News: Looking to the future at Fort Indiantown Gap
FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. – With Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn complete and Operation Enduring Freedom set to draw down, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard now looks to the future.
More than 17,000 Pennsylvania soldiers have deployed in support of global operations since 2001, and Guard leaders hope to maintain proficiency and skills garnered during a decade at war.
With defense budget cuts looming, Pennsylvania adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Wesley E. Craig, argued in a February 2012 article for National Guard magazine that expanding the Guard is a cost-effective way of maintaining military strength while cutting overall spending and resources.
The Guard’s part-time status lowers personnel costs, Craig noted in the article, and added that increasing troop levels in Guard units provides state governors more capable forces when dealing with emergencies.
“The National Guard has never been as ready, relevant and reliable as it is today,” Craig said in a statement from his office. “In no other branch of service can one be such an important part of his or her community at home and an equally important part of the war and peacekeeping missions taking place around the globe.”
As thousands of combat-experienced Soldiers return home from deployments across the Middle East, Pennsylvania Guard units can refocus on meshing that knowledge base with burgeoning new technology to sustain and enhance their forces.
At the forefront of that initiative is the state’s premiere training site – the Fort Indiantown Gap National Guard Training Center.
In the past five years, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has poured more than $17 million into upgrading and modernizing the installation’s ranges and facilities as deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan increased.
“Fort Indiantown Gap has been rapidly expanding in recent years to support a full spectrum of training for active and reserve troops from all branches,” said Craig, noting the fielding of the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team as the catalyst for the expansion. “The benefits of that expansion will pay off for years to come as the Pennsylvania National Guard and Fort Indiantown Gap are viewed as epicenters of experience and expertise.”
Several of the post’s main facilities, including the Medical Battalion Training Site, the Digital Training Campus, and firing ranges, significantly expanded to train not only local Guard units, but active duty and reserve troops from across the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond.
ON THE CUTTING EDGE
The slow rise and fall of the patient’s chest began to fade as Sgt. Tanisha Mercado prepared automated external defibrillator pads for treatment.
The patient—a high-tech mannequin controlled through a computer—responded to the shock accordingly as Mercado continued treatment during a health care specialist training course at the Medical Battalion Training Site.
“I think it’s awesome that the mannequin can do as much as it does,” said Mercado, assigned to 33rd Civil Support Team, District of Columbia National Guard. “It’s definitely on a higher level when it comes to technology.”
Rather than simply acting out scenarios on training dummies, students in the medical course now have the opportunity for interactive training with mannequins that breathe, bleed, react to stimuli and even speak.
Instructors control the mannequins in real time through a laptop computer running through a variety of medical scenarios while the students diagnose the problems and perform appropriate treatment.
Besides the health care specialist military occupational specialty transition course, MBTS covers a range of classes from Combat Lifesaver Course to CPR and automated external defibrillator, or AED, usage.
“It’s the great thing about being a medical schoolhouse,” said Maj. Adam Bickford, MBTS administrative officer. “We have a lot of capabilities here that external units, either in the state of Pennsylvania or nationally, are able to come in and utilize this facility to get medical training.”
Due to the increasing number of units seeking class time at MBTS, plans are in the works for another medical training site to be built next door so more units can train simultaneously, Bickford explained.
“The two facilities are going to be mutually supporting each other,” he said. “It’s really going to ensure that we’ll never have to turn down a unit here, potentially, that wants to train.”
Master Sgt. Delmar Kessler, MBTS chief instructor, said that until recently, the medical center went relatively unnoticed. Now, he added, word is getting out due in large part to class graduates spreading recommendations.
“When people leave here, they talk about it,” said Kessler. “They go back to their units or commands and they let them know what their experiences were while they were here.”
As the U.S. Army placed more emphasis on individual first aid skills in recent years, more soldiers began cycling through the Combat Lifesaver Course, which MBTS now hosts for 500 to 1000 Soldiers annually.
Kessler said the courses offered at MBTS are unique five-day programs.
“It’s not a gentleman’s course,” he said. “You’re going to be tasked, you’re going to be pushed and probably do things you don’t normally do. We not only go into the didactic portion of the training, but we enforce the hands-on skills that accompany the training itself.”
Capping off the class is a simulated combat scenario, where students put their skills to test under pressure of low light, intense battle sounds and screaming instructors.
The combat scenario is not a requirement of the course, Kessler noted, but one that instructors feel is necessary to prepare soldiers for situations they may face during a deployment.
Beyond the new technology being utilized through the courses at MBTS, Kessler credits his staff, most of whom have combat experience, with making the facility what it is.
“The cadre is probably one of the most elite groups of people assembled,” he said. “When they’re out there talking about a task, it’s one thing to just read it and talk about it; however, if you’ve actually experienced it and produced, it gives some credibility to some of the training we do here.”
THERE’S A SIMULATOR FOR THAT
While the Army looks for ways to reduce spending and simultaneously maintain readiness into the future, the world of virtual reality and simulations is quickly becoming a new standard.
Lacking access to particular vehicles or equipment may be a thing of the past as soldiers here can now simply program into a simulator what vehicle they wish to drive and what part of the world they want to drive through.
“Area 5 on Fort Indiantown Gap is what we refer to as the ‘Digital Training Campus,’” said Capt. Gordon Kinneer, training site simulations officer. “It’s a virtual world. You have your own avatar based on your likeness, your [physical] ability, your qualifications, and you run around that virtual world as yourself.”
