Black smoke swamps the check point. Marines are crouched, shouting orders at one another. A car bomb just went off, and bullets are whizzing overhead. Wounded soldiers are screaming for help. The next second, an RPG shrieks into the side of the platoon's humvee, blasting heaps of shrapnel on the troops. The Marines are preparing to counter when, suddenly, it's all over. The shooting stops. The smoke disappears. The scene goes silent, as if a movie director yelled "CUT!"
In many ways, the scene described above is from a movie. It's part of a program developed by Strategic Operations, a little-known tactical training firm that specializes in "Hyper-Realistic" training for military, law enforcement, and homeland security forces. Since 2001, Strategic Operations has trained more than 160,000 Marines and 150,000 soldiers. Other Hollywood-influenced military trainers use video, 3-D and mechanical simulations. But Strategic Operations blends advanced special effects, actors, and rapidly reconfigurable sets to create training grounds so real that troops feel the stress of the battlefield—and hopefully innoculate themselves against it.
"It makes it so your first combat mission is no more stressful or shocking than your last simulation," says executive VP Kit Lavell, a former Naval aviator who flew hundreds of combat missions in Vietnam. "The better prepared you are in training, the more you build up resiliency in combat and hopefully the less you incur incidents of posttraumatic stress."
Strategic Operations was founded by TV mogul Stu Segall, who, after 9/11, sought to bring his unique expertise from Hollywood to our national defense. In television, sets need to be constructed, rebuilt, and recycled day-to-day; big special effects are required without expensive computer tech; and actors and makeup artists must adapt to any scene. Segall applied those same principles to military training.
Strategic Operations prides itself on hyper-realism to perfect what it calls "stress inoculation," the process of preparing troops for the horrors and surprises of wartime. The company creates incredibly life-like training environments, from objective-based scenarios such as boarding a cargo ship via helicopter, to environments like "Mojave Viper," Strategic Operations' massive desert grounds, which replicates an entire Middle Eastern city with a population of 50,000 or more. Strategic Operations has dozens of locations like these throughout the country, and has 80 full-time employees. In 2009, its revenues doubled due to strong military demand for its products and services.
For example, the team uses advanced pyrotechnics to create huge explosions, imitating anything from IED and RPG attacks to suidicide bombers.
[WARNING: Slightly NSFW for scenes of simulated but extreme gore]
Amputees are hired as actors, and given prosthetic limbs and blood pumps to simulate the goriest of wounds. Bilingual actors are also employed, dressed in authentic wardrobe, trained in cultural cues and jobs, and adept at playing out any number of scenes. For certain projects, the company hires as many as 400 actors and 250 part-time workers to polish a scenario. "It becomes so intense and real," says Lavell. "I've seen medics freeze up—some not knowing what's going on."
The company also specializes in RHU, Relocatable Habitat Units, sets that can be rapidly constructed and deconstructed—extremely mobile units that mimic any warfare environment. "We can make anything: the Horn of Africa, the Philippines," explains Lavell. "While intellectually you know you're not, emotionally, you're in Iraq or Afghanistan."
"It's like a Lego set—multi-story buildings can be constructed and scaled very rapidly," he continues. In one impressive example, the team transforms shipping containers to look like an Iraqi village.
Guns are rigged with MILES, or Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, laser-beam equipped weapons that produce both auditory and visual effects. When the trigger is pulled, it not only produces the same bang as a real rifle would, but also hits its target: Enemies are dressed in squibs, small explosives that react to the laser system, and show both entry and exit wounds. "I'm sure you've played laser tag," says Lavell. "We've taken that concept and incorporated a visual and auditory signature."
For check point training, Strategic Operations employs Ballistic Unmanned Ground Vehicles made of durable high density foam. The vehicles are built on a steel-clad armor-proof remote control robot. A removable body enables the BUG-V to be transformed into cars, trucks—any type of vehicle.
"In a kinetic environment, you lose situational awareness—you have telescoping vision where you just are looking through a tunnel, unaware of your surroundings," Lavell explains. "Our training environment is total sensory overload. The more you go through it, the more your situational awareness and vision expand."