U.S. Army convoy regulations from 1861 say that if a convoy is halted and an attack is feared, the wagons should form a square, with the rear wheels on the outside and the horses on the inside. Today, it is still common for halted convoys to assume a box formation.
"The only difference is the technology," said Arnold "Buck" Shaw, a convoy protection training specialist with the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command. "Convoy doctrine itself has remained virtually unchanged for 150 years."
Virtual convoy training, however, has advanced considerably since its inception seven years ago.
In 2003, with roadside bombs accounting for one-third of U.S. casualties in Iraq, the Army issued an urgent plea to industry rather than a set of formal requirements so that a life-saving system could be fast-tracked into the field. Two companies, Lockheed Martin and Raydon, quickly developed the Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer (VCCT).
The Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI) received government funding within 10 days of its request, and Lockheed and Raydon each fielded two simulators within 45 days of the contract award.
"The initial activity was more of an experiment," said Andre Elias, Lockheed's director of virtual training solutions. "The Army said, 'How quick can you give us something?'"
That initial trainer put a full-scale Humvee mounted in the center of a trailer with enough screens to allow a 180-degree view of the simulated environment.
Today, the Army is replacing its VCCTs with the Reconfigurable Vehicle Tactical Trainer (RVTT), a helmet-mounted sim that gives soldiers a 360-degree view. Students sit at different stations within the trailer, but in the virtual world they are all in the same Humvee, Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck or whatever kind of vehicle the sim is set up to emulate.
"It's going to be a more realistic training device," Shaw said. "The capabilities are going to be expanded considerably and the soldiers are going to have a more advanced system to work with."
A trailer now carries two training seats, both with 360-degree views, twice the capability of the old VCCT.
The service already has ordered or received 21, and plans ultimately to buy 47, said John Foster, PEO STRI's assistant project manager for the Close Combat Tactical Trainer.
The RVTT is built on Lockheed's Reconfigurable Vehicle Simulator; it adds after-action review to the RVS.
The RVS is part of the Army's family of Close Combat Tactical Trainers, and can be networked with other systems in that family, as well as the Army's Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer, allowing soldiers to communicate with other ground and air crews.
Perhaps the most significant evolution is the use of realistic, geospecific databases.
"If you are looking at a building in a simulator, it is a building that does in fact exist somewhere," said Michael O'Bea, the Army Training and Doctrine Command's (TRADOC) capability manager for virtual training at the Combined Arms Center-Training.
Elias said Lockheed's VCCT began with only Baghdad, Fallujah and Tikrit in Iraq. Lockheed has since equipped its RVTT software with geospecific databases to reflect a more realistic virtual experience specific to Afghanistan's typography and the long-distance fighting that occurs in a rural environment.
"We've made the hardware changes to keep up with customer demands," Elias said. "But more importantly, the training experience has evolved to keep up with the fight."
Since the VCCT, Raydon has implemented a new scenario-generation tool called SimCore GT, which allows data fields to be populated more quickly, the company said. SimCore GT increases Raydon's library of training scenarios, making it faster and easier to change the virtual environment, by integrating or removing insurgents, or increasing the amount of traffic and pedestrians.
Lockheed is concerned with the behavior of entities in the simulation.
"The more of these things you do, the better the training experience will be," Elias said. "It's not just having a virtual environment of the area that you're training for, but it's also all the little details that are specific to that."
Elias described this ability as a library of training experiences that keeps expanding. For example, modeling different ways to camouflage IEDs, changing the behavior of a crowd as the convoy approaches, or moving snipers from rooftops to windows.
"The No. 1 priority is to stay current with the evolving equipment and tactics," Elias said.
UAVs are also changing convoy training. As recently as 2007, the only people who could see videos from unmanned aircraft were the operators, and it could take days to get the information to the troops on the ground. Now, convoys can be equipped with improved situational awareness by simultaneously receiving sensor feeds and data from manned and unmanned systems.
During a session titled "Cooperative Convoy Protection" at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in August, capability manager for unmanned aircraft systems at the TRADOC, Col. Robert Sova, said, "We need to train convoy commanders at all levels as to the capability of [unmanned] systems. We need to train people with manned systems how to operate with unmanned systems."
Another convoy concept discussed at AUVSI was the use of automated technology for convoy vehicles. Lockheed presented its Convoy Active Safety Technology, an unmanned system capable of vehicle and road following, interval maintenance and obstacle avoidance. If automated technology for convoys becomes widely used, it could allow soldiers to focus more on situational awareness and less on operating the convoy vehicle. However, soldiers would still require training in how to operate the automated system, Elias said.
Shaw emphasized that convoy training is an ongoing necessity.
"As long as there is a soldier deployed somewhere that needs supplies, as long as there is a unit that needs to get from point A to point B, there will be convoys," he said. "We had convoys in 1861 and we will still have them in 3016. Who knows what they will look like? But soldiers will still have to train to use them."