by Jason Garcia
Updated 4 months ago
On a late November morning in Orlando, in the middle of a simulation industry trade show at the Orange County Convention Center, a few hundred people left the exhibits to squeeze into a small, third-floor side room. Officers from the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO-STRI) — an office that spends close to $2 billion a year making sure the Army’s soldiers are prepared for war — were about to run through a list of upcoming contracts, and nobody wanted to miss out.
The group of businesspeople juggling coffee, muffins and iPhones filled every seat and stood shoulderto- shoulder along the walls as the Army officers marched through the list of contract opportunities: A $300-million “soldier virtual trainer;” a $750-million “persistent cyber training environment;” $186 million for whole-body patient medical simulators; $68-million worth of upgrades to the Abrams tank simulators; $20 million for new targets at the Udairi Training Range in Kuwait.
Within an hour, the Army had outlined more than $3.5 billion worth of deals that would soon go out to bid. “We’re really looking to move into longer contracts and more broadscope contracts,” Col. Richard Haggerty, a PEO STRI program manager, told the crowd.
The PEO STRI office is just one in a cluster of procurement-related military offices in Orlando that has helped drive Orlando’s emergence as a global hub for modeling, simulation and training. The Navy has the Naval Air Warfare Training Systems Division, which is only slightly smaller than PEO STRI and is responsible for more than $1 billion in annual spending. There is also the Marine Corps’ Program Manager Training Systems, which spends close to $750 million a year, plus a field office for the Air Force’s Agency for Modeling and Simulation and a series of smaller federal offices like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
Together, the offices, which refer to themselves as “Team Orlando,” have a combined buying power of between $3.8 billion and $4.8 billion a year for training systems and devices.
That financial spigot draws private companies eager to sip at the well. Today, central Florida is home to more than 150 modeling, simulation and training companies that together employ more than 15,000 workers and generate a gross state product of $6 billion a year.
Vendors “want to be as close as they can to their next contracting opportunity,” says Lt. Gen. Thomas L. Baptiste, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who runs the National Center for Simulation in Orlando, which was formed in 1993 as a link among the defense industry, government and academia on behalf of the stimulating and modeling industry. “This now is the epicenter of the world for simulation.”
Team Orlando’s roots trace back to March 20, 1950, when the secretaries of the Army and the Navy agreed to work together developing and procuring training devices. The Army created a new Training Devices Agency and moved it in with the Navy’s own already established Special Devices Agency. The joint operation worked out of the Guggenheim mansion on Long Island, NY.
In the mid-1960s, amid the Vietnam War, the Navy moved the operation to Orlando, where the Air Force was moving out of a base just northeast of downtown Orlando. It was renamed the Naval Training Equipment Center. The Army’s device agency moved in. Both began to grow rapidly.
“If you look way, way back to World War I, simulation was all about aviation. It was all about pilot training,” says Baptiste, a former F-4 and F-16 fighter pilot. “But by the early ’60s, and then beyond that, the other services realized that virtual or synthetic training was a cost-effective alternative to very expensive live training. So all the services were starting to embrace the power of simulation.”
The move that cemented it all into place happened in the 1980s, when state and local leaders and the University of Central Florida wanted to build a research park. UCF, built halfway between NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and what today is Lockheed Martin’s Fire & Missile Control division, had begun life as Florida Technological University to feed engineers to the defense and space industries. The school and the state seeded the research effort by giving 40 acres to the Navy to establish a new base specifically for its training and simulation operations.
In 1988, the Navy became the research park’s first tenant, moving into an undulating building meant to evoke ocean waves. The building was named after the late Adm. Luis de Florez, the original founder of the Navy’s training division. The Army moved along with it once again, and the other services soon followed.
Five years later, when cost cuts forced the Navy to shutter its larger Orlando base — today that site is home to the Baldwin Park neighborhood — the training center, now a stand-alone base in its own right, was unaffected. Today, the Team Orlando complex has roughly 2,800 employees, most of them civilians, including engineers, scientists, psychologists and program managers who conduct research and development, establish training protocols and requirements and write multibillion- dollar contracts for the private sector to fight over.
Along with Team Orlando, the Central Florida Research Park houses Baptiste’s National Center for Simulation as well as numerous private simulation and training companies.
Capt. Erik Etz, the commanding officer for the Navy’s Orlando base, says all of the military branches have benefited from collaborating on training development and procurement. “We work with a lot of the same industry partners. We can work on programs together and components of programs,” he says, noting, for instance, that the Army and Marine Corps share a lot of the same needs for vehicle simulators. “We all look for ways to share information.”
Eager to preserve the region as a hub amid consolidation and base closings, central Florida leaders have gone on offense to play defense. Over the past 15 years, they have persuaded the state to spend roughly $150 million building or buying a series of surrounding office buildings in order to provide low-cost space to the military services, which have long since outgrown the de Florez building itself. Officials hope the last of the military personnel currently working in commercially rented space — mostly Army personnel — will be able to move into publicly subsidized space by the end of 2018. That would drop their lease costs from as much as $32 per square foot to as little as $5 per square foot.
“The tenants that are spending $32 a square foot are at significant risk because there is empty (military base) space all over the U.S.,” Baptiste says. “If they were to move the Army that’s here to Huntsville, they would take their $2 billion in contracting power with them. And industry would hemorrhage out of the research park.”
Modeling, simulation and training companies in the Central Florida Research Park:
» Dynamic Animation Systems: Based in northern Virginia, Dynamic Animation Systems specializes in PCbased, advanced 3-D graphics and virtual environment creation and visualization. Its flagship product is VICE — Virtual Interactive Combat Environment, a scalable, commercial off-the-shelf product designed to train cognitive skills for military, homeland security and law enforcement personnel facing actual and potential conflicts in urban, suburban and rural environments.
» LightPath Technologies: Based in Orlando, where it has 30,000 square feet of space — including a class-100 clean room — LightPath is a manufacturer of visible and infrared optical components and subsystems. Its products are used in industrial facilities, communications systems, medical devices, defense, testing and measurement.
» SimSTAFF Technical Services: A specialty staffing company that has been in business for more than 30 years, SimSTAFF provides skilled workers for the modeling, simulation and training industry, including contract, temporary, contract-to-hire and direct hire employees.
» Wearality: Founded by former Lockheed Martin engineers who developed virtual reality technology for the defense and aerospace industries, Wearality aims to translate the technology into wearable entertainment devices. Its products include the “Wearality Sky,” light-weight, foldable 3-D glasses that the company says “put a theater in your pocket.”
» Florida is home to about 198,000 military retirees, second only to Texas, according to a Department of Defense report.
» The Air Force recently chose Tyndall AFB near Panama City for its new MQ-9 Reaper drone warfare wing. Tyndall won out over other bases in California and South Carolina. The Reaper wing will have 24 drone aircraft and more than 1,600 airmen. Tyndall will host the drones starting in 2022, though airmen could begin arriving in 2020.
» In December, the Navy’s new littoral combat ship USS Little Rock headed to Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville after being commissioned in Buffalo, N.Y. The vessel brings to three the number of littoral combat ships stationed at Mayport. A fourth ship, the future USS Sioux City, will be commissioned in Annapolis, Md., before moving to Jacksonville. The speedy, near-shore ships are used for surface or anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures.
» Last fall, eight additional KC-135 Stratotankers moved to MacDill AFB in Tampa, bringing about 250 personnel. MacDill now has 24 of the aerial refueling tankers.
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