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LeatherNet: Creating Synthetic Infantry

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

TWENTYNINE PALMS, CALIF., Feb. 28, 1996 – Outdoors, Marines maneuver combat vehicles across the high desert plain. Indoors, they maneuver troops, tanks and tracks across a 10foothigh, 24footwide panoramic video screen.

Each year, about 35,000 Marines train at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, a 932squaremile range at Twentynine Palms, Calif. Inside a building housing the LeatherNet Project, a training screen featuring DoD's latest battle simulation technology replaces the training ground.

LeatherNet is part of a DoD Advanced Research Projects Agency effort to create a joint synthetic battlespace. Battles are played out on giant computer screens. Troops, ground vehicles and aircraft deal with enemy forces, weather conditions and environmental factors on highresolution, digitized terrain.

The agency's Synthetic Theater of War project aims to improve training and mission rehearsal, improve simulation technology, reduce overhead costs and improve afteraction reporting, according to defense officials. Simulation training cuts costs because troops and equipment maneuver in cyberspace rather than in fuelguzzling, manhourhungry reality. Units can rehearse missions using a digitized version of the terrain they'll actually work in.

Reducing the overhead associated with earlier versions of simulation technology is another objective of current research, according to Mack Brewer, LeatherNet site leader.

"A lot of simulators require almost as many people to support an exercise as there are being trained in the exercise," he said. "Through the technologies that ARPA is using, they're trying to reduce that ratio."

LeatherNet adds the amphibious component of a joint task force to the synthetic battlespace, Brewer said. In the past, simulated battles primarily focused on tactics and scenarios involving things tanks, ships and aircraft. LeatherNet adds troops. It creates synthetic infantrymen and incorporates lowerechelon command and control elements simulated smallunit leaders command individual combatants based on orders from a human commander.

"When we bring a commander in here, we don't want him to learn how to become a computer operator," Brewer said. "We want him to apply his military skills."

In a darkened room, rows of conference chairs face LeatherNet's threepaneled screen. A chair equipped with headset and joystick serves the commander. As the lights go down and the screen comes to life, it displays a desert environment, silhouetted troops and vehicles.

"When a commander comes in to use this facility, we imagine his subordinate commanders coming with him," Brewer said. "As they go through the battle, they would each go to their own places within the environment, seeing what actual Marines would see.

"A company commander, for example, might send a platoon up the right flank," he said. "That platoon commander has a different view from the rest of us, plus he's at risk of being shot."

A technology feature called the Command Vu allows commanders to see the battlespace not only from their own position, but also from that of the enemy. Commanders can project where the enemy might be located, Brewer said. Terrain evaluation techniques then show areas that would be exposed to machine gun fire from various positions.

"One of the techniques commanders can apply is to postulate several enemy positions, do a combined overlay showing the enemy field of fire and then do route planning based on that," Brewer said.

Commanders can vary their views, looking down on the scene or zooming in low and slow over troops and tanks, light armored vehicles, Humvees with .50caliber machine guns, amphibious assault vehicles. Troops and a full range of Marine Corps armored equipment and fighter aircraft are included. The truetolife equipment models help train viewers to recognize specific silhouettes, Brewer said.

LeatherNet responds to voice commands. A current 350word vocabulary will eventually expand to about 1,000 words, Brewer said. While the system allows for differences in pronunciation, commanders must learn to use standard commands.

"Create a rifle squad called Victor Two One at location 935965," Brewer tells the computer. As he speaks, his words appear across the top of the screen, verifying the computer understands the command. Silhouettes of a rifle squad blip onto the screen at the desired location.

Brewer then prepares to send two tank platoons into battle. "I'm going to tell the enemy tank platoon to move to Objective Bravo, and I'll tell the friendly tank platoon to move to Checkpoint 1 and then to attack Objective Bravo," he explains.

"Romeo One Tango, move to Objective Bravo," Brewer commands the screen. "Romeo One Tango, move out."

"Whiskey Four Six, move to Checkpoint 1," he commands. "Whiskey Four Six, move out."

While the tanks move into position on the screen, Brewer orders the rifle squad to move. "Victor Two One, move to Checkpoint Two." At first, nothing happens for a reason.

"We've invented a 'smart' squad leader who's now going through the process of planning his route," Brewer explains. "As soon as he comes up with the route, he'll move, taking advantage of available cover and concealment." The squad on the screen moves into a deep wash. The low ground provides cover from enemy machine gun fire.

As troops and equipment move across the screen, blue lines appear tracing the movement. They'll later serve to reenact the battle in afteraction briefings.

A full range of interaction between commanders and subordinates is maintained, Brewer said. Commanders issue orders, and subordinates report back information on incoming rounds or their progress toward an objective. One of the Marine Corps' specific objectives in developing new simulation technology was to merge command and control and simulation systems.

LeatherNet is a collaborative venture, Brewer said. The Advanced Research Project Agency develops simulation hardware and software. The Marine Corps hosts the project as part of its July 1994 master plan to use modeling and simulation to enhance warfighting ability.

The Marines provide LeatherNet's facilities, utilities, communications and subject matter experts. They use the new technology for mission planning, testing new tactics and doctrine, integrating live exercises and after action reviews.

Company commanders recently used LeatherNet during two combined arms exercises to help plan livefire and maneuver exercises. Range 400, a small infantry range at the Air Ground Combat Center, was replicated on the computerized screen with resolution 900 times the standard military digitized map. Commanders used the program to analyze critical aspects of the enemy, terrain, weather, troops and fire support available and other aspects of the scenario.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarines at Twentynine Palms, Calif., use this digitized landscape to train leaders. The simulation, part of the LeatherNet Project at the Air Ground Combat Center, trains leaders on realistic terrain using the full spectrum of Marine Corps equipment.  
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