Pfc. Nicolas Laboy, a signal systems specialist living in Plainfield, Ill., navigates a virtual rigid-hulled inflatable boat during a familiarization class on the Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3) simulator managed by the 416th Theater Engineer Command at the Parkhurst U.S. Army Reserve Center in Darien, Ill., June 7. VBS3 is the latest version of a training simulation gaming software that has been used for years by the Army but has been updated to be more realistic and specific to the Soldier using it. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret)
DARIEN, Ill. – Nestled inside an office room in Illinois suburbia, Reserve Soldiers can be launched into battlefields or hostile environments from around the world.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Eastern Europe, even a prison …
The Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3) system can simulate just about any environment a Soldier might face.
The headquarters company for the 416th Theater Engineer Command (TEC) set up its own VBS3 cell this month to give its Reserve Soldiers an opportunity to refresh their troop-leading skills. Soldiers headquartered at a command level don’t often get this opportunity because their job revolves around planning, strategy, logistics and overseeing missions at the brigades and battalions below them.
Fortunately, the managing trainer in charge of the VBS3 systems for the TEC is not a sit-back-and-watch type of guy who would let squad leaders flounder through the simulator.
Tim Bizoukas, living in Aurora, Illinois, is a former artillery officer with 29 years of experience in the Reserve, National Guard and active duty Army. He understands that not all Soldiers have as much troop leading experience as others, and he’s here to steer them successfully through whatever battle simulator they may face.
“I want them to walk out of the training environment better trained than how they were when they walked in. So that’s preparing them for whatever mission they have going down range – whether a hostile environment, whether it’s humanitarian assistance – so they’re familiar with what they’re about to go into,” said Bizoukas.
VBS3 ultimately helps Soldiers prepare for live-action training lanes and real world scenarios. It refreshes their memory on skills that might have gone rusty, and it emboldens them to do better and have more confidence in real life.
“There’s real training value. It’s not just a game, like Halo,” said Bizoukas.
To save money, the TEC actually repurposed older computers scheduled for turn-in. This happens every few years when old systems are replaced with new ones. The old ones often get scrapped. Instead of trashing the old computers, Bizoukas helped set up a suite worth more than $50,000 for less than three grand, at the cost of some network cables, gaming steering wheels, routers and a main system switch board.
The gaming software was developed by a company called Bohemia Interactive, used by NATO and the U.S. Army. Previous versions have been around for five years, but this latest upgrade is more realistic and complex.
For one, it models its avatars based on the actual Soldier’s strengths and weaknesses.
Before a mission, Soldiers input their height, weight, physical fitness scores and marksmanship records, and VBS3 spits out a digital replica of that user. Fat or skinny, short or tall, fit or not, the Soldier’s avatar is able to perform only as well as the Soldier’s real body.
“If the Soldier is out of shape, that will show here,” said Bizoukas. “It’s going to help motivate Soldiers become more fit.”
Soldiers can upload photos of their faces, which get imprinted onto their avatars.
Additionally, when users fire a rifle in the simulator, it’s not that rigid rifle experience most gamers experience. The rifle sways up and down to the rhythm of breathing. The Soldier has to click a mouse button to hold the avatar’s breath and steady the shot, but one can hold his breath only so long.
Fatigue, concussions and blackouts are also injected into the system. A fatigue bar limits how far the Soldier can run at full speed. A concussion takes place if a grenade is not thrown far enough or a vehicle rolls over or crashes. When a concussion hits, the user can’t just brush off the digital dust off his uniform and keep going like nothing happened.
The system is designed for squad-sized elements to train together. Typically that means between eight and 16 Soldiers at a time.
VBS3 supports larger map terrains than ever before: over 4 million square kilometers, including high-detail insets. It features an improved network performance, allowing for more users to play together. It has better graphics for increased realism. It even records the actions taken to help squad leaders run an unbiased after-action review at the end of a scenario.
Bizoukas, and other training managers like him, can put Soldiers through a whole slew of scenarios: squad on patrol, resupply a convoy, react to direct or indirect fire, respond to explosions, internment operations or just about anything Soldiers need. There is also a series of simpler orientation modules that help Soldiers feel comfortable with all the controls.
The suite is also designed to be mobile, running off a set of laptops. It can be packed into several hard cases and unpacked and set up in a few hours.
Ultimately, VBS3 extends training opportunities to Soldiers who don’t have constant access or exposure to training sites.
“It’s about troop leading procedures, mission rehearsal … This is the fundamental building block of what we do,” said Bizoukas.