By Lee Chi-dong
NAMYANGJU, South Korea, April 10 (Yonhap) -- As a drill sergeant shouted, "The combat begins," a team of college students in full body gear started to move around.
Some ducked down, while others ran across this small fake town in the drizzling rain.
Assigned to South Korea's reserve units, the former active duty soldiers were clad in vests and carried M16 rifles, all equipped with laser-sending or detecting devices.
The high-pitched beep of the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) gear signaled that they had been shot. The control indicators strapped to their arms showed whether they had been killed or wounded.
Their enemy in the simulated street gunfight was a group of defense ministry correspondents invited to the Kumgok training compound, which is located a dozen kilometers east of Seoul, last week.
The students, who were discharged from the military several years ago, won the combat game against the reporters, most of whom completed their military service far earlier, according to the computerized data on causalities and survivors.
The Kumgok site is the vanguard of the country's initiative to better train reserve troops totaling around 2.8 million. Among them, 2.3 million have an Army background.
It's the first inactive duty training (IDT) facility with the so-called scientific drill system among more than 200 IDT centers nationwide.
"Currently, this is the only reservist training center with a full information and communication technology (ICT) system in South Korea," Army Col. Kim Chang-hyeong, head of the training unit belonging to the 56th Division, said. "Approximately 140,000 reservists are trained here every year. Today, a total of 901 college students in Seoul have entered the (daytime) camp."
The 180,000-square-meter compound has an indoor rifle firing range, a screen shooting zone with 31 programmed battle scenarios and a mock town for the force-on-force street battles utilizing MILES.
Smartwatches are issued to all participants to provide GPS and some other digital information throughout the training.
It represents a burgeoning transition in training system hardware for the nation's reserve forces, which turned 50 last week.
It's an answer to criticism that routine reserve troop training in the nation is a waste of time and energy. Critics say local reservists here are not of much help to national defense amid North Korea's growing asymmetric threats.
All able-bodied South Korean men are obliged to serve in the military for about 21 months. After completing their duty, they are automatically transferred to reserve units on a part-time commitment for up to eight years. They go through IDT training for only six years -- as short as 20 hours and up to three days annually.
Many question the efficacy of keeping those civilians skilled and ready for combat.
In a message to celebrate the 50th founding anniversary of the reserve forces, President Moon Jae-in presented a vision for elite reserve troops.
"Your experience from military service is a precious asset of the nation," said Moon, who once served in the special forces himself. "(The government) plans to open the path of transforming reserve troops into elite forces. An effective training system is necessary for reservists to exert their combat capability properly."
Defense Minister Song Young-moo also stressed the need to "bolster the combat power of reserve forces to minimize the combat power vacuum from the reduction in the number of standing forces."
The number of standing troops will decrease to half a million from the current 625,000 by 2022 under the defense reform plan.
In order to better train reservists and facilitate their mobilization, South Korea created a new Army command last week headquartered in Yongin, just south of Seoul.
It's expected to serve as a turning point in the operation of the nation's reserve troops.
South Korea formed the reserve troops to bolster local area defense capabilities months after a North Korean commando unit infiltrated Seoul and attacked the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in January 1968. Later in the year, around 130 North Korean commandos appeared in eastern towns and engaged in skirmishes with the South's troops.
The South's reserve forces are dwarfed by the North's 5.5 million reserve personnel reportedly supporting 1.1 million regular soldiers.
Nonetheless, the annual budget for the South's reserve forces amounts to 130 billion won (US$121 million), 0.3 percent of that for regular soldiers.
The military said it will try to expand the budget and foster ICT-based training to enhance effectiveness.
"We plan to introduce a virtual reality (VR) training system," the colonel said. "Development work is underway. I think we will be able to introduce it as early as 2020."
It will also turn 40 more reservists training facilities nationwide into those similar to the Kumgok center, making the most of information, communication and technology (ICT), by 2023.
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