CFB Wainwright, Alta.
An Afghan civilian was killed in a fierce battle here, but you won't be hearing about it on CBC or in the halls of Parliament.
That's because the killing took place in the amazing world of WES - the weapons effects simulation. It's probably the most realistic and, at a total cost of $123 million, the most expensive laser-tag game in Canada.
WES is the showpiece technology of the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC) at CFB Wainwright, where the goal is simple: To give Canadian soldiers the best possible preparation for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, or for that matter, any other world troublespot.
|Tom Keenan, Business Edge|
|CFB Wainwright, Alta.|
"We want them to experience these conditions here," says Capt. Thomas St. Denis, public affairs officer with the CMTC. "So when they get over there, they'll think, 'Hey, we've encountered this already.' It's a far cry from the old days when we just had to teach them how to identify a Soviet solder and shoot straight."
A portion of the 650-sq.-km Wainwright facility, located 200 kilometres east of Edmonton, has been transformed into a pretty credible replica of the area around Kandahar. Sure, there are wild roses instead of poppies, and some of the buildings are recycled shipping containers. There's also a conspicuous lack of the animals and smells that permeate Afghanistan.
But the music blaring from the speakers is authentic and the graffiti on the walls is in Arabic.
Even more importantly, the "villages" of Nakhonay, Belanday and Spin Boldak (real places in Afghanistan) are populated with soldiers and civilian contractors playing the roles of mullahs, villagers and insurgents.
Every person wears a special vest with sensors that can be triggered by a laser burst from specially adapted rifles, as well as hand grenades and other weapons. Vehicles also have laser sensors.
For days on end, soldiers-in-training live "in the box" in realistic field conditions, dealing with the realities of, as St. Denis puts it, "a lot of people, ranging from villagers to Afghan National Police to representatives of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), all of whom have different agendas."
The reality of being a soldier in Afghanistan is that it's often hard to tell friend from foe, and mistakes do happen.
Hence the training exercise where a civilian was shot in the back while running away during a cordon-and-search operation of the village of Nakhonay.
"We know exactly who did it," says Col. Craig King, commander of the CMTC, "and where he was standing when he fired the shot.”
He compares this to war-game exercises in the past, "where a soldier could say: 'I didn't shoot him, I wasn't here, I was over there.' " The GPS unit built into the vest makes such dissembling a thing of the past.
The highlight - or for the soldier who shot the civilian, the low point - of the day is the AAR (after action review), held in a theatre with high-tech displays. It's the one time they're allowed out of the simulated battlefield conditions, and you might think those comfy seats might be tempting for the battle-weary troops.
But on the night I observed the AAR, they were alert as they waited to see how the brass would assess them and who would be named "Top Gun.”
(That honour went to a soldier with five kills, three hits and no damage.)
The commanders praised them, saying it was a considerable improvement on the previous exercise.
There are some light moments, such as a video clip where a soldier repeatedly tries, and fails, to kick in a door. "You have to put your nuts into it," he's told, as laughter spreads through the room.
But there are also tense moments, reminiscent of Grade 3, as tired soldiers are forced to explain their actions to their peers and commanders.
They're told to "park your ego at the door, because we're all here to learn."
A considerable amount of time is spent on the "killed" civilian, since the soldier who shot him clearly broke the rules of engagement by shooting an unarmed non-combatant, even though he was running away. "This could have been an international incident," the soldiers are told.
The WES system is smart enough to measure the accuracy of the shot, and in this case, the victim would have heard the message "you are killed" coming from a speaker on his vest. If he tried to get up, a loud beeping and flashing lights would identify him as someone who should be playing dead.
Less serious wounds result in the soldier getting a message on a display about the nature of his or her injury, and a "life timer" that counts down their time remaining. "This was put in to add an element of urgency in dealing with causalities," says St. Denis, since if the medics get to a wounded soldier in time they can extend the life timer. There's also a "god gun" carried by the observer controller trainers that can bring a dead soldier back to life.
The manufacturer of the WES system, Cubic Defense Applications of San Diego, says that it can mimic not only direct fire from rifles but also simulate the effects of artillery, mortars and mines, as well as nuclear, biological and chemical events.
At the end of the action review, the brass confer and decide to adapt the next day's plans to include a repeat of some of the skills that need work. This group of soldiers is fairly early in the training cycle and because they are reservists instead of regular Forces members, they're getting an abbreviated 12-day program instead of the 37-day full-meal deal.
Canadian Forces personnel are clearly pleased with their new capabilities, and note that they can now handle up to 2,100 soldiers and 700 vehicles, all of them in continuous radio contact with the WES system. Later this year, there will be a major exercise involving battle groups of regular Forces soldiers.
"We use a modified Socratic method," says King. "We want a soldier to come out of the exercise saying: 'Hey, I never thought of that before.' We'd much rather they make their mistakes here than in Afghanistan."
Just hours after he speaks those words, I see sombre faces in the officers' mess as the news of four Canadians killed in battle appears on TV. After watching for a while, the soldiers slowly get up and resume their game of laser tag, perhaps realizing a little more just how high the stakes truly are.
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at email@example.com)