Looking for new ways of bringing the sights and sounds of war and peace operations home to soldiers before they risk the real thing, the Army yesterday enlisted the help of Hollywood.

On a Los Angeles campus, Army Secretary Louis Caldera signed a $45 million contract with the University of Southern California, establishing a research center to develop technologies that can make military training simulators more realistic and engaging.

Through the new Institute for Creative Technologies, Army officials hope to draw assistance from film studios and video game designers, with the promise that any technological advances could be applied to games, theme park rides and movie special effects.

The idea of the Pentagon joining forces with the entertainment industry received a boost two years ago in a report by the National Research Council. But because of the culture clash between the strait-laced military and the free-wheeling Hollywood crowd, Army officials doubted the chances of arranging a direct collaboration.

"We didn't think the entertainment industry would work with us directly," said Cathy Kominos, deputy director of Army research.

Army authorities see the new center as an inviting neutral ground for both sides. And they expect it will afford access to other USC schools that have close industry ties in cinema, television, communications and engineering.

"We've had preliminary discussions with some industry representatives, and the response has been very positive," Kominos said.

All the military services make extensive use of simulators to train troops.

Some Army systems, for instance, employ computer-generated pictures of terrain and enemy and allied forces to give soldiers the sensation of riding in armored vehicles on a foreign battlefield.

But the scenes tend to be generic ones, lacking the specific sights, sounds and smells of a Bosnia, Kosovo or other potential overseas trouble spots. Army officials anticipate that advances in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and other computer technologies will permit simulations that can better convey the sense of a particular place and draw more realistic emotional responses from soldiers during training.

"This will improve the fidelity, the real-world feel, of our simulators," Caldera said.

Tapping commercial technology also could save the Pentagon money and speed its technology development, officials said. Caldera noted the advantages to be had from using more sophisticated simulators to test proposed new weapons systems under all sorts of imagined battlefield scenarios.

With Army troops increasingly being sent on missions that commanders never anticipated--and deployed sometimes on very short notice--simulators have become even more important as quick orientation tools.

"It would be nice if you could make some destination area into a three-dimensional picture that troops could walk through and practice their mission before they actually got there," said James Skurka, deputy commander of the Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command in Orlando, which is charged with overseeing the new research effort.

INTO AFRICA: In its quest to establish better military ties around the world, the Defense Department has two large quasi-academic institutes--the George C. Marshall Center in Germany and the Asia-Pacific Center in Honolulu. The centers treat foreign officers and civilian government officials to campus-like settings and engage them in discussions on defense issues. Starting in October, the Pentagon will add the African Center for Strategic Studies.

With about $42 million budgeted for five years, the new center plans to bring about 120 African military officers and senior civilian officials together with European participants. In the absence of a single country to serve as permanent host, the center will be a sort of traveling seminar.

The first two-week session will be held in Dakar, Senegal. Classes will focus on civil-military relations, national security strategy and "defense economics," which includes the most efficient ways to organize troops, buy weapons and train soldiers with limited national defense funds.