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United States Naval Institute: Proceedings

Virtual Reality Will Never Replace Live-Fire Training

By John W. Winkler

March 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights reserved. 
Copyright © United States Naval Institute Mar 2003

United States Naval Institute: Proceedings

Volume 129, Issue 3; ISSN: 0041-798X

Recent innovations in virtual reality technology have improved significantly the "realness" of military warfare training. With virtual reality, students and trainees can experience a realistic environment that might not be available to them because of geography, cost, or safety. In addition, the warfare of tomorrow increasingly will be fought on digital terrain, and operators will require computer skills and the ability to process information rapidly and solve difficult problems interactively.

Training for shipboard firing teams in a simulator using the latest virtual reality technology can allow these teams to reach minimum levels of proficiency and reduce the human error that might result from working a complex weapon system. Virtual reality can test internal and external communications and command and control, provide periodic upgrade training, examine and test standardized procedures, verify proper checklist completion, simulate various weather conditions and emergencies, and respond to abnormal system errors.

Gun crews can practice safe ordnance handling, including movement of live ordnance, loading and unloading, and proper handling under way. Combined, these experiences can produce certified firing teams that are ready (at least on paper) to place ordnance on target.

There are, however, four significant shortcomings regarding naval surface fire support training and qualification when using only a virtual range. First, a virtual range will not test the firing system. If a firing team is following exact briefed procedures and the gun fires, is it the fault of the firing team if the ordnance does not hit the target? Or is there a malfunction in the gun system? The only way to determine that the gun system is operating properly is to place ordnance on targets consistently.

Second, there is no spotter training with a virtual range. Our military does not operate alone; ships work in conjunction with other units, and fire support is more effective when spotters are used. If a change in a target assignment is required, a spotter can provide that direction immediately to the gun crew, even if the target is obscured by smoke, haze, or a ridgeline. All spotters do not need to come from the Navy, but they all need to be trained. There is no simulation like being there, on the scene, directing live fire.

Third, there is no integrated live-fire training with a virtual range. Naval surface fire support is an important part of the Navy's offensive arsenal, but it is not the only weapon system that might be used. Learning to integrate live fire from the air, sea, and other units ashore does not happen by accident, and it is not easy to simulate. It is a complex tool available to an on-scene commander that needs to be practiced.

Fourth, there is no better morale booster for any member of the military than to be recognized publicly as being the best of the best in an assigned warfare area. For naval fire support, being able to place ordnance on targets accurately and consistently with the minimum number of rounds is an incredible achievement. Unfortunately, a virtual range will not provide the same sense of accomplishment, feedback, or the ability to recognize those who excel.

One reason there has been such a push for a viable virtual reality simulation system for naval surface fire support is the impending closure of Vieques to the Navy in May. Currently, the Vieques live impact area provides the only livefire range for Atlantic Fleet ships and gun crews. Because of political and environmental issues, live fire in general is under assault on military training ranges all over the United States. A virtual range simulator, however, is not the answer. If we cannot train as we fight, then the Navy might as well get rid of its gun systems' ability to fire ordnance ashore.

I do not understand why our leaders close our training ranges and restrict training opportunities because of pressures from political and environmental groups and allow our men and women to deploy into harm's way without proper integrated live-fire training. We can ill afford military accidents anywhere, but just look at what follows training accidents overseas. The negative political ramifications from protesters generate a rallying point, such as those evidenced in Japan, Kuwait, Puerto Rico, and South Korea. We must not abrogate our responsibility to train to fight the way we need to fight.

By Commander John W. Winkler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

A naval flight officer, Commander Winkler served as operations officer at the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility from 1998 to 2000. He retired after 23 years of service.

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