,” said retired Master Sgt. Randy Stevens, a field service representative and advisor for Lockheed Martin.
Each scenario is tweaked individually to that units select mission.
“We input the scenarios into the system that the unit commander tells us his Marines need to improve upon,” Stevens said.
This type of selective training gives Marines the training needed in much shorter time and in a more interactive way.
“A one day event here is like a week of training in the field,” Stevens said.
The platoon commander can view the convoy in the command center equally critiquing everyone during the exercise.
“I can see all four vehicles in the convoy instead of only seeing the one in front of me and relying on what the VCs said happened during the after-action report,” Vanhorne said.
The Marine Corps needed a way for Marines to train in real-life scenarios without real-life consequences made from mistakes, and the VCCT provides them with just that.
“The Marines pay for their mistakes in a real environment, but in a simulated one they can learn from it and try again,” Stevens said.
Gunners and VCs agree this system works but for some, there is nothing as good as the real thing.
“It’s a great tool for leaders and gunners but for scouts and drivers, there’s no substitution for being on an actual road,” Vanhorne said.
The session ended with Vanhorne giving his Marines the after-action report explaining what mistakes were made during the convoy and how to fix those mistakes.
Every Marine walked away unscathed by the virtual IED explosion that day and the lessons learned will help convoys during their future deployment.