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Fort Benning: Virtual battle field to help improve combat tactics

In a cluster of buildings at Fort Benning, soldiers and civilian workers fight the next war against a mythical country in the Maneuver Battle Lab.

Maj. James Campbell-Barnard, an exchange officer from the United Kingdom, said the Combined Arms Maneuver/Wide Area Security Experiment teaches future concepts and ideas based on what was learned in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an exercise rarely seen by visitors, Campbell-Barnard and 160 other battle lab staffers take part in an exercise on banks of computer screens that centers on a conflict in mythical Elis.

Results of the exercise will help shape key Army decisions of 2020 for the Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Va.

“This experiment is a tremendous opportunity to play a significant role in helping shape our future forces for what are as yet undefined challenges,” said Col. Rob Choppa, director of the Maneuver Battle Lab. “An event such as this requires significant investment so it is essential we ensure that the outputs meet our senior leadership’s requirements. I am confident, even at this early stage of the game, that we will achieve this and make an active contribution to the future force debate through our actions here.”

In the battle lab scenario, Elis gets a hostile response from its neighbor, Attica, after holding elections and making friendly overtures to the United States. Attica makes demands of Elis to alter its policies after building a dam. Six years later, the larger country invades Elis, prompting a crisis response from the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

Col. Nic Nicoson, the commander of a heavy brigade in the exercise, said he’s looking for what benefits the Army best.

“We have to learn to operate in any environment,” he said.

Benefits for the soldiers may include identifying the enemy, looking at new weapon systems and striking at greater distances.

“This simulation really allows us to test that,” Nicoson said. “It is basically a poor man’s way to get at what’s going to work in the future. We have a brigade working a wide area security mission like they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Nicoson said five to six other installations are involved in the exercise.

“We are doing a lot of different things,” he said.

Darrell Combs, a retired Marine colonel, led the red team that’s trained to oppose new concepts the Army and the joint community are trying to field. His team is made up of retired veterans, including an Army aviator, another Marine and an artillery specialist. “Each brings a specialty to the fight to look for flaws and possible gaps in capabilities in things being tested here,” Combs said.

The red team is trained and ready for anything encountered in the exercise but there are no winners.

“There is no such thing as winning,” Combs said. “The winners are the American people if we do our job. We are here to be the red team to protect folks that are going to be operating in these vehicles. I don’t do this for the money. I do it for a 12-year-old grandson who might end up being a soldier or Marine some day.”

When the exercise ends, the group will get together and look at mistakes.

Maj. Timothy Bruce said $2.7 million was set aside to conduct the exercise that involved 20 other organizations, including 10 Army posts linked to a computer network.

Next year, the Maneuver Battle Lab will move nearby to a 120,000-square-foot building that will cost $30 million. Experimenting will save money in the field down the road, Campbell-Barnard said.

“This is all experimentation,” he said. “We are looking at future capabilities, looking at how to figure out what we think the threats will be in the future and what we need to accomplish that mission.”