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Digital environment teaches U.S. soldiers lessons of modern battlefield

The U.S. Army Engineer School combined forces with the U.S. Army Military Police School and presented a virtual staff ride (VSR) overview brief on 22 January at Fort Leonard Wood's Digital Training Facility. The objective of the brief was to discuss the future utilization of Large-Scale Combat Operations VSRs, such as the newly developed World War II Stalingrad and Korean War Chipyong-ni VSR. Sam Campbell reports on U.S. Army's website.

Digital environment teaches U.S. soldiers lessons of modern battlefield
This aerial view of Wanat, Afghanistan, is one of limitless possible angles from which soldiers can see the location (Photo Credit: screen shot)

Virtual Staff Rides are created in a digital 3D environment, which allows soldiers to examine, analyze and discuss the effect terrain has on combat operations. The VSR permits soldiers to be taught in classrooms as opposed to traditional staff rides, which require physical travel to a battlefield, budget allocations and a fair allotment of time. In addition to easing logistical concerns, a VSR enables aerial and first-person viewing of battlefields that no longer exist, that have been severely altered in their physical presence, or are currently too hazardous to visit, such as Afghanistan's Waygal Valley.

According to Florian Waitl, USAES command historian, some historical recreations are more beneficial for one branch than the other due to the nature of the operations and discussions of the historical events being presented to the students. "Engineers like to take a closer look at historical mobility and counter-mobility operations, while MPs are interested in route reconnaissance or convoy security operations," he said. "One of the VSRs offered is the Palm Sunday Ambush, which can be seen as the hallmark VSR of the MP Corps due to the actions of Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein and Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester during an insurgent ambush on a U.S. convoy in Iraq on March 20, 2005. The MP soldiers' actions are discussed in detail during the VSR, which not only resulted in saving countless lives but also resulted in Hester being the first woman since World War II to receive a Silver Star and the first woman ever to be cited for heroism in close quarters."

Waitl said each school has different needs and goals during the infused history lessons but the change from counterinsurgency to large-scale combat operations really brought the two schools' historians together to find better historical battles to prepare today's warfighter -- engineers and military police soldiers. "We really want to tailor the new staff rides to all of our needs, which is the reason why we invited such a broad front of educators from both schools," he said.

Waitl said by looking at Chipyong-ni and Stalingrad as the possible standard for future virtual staff rides in the classroom, they will be able to add the discussion of the evolution of doctrine and help the students understand the reasons for some of the Army's "modern doctrine. That is something you will not get out of a Wilson's Creek Staff Ride," he said.

Although staff rides to Civil War battlefields are beneficial, Waitl said VSRs offer a different experience. "The scale of the battle was obviously much smaller and the connection between a Civil War battle and the threats we face today against peer and near-peer competitors are just not easily conveyed as can be done by a modern VSR. Multi-domain operations is the future of warfare, and it seems if we reach back too far into our past history, too many students will get lost and will never reach the learning outcomes we would like them to achieve."

Ron Miller, USAMPS command historian, agreed. "The new VSRs are also more contemporary," Miller said. "Aerial resupply -- you didn't have that in Wilson's Creek."

Waitl said educating engineers and military police side-by-side with the help of a VSR utilizing a historical LSCO battle is feasible and conceivable. "With Chipyong-ni, we can really build an awesome product for both of our schools, which will be so much better than the traditional staff rides currently conducted on Civil War battlefields in the vicinity of Fort Leonard Wood," Waitl said. Miller echoed Waitl's enthusiasm for the VSR's versatility. "A lot of the lessons learned are applicable across the board, especially when it comes to leadership and decision-making."

The virtual staff ride also allows instructors to adjust weather conditions to match significant historical circumstances, like the Korean War's winter of 1951, or potential scenarios like maneuvering under heavy fog.

Despite its lower fiscal, time and logistical requirements, the virtual staff ride shares the ability with its traditional counterpart to affect soldiers on a more visceral level than a map could. "The leadership aspect, the human dimension, must be found in a staff ride, field or virtual, and it must hit the heart if you want to be successful and reach your students," Waitl saids

The command historians said they look forward to the expansion of virtual staff rides. "History matters," Waitl said. "The soldiers have to get something out of the discussion of historical actions, and it must inform and transform them in their profession of arms, otherwise we failed them."


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