Security and Defense: Simulating war

Once the purvey of pilots, simulators are now being used by tank crews, artillery gunners and even infantry.

IDF soldiers shoot at simulation 370 (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
IDF soldiers shoot at simulation 370
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
The reserve infantry soldiers stood in a straight line, donning full combat gear, their firearms at the ready. They had just completed their final weapons checks and had carried out scope alignments on their M-16s, and were waiting for the go-ahead from their young female instructor.
“Fire,” she said.
A series of targets suddenly appeared before them, and the soldiers opened fire, striking distant, suspicious figures that were on the move in an open field.
As the targets continued to move around, the soldiers took up non-standing firing positions, kneeling and finally shooting while crouching down.
But no actual rounds left their guns, because the soldiers were in the hi-tech training and simulation facility at the IDF’s Julis Base in the South.
Headed by Lt.-Col. Yariv Avnaim, the center’s main mission is to improve the basic combat skills of individual soldiers and their combat team, as part of a full training cycle.
When Avnaim first took up his post as commander of the center, he was sure he’d be entering a rather sterile, air-conditioned environment, where the physical stresses of his past field roles would be absent. He soon discovered that he was wrong.
“The soldiers also sweat here. We train them every day, and in the evenings, we produce detailed evaluations of their performance. This is my mission,” he told The Jerusalem Post in late May.
Launched in the 1970s for Armored Corps soldiers, the simulation facility has since come a long way, transforming into a training center for a range of forces, from tank crews to artillery gunners. Ninety-five percent of the soldiers who pass through here are reservists.
In a sense, the center is like a flight simulator for air force pilots, but tailored for ground forces.
“This is an additional station in the training cycle for reserves,” Avnaim said, sitting in his office. There are two major advantages in training with simulators.
Firstly, computers monitor every movement and shot fired by the soldiers, and can produce the most detailed analysis of their combat performance, which serves as a basis for setting improvement targets.
“If we don’t leverage the summaries after the training, we haven’t accomplished anything. This is how we improve,” Avnaim stated.
The second advantage is that all of the training can be achieved at a fraction of the cost and time of livefire exercises. With the IDF recently announcing a major slash of reserve and regular forces training due to defense budget cuts, the center’s attractive costbenefit advantage may become even more relevant.
“Where others see a risk, I see an opportunity. This is a cheap training method, although it can never replace live-fire training,” Avnaim stressed.
Soldiers who pass through here go on to the National Center for Ground Force Training in Tze’elim (known by its Hebrew acronym, Mali), located further south, where they undergo a week of live-fire exercises.
“At Mali, there are four training centers: Live-fire, tactical, artillery and logistics. This is the fifth training center,” Avnaim explained.
Soldiers usually work with the simulators for a day, but it is an intense, long day that has an influence on the remainder of the training process.
“Everyone passes through this center, from Merkava Mark IV tank crews to artillery gunners,” Avnaim said.
“Tomorrow, the soldiers could find themselves in Lebanon. How will they hold weapons? How will they perform in combat?” he added.
In a second simulator, soldiers faced a built-up area crawling with terrorists. Gunmen appeared out of windows and opened fire, while terrorist jeeps sped by on nearby roads. This simulator allowed a full range of weapons to be deployed simultaneously – machine guns, sniper rifles, RPG launchers, and shoulder-held missiles.
The key to the simulators is the grades they produce, which are then passed along to the soldiers’ commanders.
Copies of the results are sent up the chain of command, all the way to the commander of the relevant army corps.
The grades are based on computer records that document which soldier fired each bullet, how often a target was struck, and whether the gun was being held correctly. It tracks all barrel movements, and informs soldiers if they strayed from their designated firing zone and intruded into another soldier’s zone. The system also throws in weapons jams, to test responses.
In the morning, soldiers arrive for briefings in classrooms, before moving on to the simulators.
After their first exercise, the computer-generated results are printed out and analyzed, and then a second exercise is held, to check for improvements.
“Through this approach, we build up a unit,” Avnaim said.
Afterwards, battalion commanders receive a ‘report card’ for each of their soldiers, enabling them to create a picture of the battle readiness of their forces.
Outside, a squad was holding a field exercise that simulated a sniper attack. Soldiers carrying M-16s with lasers were pinned down by sniper fire, and hid behind trees while firing back. Suddenly, a second ‘sniper’ began attacking them from a side position.
Whenever a soldier was “hit,” a beeping sound was activated, and the soldier stood up and walked away.
“There are no safety problems here. They can ‘fire’ in all directions,” Avnaim said, seconds before another beep went off.
“To set up such an exercise in live-fire form would take half a day, after all of the safety arrangements,” he added.
The center processes a company per day. A battalion passes through in a week.
Avnaim walked towards a tank linked up to a cabin that contains a simulator.
“They could be in Lebanon right now,” Avnaim said, gesturing to the stationary tank, where a crew in training was sitting.
The simulator projects images directly into the tank’s sights, and creates a virtual reality filled with volatile enemies and difficult terrain.
A recent addition to the center is a simulator for Golani Brigade soldiers who will man the IDF’s latest word in armored personnel carriers, the Namer (“Leopard”). The soldiers sit in a control room with several screens, and can see one another’s ‘vehicles’ as they practice a land maneuver. The system simulates a combined battle scenario involving tanks, infantry, the air force and of course, enemy combatants.
Avnaim stressed the fact that his simulators were “not video games. This is not about creating an experience.
It’s about preparing soldiers for combat.”