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SUFFOLK, Va. — Admittedly, the cartoonlike graphics are a bit crude.
Beyond the windshield of the modified military Humvee, there's little detail on the faces of the Iraqi civilians gathered at the side of the road. The insurgents planting a roadside bomb in a horse carcass are somewhat geometric.
The location and length of the roads in the souped-up video game, though, are as exact as a map. The sound of explosions and guns firing all around can be alarmingly authentic. And the emotional and mental agitation created in troops using the unit to practice driving along the treacherous routes of Iraq is as real as it gets.
"We've had more than one person come through here — who had been to Iraq — say, ‘The mosque is down that road on the right,"‘ said Chris Mang, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve who works with Lockheed Martin's Joint and Expeditionary Warfare Training Concepts.
Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor that builds this particular model of Humvee simulator, officially calls it the Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer.
It's a life-size Humvee outfitted with real .50-caliber machine guns, official military radio systems — and an authentic risk of running out of gas. Surrounding the vehicle is 360 degrees of movie theater screens.
Cameras overhead project graphics of Baghdad, Tikrit and Fallujah, Iraq.
Until now, the 30 or so trainers purchased by the Defense Department have primarily been used by the Army and Marine Corps to give troops a little extra training before heading to Iraq, where roadside bombs continue to pose the biggest threat to U.S. forces. In late January, a mobile version of the trainer landed at the Lockheed Martin Center for Innovation in northern Suffolk. Like a ship in a bottle, the convoy trainer was built in a semitrailer and is parked outside the high-tech laboratory.
Its arrival marks the first time the trainer has been used to experiment with future weapons to ensure they can operate and communicate effectively with troops on the ground and behind the wheel.
The center, which opened in 2005, is a hub for testing "net-centric warfare," one of the military's newest buzzwords. In simple terms, it's the idea that every player on a battlefield — from fighter jets to tanks to troops — is a node, or a point, on a network. If you can get into that network, you can share information with each other.
By mid-April, the convoy trainer will be a node on the Lockheed Martin network and used for experimentation in the net-centric arena.
Take the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for example. The newest fighter jet, now doing flight tests in Texas, is supposed to gather intelligence like no jet before it.
But if it discovers a potential roadside bomb ahead of a convoy, how can that information be sent to the convoy commander? And what type of information does that commander need? Is it possible to overload drivers with too much information?
"It's like your navigation system in your car," Mang said. "You don't need to know every five seconds how far you are away from your next turn."
The goal is to find out what commanders need to survive insurgent attacks.
The scenario that Mang ran through this week started with the revving of the Humvee's engine.
As it lurched to life on the road leading from Tikrit to Baghdad, the Humvee passed a group of Iraqis milling on the side of the road. Mang drove by without an altercation. Not all Iraqis are combatants.
Farther up the road, though, sat a line of boxes.
The man behind the curtain controlling that scenario, Patrick Flemming, knew that there were bombs in those boxes.
If he wanted to, Flemming — a senior field engineer with Lockheed Martin — could have placed potholes in the road ahead that could flip the heavy vehicle. Or he could have made the Humvee break down, a constant concern of drivers.
None of this is meant to replace live-fire exercises, Mang said. It's meant to augment it.
Using the simulator to train troops, Mang said, is like playing baseball: Coaches train players in catching and batting. But the first time they work together as a team shouldn't be during the World Series.
When Mang and Lockheed Martin personnel start experimenting with it on their network next month, it will be like coaches seeing how best to communicate with each other before sending their players onto the field.