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Fats4 brings the battlefield to the classroom

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

The Army Ranger is crouching behind a sandbag, an M-16 rifle shouldered in anticipation. Suddenly, over a ridge 140 meters down range, enemy troops emerge from the woods, moving menacingly toward him.

The Ranger takes careful aim and begins popping off rounds. The enemy soldiers drop to the ground, taking cover, then pop up and begin advancing again. His sights were zeroed by another shooter so the Ranger's shots are landing about two inches to the left, barks the instructor, seated behind a computer. The color graphics on the screen clearly show the shooters aiming point and where the bullets are going in this exercise in simulated combat shooting at the MacDill firing range - not the firing range outdoors but indoors, in the classroom.

The simulator is the new Fats4, computerized projection system.

Fully programmable and far more interactive than the Fats3 system it replaced, the new simulator came on line earlier this year, and after working out the kinks and learning its capabilities, instructors at the range, as well as shooters, declare it the next best thing to live fire.

Various training scenarios from combat to standard qualifying targets can be projected onto the system's indoor screen via an LCD projector, which is controlled by a pair of computers. The $64,000 system also can be custom programmed to simulate about any environment desired by downloading digital photos of actual scenes, said Mr. Bush. In addition, DVDs with video segments of shoot-don't-shoot scenarios for police operations are part of the package. The system is run via a joystick, in which the trainer can change the scenario, add more enemy troops, and even cause the shooter's gun to jam. Enemy armor can be brought up; with the punch of a button, helicopter gun ships can lay down fire on hapless shooters, creating more pressure and confusion. It's all part of the program and helps prepare servicemembers for battle. "We can make it pretty rough on them if we want to," said Jason Travis, an instructor at the range who stayed on after retiring as a senior airman. "We look for their (the trainee's) weakness by identifying it on the (live) firing line and we can adjust this program to suit the training needs of the shooter."

The combat portions of the program offer a wide range of scenarios, from woodland settings to snow and desert warfare. Pistols, M-16s and M-4s, modified by adding lasers and fittings for compressed air hoses, are used to simulate live fire. The system can be used to simulate heavier arm fire, including shoulder-fired rockets at armor, machine guns and more. In some configurations, there is a device that fires ping pong balls at the shooters, giving them a lesson in what it feels like to be fired upon while shooting.

Travis was being kind to Master Sgt. Mark Berry, who happened by and volunteered to try out the new system. He took the approaching tank off the screen, as the alone and armed with only a rifle, he would not have stood much of a chance. "Everything about the system is realistic," said Berry. "Of course nothing is live fire but live fire, but this is pretty close to it."

So precise is the system, it can detect when the bolt has not been jacked to chamber a round, when the gun has not been properly cleared after a jam and, of course, when the magazine is empty and must be changed out to continue firing. While blasting away in combat mode offers video game-like thrills, it is the emulation of qualifying shooting that is perhaps most useful for training shooters.

The system duplicates the standard qualification shooting tests. When shooters have trouble on the firing line, they can be brought inside on the simulator to work out the bugs.

"It's an excellent way to correct problems," said former Air Force Tech Sgt. Darwin Bush, who like Travis recently retired but stayed on at the range. "The system lets you see the errors on screen. Even before the trigger is pulled, you can see where they are aiming and when they fire, you can see if they are pulling their shots or making other mistakes." Because the guns recoil and because there is a report from the built-in speaker system, shooters even can work out the most common problem of developing a flinch, said Travis.

"Once they have spent some time on it (Fats4), you can see immediate improvement on the (firing) line," said Travis. Shooters even can get a printout of their session, with pictures of the target and where their bullets struck.

For training security forces, there are police scenarios in which DVD video is used to simulate shooting situations. With actors playing the parts of cops and bad guys, the system challenges the shooter to make quick decisions about when to shoot and at whom. The system is a hit whenever celebrity visitors to the base like sports figures and dignitaries stop by for a little shooting session.

"They all get a kick out of it," said Bush. "It's challenging and fun to use for most people." The Fats4 has capabilities that have yet to be tapped and Bush and Travis say they plan to explore the custom programmability of the system to put together better and more relevant training scenarios for MacDill's forces.




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