Camp Grayling, MI – U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan train for a range of tasks. They hunt for suspected terrorists and hidden weapons, evacuate the wounded and provide security during elections.
This week, soldiers with the Michigan Army National Guard are playing war games at Camp Grayling. They're testing out a GPS system that records everything that happens on the battlefield. WKAR's Kevin Lavery reports on how troops are using digital clarity to penetrate the fog of war.
Global Positioning System. Just 10 years ago, GPS was an intrigue-laced acronym reserved for the domain of spy thrillers. Today, GPS is the new ABC. It's on your cell phone and in your Chevy.
And of course, GPS is in the military which is where it was born.
In a billowy canvas tent at Camp Grayling, Mike Drumm scans a 3-D image projected on a screen. He's a civilian trainer with the National Guard Bureau. He's watching avatar soldiers and humvees clustered around a village. These are the digital signatures of real people somewhere in the field.
"We can show the soldiers and the opposing forces," Drumm says. "We can show when they engage, who's hit, who's not. And all those things are recorded digitally so that when an observer-controller trainer goes back, he can show it to the soldiers after the mission is over."
The system is called XCTC, short for eXportable Combat Training Capability. Exportable is the key word. Before its creation, soldiers looking for this level of realism had to travel to Army posts in California, Louisiana and Germany. Now, the software is making its way to National Guard units across the country. Michigan is only the sixth state to try it out.
A few miles away, the 1071st Maintenance Company is patrolling a ruddy dirt road nestled within the pines. The terrain doesn't look like Iraq but the low white building in a clearing does. This is Village Eight. Sergeant David Buck cautions the unit to look sharp.
"Keep your eyes open," Buck warns. "Watch the interaction with the villagers. This is a friendly village on this iteration when we do this."
Each soldier carries GPS gear, and their weapons are outfitted with a kind of laser tag device. Observers here and in distant tents and trailers will see any engagement unfold especially stray gunfire:
"If you're taking fire from a specific area, you want to make sure that if you're returning fire, you're putting it on the person that's shooting at you," Buck says. "If you have innocent civilians on the battlefield, our job isn't to hurt them. We're supposed to take care of them."
The unit gets into position, as Buck smiles through an unexpectedly lighthearted moment.
"Corn Dog One, Corn Dog One, this is Viking 8-2, over (laughter). Ma'am, we didn't make them up, we just suffer with them!"
In a village, a handful of people call out to each other, seemingly aware that a battle is imminent.
And then it happens.
The engagement is quick. When it's over, Sergeant Sean Menard leads the team in a "hot wash," Army-speak for de-brief.
"So the first thing what was the first thing that was supposed to happen?" Menard asks. "Convoy. What did you think, Sergeant?"
In the hot wash, mistakes that are still fresh in mind are corrected, and positive actions are praised.
On another part of the camp, analysts study computer readouts of the encounter at the village. Most of them work for SRI International, the software manufacturer. Their job is simply to monitor and time stamp key events. All that data becomes an after action report when the entire unit sits down at the end of the day for some self-evaluation.
Many soldiers taking part in this training say the program helps them better understand how their own role fits into the larger mission. Derek Artz is the instrumentation chief for SRI.
"It is definitely very rewarding to know that the soldiers here will learn a lot before they go overseas, they'll be safer and hopefully many more of them will come back home from benefitting from the technology and the training," Artz says.
The training at Camp Grayling runs through August 7.