How effective is simulated training? GAO cites gaps in Army, Marine Corps data

Tuesday - 8/27/2013, 4:46pm EDT

Sharon Pickup, director, defense capabilities and management issues, GAO

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A new study by the Government Accountability Office says the Army and Marine Corps need to come up with better metrics for measuring the benefits of simulation-based training.

As part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, the House asked GAO to look at the cost benefits of the two services using training simulators.

"We looked at the extent to which the Army and the Marine Corps have used and are increasing their use of simulation-based training over the past several years," said Sharon Pickup, GAO's director of defense capabilities and management issues. "We also looked to what extent they had information that would help them make decisions on when to use live or simulation-based training, as well as what the cost and performance benefits of using simulation-based training is."

The aviation segments of the military have traditionally used simulators to practice takeoffs and other risky maneuvers, Pickup told In Depth with Francis Rose Monday. However, simulation-based training is finding its way into other segments of the military.

Sharon Pickup, director, defense capabilities and management issues, GAO

"The aviation community is probably a little bit more out in front than say the ground forces community is and that is a function of technology and other factors," she said. "But I think since at least 2000, with the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army and the Marine Corps have found more applications for simulated training, such as in being able to practice safety in vehicles and other aspects."

In the GAO report Army and Marine Corps Training: Better Performance and Cost Data Needed to More Fully Assess Simulation-Based Efforts, Pickup wrote that the services have taken steps to better integrate live and simulation-based training and to develop technical capabilities to connect simulation-based training devices that were previously incompatible.

The Army and Marine Corps use subject-matter experts to review the training programs and evaluate their effectiveness. But, neither service has outcome-based metrics in place to help measure the impact of using simulation-based devices as a way to improve training.

"Developing metrics can be challenging and, certainly in the case of simulation- based training, there's a lot of variables that the services have to take into account," Pickup said. "But, both the services have identified benefits that they think they gain from simulators, but it's primarily based on anecdotal information based on commanders' assessments of service members' proficiencies."

The report said those metrics have tended to be more quantitative, such as the number of soldiers or marines who use the simulator or, in the case of ammunition, the number of rounds fired. Neither service can provide a way to determine what number of hours of training provide proficiency in a particular subject. For this reason, GAO recommended the Army and Marine Corps develop outcome-oriented metrics to help them measure the benefits of this type of training.

Cost benefits of simulation-training unclear

While the two services considered simulation-based training to be less costly than live training, GAO found the data the services were using to support that conclusion to be deficient

"They do have information on certain costs associated with the training in a live environment and the training in a simulated environment, but they haven't identified which costs that they need to use to compare apples to apples, so to speak, so that they can determine the best mix of live and simulated training," Pickup said.

In doing its research, GAO looked at all the services, not just the Army and Marine Corps.

"In the Navy, they have a network in which they can connect up their simulator training across different platforms, like ships, submarines and aircraft," Pickup said. "And so, even though the units might be separated by hundreds of miles, they can train as though they're in close proximity to one another."

The Air Force employs a similar network that can be connected together during a large-scale operation to train different units together.

According to Pickup, the GAO found a similar situation in the Air Force in terms of the cost methodology. "They had estimated that they could save a certain amount of money by reducing live training and using more simulation-based, but they hadn't really gathered the information and undertaken the analysis that they needed to actually substantiate the dollar savings," she said.

GAO found the Navy was probably a little further along than the Marine Corps on the aviation side, in terms of determining which training could be done via simulation and how to certify training done via simulation.

"They actually had a better set of metrics," she said.

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