The sound of guns firing, the blinding smoke and the confusion of battle are all real.
But instead of bullets, eye-safe lasers loaded with data are the ammunition the U.S. Marine Corps uses for tactical training exercises.
Universal Systems & Technology Inc. of Centreville won a $14.6 million contract from the Marine Corps to provide logistics and maintenance support for the Corps' inventory of training tools called the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, said William C. Barfield, vice president of the simulation division for the company, which goes by the name Unitech.
"It is a very high-end form of laser tag," Barfield said of the system first developed for the U.S. Army in the 1970s. "It has special codes impregnated on the laser beam that identify the shooter, the type of weapon, the lethality of the weapon and a whole host of other data."
Laser transmitters are mounted on real weapons, including M-16 rifles and shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. Detectors are mounted on targets, including troops and vehicles. Data are collected when the detectors are hit by laser pulses.
While the technology is used to train individuals, the Marine Corps also uses it for broader exercises, Barfield said.
"It's really a tactical training system for commanders," Barfield said. "They deploy troops, tanks and other assets for war games. Then data collected by the engagement system is presented to the commanders in after-action reviews.
"They can look at their tactics and make corrections to have the minimum casualties in real battles," he said.
The system tracks hits, misses and near misses. It also tracks whether targets were properly engaged. A small caliber rifle shot, for example, would have little effect on a tank. Global Positioning System data also can be included so commanders can see where shooters and target are and how they move on the battlefield.
Under the contract, which has one base year and four one-year options, Unitech will maintain the system's inventory of components for the Marines.
"We provide the support necessary to set up the exercises," Barfield said. "We go to the field with the Marines during the exercises. We provide training support while they're in the exercise, and we maintain all the inventory of equipment for the Marines between the exercises."
Unitech also generates after-action reports using a system the company developed.
In the past year, Unitech has participated in more than 350 exercises and has trained most Marines that have been deployed to Iraq for combat, Barfield said.
There are six primary Marine Corps sites for the system: Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Twentynine Palms, Calif.; the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico; Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii; and Camp S.D. Butler, Okinawa, Japan.
Doug Beizer is a staff writer with Washington Technology. For more details on this and other technology contracts, go to www.washingtontechnology.com.