Army retreats into world of virtual reality

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Ireland Correspondent

Shortly after noon yesterday a man wearing a combat jacket and a balaclava mask tossed a home-made hand grenade at a British Army Land-Rover as it passed through O'Neill Square in Belfast.

The missile exploded close to the vehicle. Shortly afterwards a soldier in a nearby street detained a man who was about to ride off on a motorcycle, while other troops were involved in a scuffle with youths.

No one was injured in the incident: no one could have been, for it did not really happen. There is no O'Neill Square in Belfast and there was no grenade attack, except as depicted on the screen of a normally restricted building in the Ballykinler Army camp in peaceful County Down.

In the absence of real bombs and bullets, the Army has now resorted to combating virtual terrorism. The Falls Road may be reasonably quiet these days, but in Ballykinler camp the virtual shootings and bombings go on as soldiers practise dealing with any fresh outbreak of troubles.

The previously secret training facilities were thrown open to the media yesterday as the Army sought to provide answers to the frequent enquiries about how, nearly a year after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, 17,500 troops occupy themselves.

The Army is much less in evidence on the streets and has become a rarity in many areas, but troop levels have been reduced by less than 1,500 during the past year.

According to Brigadier David Strudley, the fact that the terrorists still retain their weapons and explosives, and are still targeting and training, means it is essential to maintain present levels of readiness.

While waiting for any new outbreak of violence, troops are mainly occupied in training, including that in the Invertron computer simulation hall. Several dozen soldiers can sit at individual desks role-playing as a large screen displays Belfast street scenes. They have to imagine themselves as, for example, radio-operators urgently calling an operations room to report an attack on their patrol.

The sound effects, including loud explosions and confused shouting, can be deafening, while additional atmosphere is provided by thick smoke which is blown into the room. This all adds up to a hi-tech and highly realistic computer game.

The Invertron also provides training in military techniques for use outside Northern Ireland. The soldiers are provided with maps and binoculars to study a country scene on the large screen. When they come under simulated machine-gun fire their job is to reply with mortar fire.

This is just a small part of an expanded training programme which has been made possible by the ending of the killings and the consequent reduction in street duties. With patrolling reduced to a quarter of what it once was, there is scope for more local training and for dispatching units to exercises in Cyprus and Gibraltar.

There is also more emphasis on community relations work, such as constructing a river-rescue facility and building a new footbridge in a scenic area of County Antrim.