Army Trainees March to Orders of New Sergeant: CD-ROMs

Flashing on Brian Popken's bright green computer screen is the future of Army training.

Call it the silicon drill sergeant.

It's an image created by CD- ROM, the military's newest, and perhaps smallest, training aid.

In the era of night-vision goggles and smart weapons, these graphics-packed computer programs are starting to stand shoulder to shoulder with crew-cut, muscle-packed drill sergeants as the purveyors of the skills and ethos of the US military.

Thousands of Army soldiers will soon begin using multimedia tools - everything from teleconferences to CD-ROM programs - in an effort to cut training costs and streamline the service's sprawling schoolhouse system.

The new push to high-tech training will touch soldiers throughout the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, including those at "muddy boot" bases such as Fort Benning, Ga.

CD-ROM programs will instruct soldiers in everything from interrogating the enemy to changing tires on 1-ton trucks to using chemical-weapons gear. A small portion of infantry training is even expected to be converted to CD-ROM.

"We will train everyone from clerks to Special Forces to heavy wheel mechanics," says Mitch Smith, a vice president of PinnEast Interactive, one of a handful of companies producing the materials for the Army.

Mr. Smith's firm recently hired Mr. Popken, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, to help design CD-ROM programs. In the next 13 years, the Army projects it will save $215 million by using multimedia training. In most cases, CD-ROM instruction, and other high-tech methods will not eliminate course instructors or Army schoolhouses. Instead, students should be able to spend less time away from bases taking required courses and the Army should save on travel, per diem, and housing costs.

"This will eliminate a tremendous number of costs to units," Smith says.

By converting portions of existing courses to the new technologies, Smith says, the Army should be able to train students more efficiently, and in some cases more quickly.

The new methods will also make life easier for Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers, who often find it difficult to leave their civilian jobs for weeks- and months-long courses.

The CD-ROMs are expected to be spinning in military computers by June.

Traditionalists might be surprised to see infantry grunts hunkered down behind computer screens instead of Bradley Armored Vehicles, but the CD- ROMs' creators say some training methods will never convert to high-tech. Computers cannot replace many types of combat training, Smith and Popken say, though they can make life easier for many military specialists such as personnel officers and other administrators.

"This is a studied approach," says Popken, former director of combat development at the Soldier Support Institute at Fort Jackson.

At least in theory, the new technology should help with the logjam that often occurs as soldiers who need courses to be promoted or to move to new career fields get stacked up. For reserve soldiers, certification can be a problem as commanders scramble to fit available slots into the busy schedules of part-time "weekend warriors."

The Army's plan to turn GI Joe into a computer whiz kid dovetails with trends in the civilian sector. The American Society for Training and Development in Alexandria, Va., says multimedia training has skyrocketed. The number of organizations using it jumped from 53 percent in 1994 to 75 percent in 1995. And nearly 60 percent of organizations asked say they plan to increase the use of CD-ROM training in the future. In some cases, PinnEast's Smith says, the CD-ROMs could reduce Army course time 20 to 50 percent.

"This is going to make training for them a lot easier," he says.

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