High-tech war games at Ellington ready reservists for battlefield [Houston Chronicle]
(Houston Chronicle (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 24--Forward Operating Base Extortion has too much lush green grass and too few concrete blast walls to pass for a real airfield in Afghanistan. But for a few days this month, the encampment of military tents and trucks at Ellington Field in Houston will bring dozens of Army reservists as close to a war zone as they can get without leaving Texas.
The 77 reservists from 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment traveled by convoy from the unit's headquarters at Fort Hood to Ellington last week for four days of computerized war games orchestrated by Houston-based 75th Training Division.
They sleep on cots in tents they pitched themselves, eat meals cooked in a portable "containerized kitchen" and monitor a virtual battlefield from a tactical operations center powered by generators and outfitted with the same computers and communications equipment used by troops overseas.
The base is named for Extortion 17, one of the unit's Chinooks that went down in Afghanistan on Aug. 6, killing 38 people, including 17 Navy SEALs.
"The goal is to make them totally immersed in the scenario we've created for them," said Maj. Gen. Jimmie Jaye Wells, commanding general of the 75th. "As soon as you walk in, it looks, feels and tastes as real as you can get."
Scenarios range from firefights and humanitarian disasters to medivacs and missions to retrieve troops killed in action. The reservists also face any number of smaller-scale emergencies, such as a suicidal soldier, a sexual harassment claim or a Freedom of Information Request from a pesky reporter.
"It can't be just an exercise out of a box," Wells said. "We work real hard to be creative."
World War I airbase
The 75th controls the scenarios from inside a 40,000-square-foot Battle Projection Center that opened last year at Ellington as part of a $100 million construction project to revitalize the former World War I airbase.
With Pentagon officials looking to cut half a trillion dollars from the defense budget in the next 10 years, the 75th pitches the high-tech training exercises it runs at Ellington and other facilities across the country as a cost-effective way to keep National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers battle-ready, even as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
"We have to be able to maintain that same baseline standard, and do it with less," said Col. Jason Walrath, a group commander for the 75th.
It would cost about $10,000 per hour to put a real Chinook in the air for a similar live exercise, Walrath said. A computer-simulated helicopter flight is far cheaper. "This is already a sunk cost," he said.
A sudden crisis
At Ellington on Monday, Chief Warrant Officer James Wylie, 33, of Leander, piloted an Apache helicopter over Kandahar in a computer simulation called Virtual Battle Space 2. Similar to a first-person shooter game like "Call of Duty," the simulation uses topographical maps to re-create the terrain users would see in Afghanistan.
"It's almost an exact replica," Wylie said, as his Apache swooped over buildings and fields.
With a click of a mouse, one of the 75th's trainers triggers a sudden crisis: Ground troops in a convoy to the north have called for air support. They've been ambushed, and there are casualties.
Inside the khaki tent that serves as the tactical operations center at FOB Extortion, Lt. Col. Jim Fitzgerald tries to get a medivac helicopter to the scene in less than 15 minutes. But such helicopters carry no weapons and he can't send one into a hot landing zone without an escort.
"How far out are the Kiowas (armed scout helicopters)?" Fitzgerald asks a soldier.
"Sir, they're 25 miles to the south."
"I need you to get on the phone to Brigade and get 'em with the Apaches," Fitzgerald says. "
In the end, it takes a little longer than Fitzgerald wants, but the casualties do get evacuated safely. The rescue unfolds in real time, but without any actual aircraft. Later, the commander and his staff will review their performance to pinpoint what they could do better.
"The beauty of this is we can bring these guys in here and they can practice their battlefield skills as a team, because this is an orchestra," Fitzgerald said.
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