Photo: Norma Lopez Molina
A soldier tests simulation gear at the Central Florida Research Park incubator.
The Military in Florida: Real Money in Make-Believe
A phalanx of procurement offices in Orlando oversees some $4 billion in spending for simulation and training services for the U.S. military.
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.