That virtual world may be programmed as a mirror image of actual terrain the soldiers would encounter on real missions or exercises on ranges on base, or accurate renditions of towns and operating areas in Iraq or Afghanistan.
When training on marksmanship, Kinneer explained the advantage of a simulator is getting Soldiers’ skills sharp before transitioning to a live-fire range, saving time and ammunition on the actual firing line.
“The cost to operate the system is electricity,” he added.
Besides digitally honing skills to save resources, maximizing efficiency of training time, particularly for Guard and Reserve soldiers on drill weekends, is a key factor in choosing simulators.
Rather than spending time setting up vehicles, acquiring fuel and coordinating routes for a convoy mission, for example, a unit can come to a simulator and be on the ‘road’ in much less time, said Sgt. 1st Class Damon Hassinger, non-commissioned officer in charge of simulations.
“When it’s all said and done, you’re driving within a few minutes versus hours and days of coordination,” Hassinger said. “So if a soldier’s got three hours, you can essentially get two and a half hours of training.”
The simulators utilized by soldiers here are far more than simple video games, but rather part of the larger Live, Virtual, Constructive, Gaming integrated concept the U.S. Army is taking into the 21st century.
Battalion-level staffs can oversee subordinate units’ exercises from a central Mission Training Complex while various companies concurrently operate on live ranges and inside simulators that are networked back to the MTC.
Furthermore, each of the simulators across Area 5 can be networked so that pilots in a flight simulator may be providing air support for soldiers training in a ground unit simulator, Kinneer explained.
“They’re all able to be linked together,” Kinneer said. “You can do one or two systems, or you can do all systems. It’s a little bit of groundwork to get it set up that way, but the capability exists.”
Despite all the emerging technology, many soldiers of what has been called the ‘9/11 Generation’ are not finding the learning curve too steep.
“This is the younger generation Army,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Greg Kupar, simulations property book officer. “They understand the gaming part of it on the civilian side, so when you put them in a convoy trainer or a weapons simulator, it just clicks.”
Just to make sure the students don’t get ahead of themselves, however, instructors can change the situations on the fly to see how the soldiers react.
“We can escalate or elevate the level of training or the intensity of the training,” said Hassinger. “If you’re doing well, we can jam your weapon.”
Instructors can program in any type of weather from sandstorms to snow and fog, or drop in roadblocks, mechanical problems or even improvised explosive devices to test skills under pressure.
“It’s good, because when they actually have that failure in the field, they’ve been there and done that,” Kupar noted.
Even with all the advantages of virtual reality, NCOs need not fear losing their livelihood as instructors to digital avatars.
“This will never replace live training,” said Hassinger, noting that simulators are just tools to achieve the same end goal, and require a human element to educate troops.
“If you don’t know what you’re teaching, the tool will do you no good,” he said. “So it’s not the device that trains the soldier; it’s having an educated, experienced trainer or soldier on that device training other soldiers.”
HOME ON THE RANGE
As Pennsylvania National Guard deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan increased and the state fielded the reserve component’s only Stryker brigade, the demand for modern ranges also rapidly increased to fit the needs of deploying soldiers.
Nestled between two mountains, the 12,000-acre training corridor at Fort Indiantown Gap hosts a variety of movement and firing ranges, including live-fire ranges for everything from small arms to artillery and aerial gunnery.
Besides military units utilizing the training facilities, there are far more people behind the scenes making sure everything runs smoothly, said Maj. Kyle Stauffer, director of plans, training and security for Range Control.
“There are biologists, forestry people, maintenance, state surface maintenance people, some of our own in-house land management people; they all work together to ensure that we have the best available facilities to support the units,” he said.
With more than 40 different ranges available, Range Control schedules operations for all units conducting exercises to ensure smooth coordination and safety, particularly for live-fire ranges.
“Nothing happens on the installation without them coming through Range Control, no matter how small it is,” said Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Miller, assistant NCOIC. “We work hand-in-hand with the unit to make sure that from the planning process six months out to the actual day of training, that continuity is there and everything is being done safely.”
Along with standard rifle qualification and target ranges, the base recently built a $9.7-million Combined Arms Collective Training Facility, an advanced urban operations course designed to mimic real-world scenarios in combat zones.
Populated by role-players and wired with more than 80 remote cameras, soldiers patrolling the streets and buildings of the town have every angle of their exercise and interactions with the locals recorded, and use the feedback to hone their performance.
For soldiers who need the experience of breaching doors and firing live ammunition in close-quarters combat, instructors offer a live fire shoot house, which features ballistic rubber coated walls to absorb bullets and responsive targets that fall when shot.
“With the new facilities—the new ranges we’ve built—it offers more training opportunities and makes us a more desirable place to go,” Stauffer said of Fort Indiantown Gap.
Range Control now looks to reach out to training NCOs and officers returning home after one or more deployments overseas who may not be aware of changes made or new operational opportunities available.
For example, Stauffer noted, replacements for the rappel tower and obstacle course will soon begin, and work is currently underway to develop the abilities necessary to host an air assault course on the base.
“We realize that the force is transitioning from a force at war back to a garrison force,” Stauffer said. “With that, training requirements in many ways could actually increase and the demand for our facilities could increase.”
Date Posted:07.11.2012 16:07
Location:FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, PA, US
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