A Big Dose Of Reality

Raytheon updating Army training center with high-tech simulation capabilities


Two paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team and a trainer run through a smokescreen during a live-fire exercise at the JRTC. The middle soldier carries tools used to breach doors on his back. (U.S. Army photo)

It's sometime before dawn – zero dark thirty, in battlefield parlance. The air smells of burning tires, rotting garbage and gunpowder. Four soldiers flank a hotel entrance and hear the faint sound of a radio playing a pop song on the other side. On three, they break the door down and rush in. Bright flashes blind them. Explosions leave them deaf. A .50-caliber machine gun rattles off rounds.

If this were an actual combat situation, casualties would be high. Luckily, the battle is bloodless, the enemies are their colleagues and the rounds are blanks. But the battlefield sensations are real – the acrid air, the pyrotechnics, even the static on the radio. Raytheon is upgrading, expanding and modernizing the systems that control the ultra-realistic combat simulations at the U.S. Army Joint Readiness Training Center Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain complex.

The Army built the seven-acre, 32-building city at Fort Polk in Louisiana in 1994, naming it Shughart-Gordon in honor of two Medal of Honor recipients killed the year before while trying to rescue soldiers from a downed Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu, Somalia. Army units from around the country have been laying siege to the fictional city for more than 20 years, taking part in two-week training exercises designed to replicate battle down to the smallest detail.

“The Army trains like it fights and this is as real as it gets, since most of the scenarios are based on real-world operations,” said Gene Hartmann, JRTC MOUT program manager for Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services. “Soldiers get to experience the sights, sounds and smell of combat before things get real. Nothing gets your heart racing like being engulfed in total darkness with explosions going off all around you and a .50 cal spitting out rounds.”

Hartmann leads an Orlando, Florida-based team tasked with a $4.5 million refresh of the technology that runs the  Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain complex, making Fort Polk home to the first all-digital Joint Regional Training Center. Among the improvements:

  • 700 cameras will be replaced with networked, high-definition infrared models with triple the resolution and the ability to record video and audio in every room of every building.

  • Computers, video recorders, displays and special effects systems will all be replaced, as will the cabling and network wiring that connects them.

  • An updated control system for Hollywood-quality special effects. These include rooftop explosions and fireballs, weapons simulators, sound effects and ordinary building features such as lighting and locks. Soldiers may hear a baby crying in one room, a radio playing music in another and adversaries whispering about an attack from across the hall. The system will also produce scents – ranging from sewage to exotic spices – that make scenarios more realistic.

  • Integration of the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES,) a high-tech “laser tag” setup that tracks how and when exercise participants and their equipment are “hit” by enemy fire.

After each training exercise, commanders and leaders of the visiting units – called the blue forces – are briefed on the good, bad and ugly of their raid.

“The training operations are set up so the blue forces always fail," Hartmann said. “The soldiers learn from their mistakes so they aren’t repeated when it really matters.”

Another part of the training: Teaching troops to ignore distractions and adopt a combat mindset, Hartmann said.

“For example, soldiers tend to gravitate to smells like hamburgers and apple pie while avoiding the areas that stink like raw sewage," he said, "but they need to change that mindset, because often that’s where the enemy is hunkered down.”

And because no scenario is truly realistic without the human element, the town has a “cast” of civilians who play the roles of local villagers, shop owners, city officials and the media, mingling with the troops and making it difficult to tell friend from foe.

“My team and I are very excited and proud to be part of this refresh, because we know that the result will be training that teaches soldiers to survive and come back home to their families,” Hartmann said. “Short of firing real bullets and launching live mortar rounds, you can’t get any more realistic than this."

Published On: 09/08/2015
Last Updated: 03/07/2019