Preparing the U.S. Army for the Future

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin takes part in a 3D military training exercise.
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin takes part in a 3D military training exercise.
In its "Where America Stands" series, CBS News is looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing this country in the new decade.

If one moment could capture the unexpected trauma of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this would be it. American soldiers hit by a roadside bomb. Something as simple as a homemade booby trap literally blew up America's plan for quick and easy victories.

The report card is written in blood and treasure:

  • 5,300 dead with more than a third of them killed by roadside bombs.
  • 36,000 wounded, with more than 950 amputees.
  • Two million have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. More than half of them leaving families behind. Some have served five combat tours.
  • 300,000 are estimated to suffer from post traumatic stress or major depression.
  • 480,000 who have left the service are now in the VA system.

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    The soldiers have made the sacrifices, but the American taxpayer has footed the bill. This year, the total spent on the two wars will go over the $1 trillion mark.

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    The problem is there for all to see. The most powerful and the sophisticated military in history stretched almost to the breaking point by two guerrilla wars against 3rd rate opponents. Shock and awe turned out to be a myth.

    "There were many people who believed that technology had essentially solved the problem of future war," said Brigadier General H. R. McMaster. "That we would be able to win future wars cheaply, quickly, mainly at stand off range," said the general.

    Gen. McMaster, one of the most successful battlefield commanders in Iraq, argues that the next conflict is likely to be another war the U.S. did not bargain for.

    "What we see in Afghanistan and Iraq is we see sort of harbingers of future conflict," McMaster said.

    The principle lesson of both conflicts and the problem McMaster is grappling with is the unpredictability of war -- where it will break out and how it will unfold.

    "You're never going to get it right. "No one has ever got it precisely right in terms of the demands of future armed conflict," McMaster said. "The key though is to not be so far off the mark that you can't adapt, that you can't adjust."

    "You're not going to be exactly right," Martin said. "Just try not to be exactly wrong."

    "Exactly. Try not to define future conflict as you would like it to be because if you do you're just about guaranteed that it will be nothing like that," McMaster replied.

    In addition to the obvious places where war could break out -- Korea, Iran, Yemen -- there are 90 failing countriesin the world which could dissolve into conflict. The army brainstorms future crises at, ironically, the oldest fort in America -- Fort Monroe, Virginia, defended by a moat.

    Lt. Gen. Michael Vaneis in charge of preparing the army for the future: everything from tomorrow in Afghanistan to 2025 in who knows where.

    "The future is happening almost in dog years," he said. "The pace of change is at such a rapid rate it's exponential."

    The Solution

    If you can't predict, the only solution is to adapt -- which has proved painful and costly in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So the Army is trying to train soldiers to adapt to the enemy's latest tactics before they ever get to the battlefield and to do that it has turned to an unlikely source -- the entertainment industry.

    Martin asked, "what does Hollywood have to teach the U.S. Army about war?"

    "Well, what Hollywood brings is an ability to simulate reality," said Vane. "We can bring the battlefield to the soldier before he or she ever goes to battle."

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    First the battlefield -- everything from video taken by spy drones to the chemical composition of the latest roadside bomb -- is brought into an operations center, located of all places, in a mall outside colonial Williamsburg.

    It's where the Army tries to capture all the complexities and dilemmas of combat and turn them into real world training for troops on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Terabytes of data are transformed into computer simulations -- a no-nonsense version of the video games today's soldiers grew up playing.

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    Retired Army Sergeant Mark Covey runs what is undoubtedly the most high stakes video gaming center in the world. The videos are posted on a classified web site where soldiers bound for Iraq and Afghanistan practice against the latest enemy tactics.

    That's just the beginning of what the Army has in mind: 3D battlefield simulations.

    Web Extra: 3D Simulator

    "This is next step in the serious gaming for training and that is to take a soldier and put him in the environment," Covey said. "So in this case you know we're in a humvee."

    The aim is to download the 3D simulations into a warehouse big enough to hold an entire platoon of soldiers learning to clear a village wherever the next war might be.

    "We can rapidly change. We can go from an Afghan village to an Iraqi village to perhaps somewhere in the Philippines," Covey said. "You're only limited by your imagination."

    Next training simulator? An improvised explosive device (IED) simulation. Martin got inside the simulator for a test drive.

    Web Extra: IED Simulator

    The landscape is Lone Pine, California, scene of countless cowboy movies. Only now it's a gauntlet of roadside bombs. The aim is to use the most sophisticated device of all -- the human eye -- to find them before they find you.

    Just like the real battlefield, the enemy can come at you in unexpected ways.

    Suddenly, a simulated explosion rocked Martin in the test drive.

    "I don't know how close to the real thing that was, but it's very, very convincing and it took me totally by surprise," Martin said.

    The goal is to make a soldier's last day of training the same as first day in combat -- a very different kind of shock and awe.

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    • David Martin

      David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.