Page last updated at 02:41 GMT, Friday, 29 August 2008 03:41 UK

Real lessons from virtual battle

By Stuart Hughes
BBC News

Troops can experience the dangers of modern warfare before they reach the battlefield

As I drive a heavily armoured WMIK Land Rover in convoy through the deserted streets of Samawah, south-east of Baghdad, I sense trouble is brewing.

The convoy commander, Major Tom Mouat, warns of possible danger ahead.

"It's the middle of the day, but there are no people and no cars around. It's too quiet. That's a classic combat indicator. There may be an IED [improvised explosive device] up ahead.

"Stay in the middle of the road. Gunner - scan the balconies and side streets for a spotter."

Moments later, a massive roadside bomb explodes a few metres from my vehicle.

I yank the steering wheel hard to the left. Dust and black smoke obscure the road ahead.

"Contact, contact. Accelerate. Press on."

Everything looks and feels realistic, but my steering wheel is actually connected to a laptop computer at a Ministry of Defence research laboratory at Shrivenham, near Swindon.


The BBC's Stuart Hughes tries out the new system

'Virtual training'

In the lab, more than 30 PCs are running a military training simulator called Virtual Battle Space 2.

The Army is using the software to teach soldiers about to be sent on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq how to deal with ambushes, roadside bombs and other threats.

Some 2,000 troops have used it so far, and some of the first trainees are currently stationed in Iraq.

We all play computer games, but this isn't just a game. It's serious
Pte Frank Boateng
25 Sqn, Royal Logistics Corps

"We've got a lot of commitments with Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment," says Major Mouat, who manages the simulator for the Army.

"The ideal solution would be to take soldiers in a convoy down to the centre of Salisbury on a Saturday afternoon, but I'm not sure the shoppers would like having machine guns pointed at them very much.

"Virtual training is safe and it maximises the benefits of real-life training. It even means that someone who doesn't have a driving licence can gain experience of driving in a convoy."

The military says one of the key features of Virtual Battle Space 2 is the ability to review every decision made during a training exercise and highlight mistakes, so they are not made when lives are at stake.

The program is also infinitely variable.

With a few clicks of a mouse, computer technicians add an angry crowd of stone-throwing youths, a British Challenger tank and a camera-toting press photographer wearing a blue flak jacket into my simulation.

The system can be set up to mimic different times of day, or weather conditions ranging from blazing sun to torrential rainstorms.

It is also portable and can be set up anywhere in the world in just a couple of hours.

Foot patrols

The developers of Virtual Battle Space 2 pride themselves on the accuracy of the simulator, down to the smallest details.

The software uses actual Iraqi road networks. Buildings are identical to those soldiers are likely to see on operations, and the figures populating the virtual world are dressed in realistic clothing.

Soldier using military training simulator
Some 2,000 soldiers have spent time on the simulator so far

Scenarios based on towns in Afghanistan are currently in development. The Army also hopes to use the software in the future to simulate foot patrols as well as vehicle convoys.

But can a computer game, however sophisticated, hope to replicate the reality of combat, where soldiers are expected to make life-or-death decisions in a split second?

Soldiers who have used Virtual Battle Space 2 insist they do not regard it as just a game.

"When I first saw it, I didn't know how useful it was going to be, but the training's been really helpful," says Pte Frank Boateng from 25 Sqn, Royal Logistics Corps.

"We all play computer games, but this isn't just a game. It's serious.

"I'm sure it's going to help me when I get out to theatre."

The Army stresses that computer simulations can never replace real-life training.

Military chiefs say soldiers will always need to get behind the wheel of real tanks and armoured vehicles before they are sent to a war zone.

But as British troops face an increasing number of roadside bomb attacks, the Army says the lessons soldiers can learn on a laptop could save their lives on operations.

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