During the past decade, rapidly improving computer games and graphics met the military’s demand for training systems.
While many of these systems concentrated on driving or flying vehicles, the counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan created a need for new trainers designed to boost ground troops’ cultural understanding of local populations.
With the war in Afghanistan presumably winding down, and an announced strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region, the Army’s program executive office for simulation, training and instrumentation and programmers are already looking at how to adapt to new areas of operation and conflicts that may be different from the past.
“We recognize that the future environment is going to include that range of infrastructure building — handing out books and basketballs at a school in a counterinsurgency environment — up to a tank-on-tank very kinetic fight. We need adaptive leaders and units that can succeed in any of those environments,” said Scott Pulford, strategic integrator at PEO STRI.
While the Army is looking at shifting training to focus on what he called the “higher spectrum of conflict,” the service is not going to discard the lessons it has learned — and the investments it has made — in counterinsurgency operations, Pulford said.
Simulations where soldiers are asked to interact with a villager in order to extract information on roadside bombs, for example, will be woven into larger scenarios, he said.
But where is that next scenario going to take place? The U.S. military may find itself embroiled in a conflict in a region that is radically different from Afghanistan, both in language, cultural norms and topography.
“PEO STRI has made the investments, together with our industry partners, in flexible architectures and common components that will allow us to very efficiently move the needle towards the decision action, higher kinetic spectrum of conflict,” he said.
The underlying software in these systems should allow programmers to easily change what a helicopter pilot or combat vehicle driver training sees outside his or her virtual window. They could be looking at jungle canopy rather than an arid, agricultural region found in Southwest Asia — if that is necessary.
As for the cross-cultural skills needed to win in a counterinsurgency scenario, those simulators should be malleable enough to be adapted to other situations, said James Reilly, senior training and technical support specialist at Alelo Inc., a Los Angles-based firm that specializes in language and culture training.
“If instead of Pushto or Dari, we want someone to speak Cambodian [Khmer] or Mandarin, that requires building up a new course. You have to find out what the focus of the new missions will be. It does take some time. It takes the linguists, the experts and the course builders time to do that,” Reilly said.
The base software doesn’t need to be rewritten, he said. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve the cross-cultural simulators that have been designed in recent years.
“They are doing so much to improve the realism of the scenarios that people train in. If you’re in a convoy, and you’re in a Jeep, and going through the desert, you get into a firefight. You have air support. And it’s amazing. The levels go up and up and up as far as how real it is,” Reilly said.
“The glass ceiling is the interaction with human beings on a communicative level,” Reilly said.
If a soldier drives through a virtual village, he is not only going to see people that look like locals, he is going to need to interact with them.
“And not just by ‘bang bang’ shooting people. You need to stop, either help people, talk to people, get information that will help you proceed on your mission,” he said.
Alelo has its Virtual Role Players toolkit that allows programmers to populate simulations with culturally accurate characters. Its first iteration under an Army contract was for Afghan scenarios in the Pushto and Dari languages. It is developing a new version for general use. It is being created with flexibility in mind because industry knows that no one can predict where the next area of operation might be.
The goal is to have local trainers and simulation developers take the virtual role players and give them characteristics that they need.
“We don’t want someone to come back to us and say, ‘We need a guy who is wearing Burmese clothes, speaks whatever language they speak there, and he is the son of the village elder,’” Reilly said.
“We want to be able to make those characters and give them authoring tools that allow someone to expand the platform. The goal is not to make people dependent on us for every little change. We don’t want that. We want to make it to where it is deep enough to where they can expand,” he added.
Pulford said PEO STRI’s insistence on common architecture and standards allows it to upgrade key software and hardware components. That will also drive down overall lifecycle costs, he added.
“That is why we take that action, so we don’t find ourselves in a situation where there is a single industry partner where there is no other option but going back to them to be able to do” the work, Pulford said.
Reilly said: “Just like you get a plug-in where you add explosions or smoke, we are going to give you a plug-in where you can add a virtual character.” He likened it to a Ken doll.
“We have already given you the basic Ken, and you can adapt him to this changing world,” he added.
Dustin Chertoff, senior research scientist at Intelligent Automation Inc. in Rockville, Md., said one of the aspects that needs improvement is dialogue processing.
Some conversations are universal. If a soldier during a simulation runs over a villager’s prized goat, no matter where he is at, chances are the locals will be upset and maybe uncooperative.
Language and local customs, however, are going to change in every new region. “You’re going to need to bring in subject matter experts to verify that things are still working the way you expect them to work, or that the dialogue interactions are going to occur how they occur,” Chertoff said.
Some regions have more of a monoculture than others. Nations like Afghanistan have many different tribes and languages. That can make cultural adjustments complicated.
Pulford said the Army is trying to get ahead of the problem by its regionally aligned forces concept. For example, Fort Riley, Kan., is aligned with Africa Command. That is not to say the forces there can’t be pulled into other regions if needed, but they know that there is a possibility that they could be going to Africa someday.
Of course, there are hundreds of languages and cultures and 55 nations on that continent alone.
“Nobody in Orlando at PEO STRI, or arguably at Fort Riley, Kan., knows exactly what they are going to do across an entire continent,” Pulford said.
That is where combatant command leaders can be helpful in spelling out priorities for home station training. They can focus training on what they believe are potential hotspots.
Virtual training is most useful at these home stations, where space is limited. Soldiers can polish off their skills there before taking them to one of the Combat Training Centers for full brigade level training as a culminating event with mock villages and role players.
Chertoff said there is still a lot of research and development to be done that can improve interaction with trainees and the virtual characters, especially in terms of more natural dialogue and interactions. Currently, conversations are highly scripted.
Developers want to inject historical context into conversations, which may have taken place beforehand. When two real people talk, they add references to previous conversation. If a soldier knows that a village elder’s son had a big test, he can ask, “How did your son do on the test?”
“Procedural generation” is another aspect that calls for virtual characters to adapt on the fly based on what a trainee is doing or saying.
“That is going to be one of the really big areas going forward,” Chertoff said. The scripted scenarios can be repetitive and if the same action is required over and over the trainee can become complacent.
There is also the possibility of adding a virtual character’s facial expressions into the mix. Trainees should be able to tell if what they are saying to a computer-generated character is receiving a positive or negative reaction.
Changing facial expressions are emerging in video games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. It is scripted, Chertoff noted, but new software could change the body language depending on what the player does.
Another challenge will be to keep the simulation technology moving forward in a tough fiscal environment, Pulford said.
“It is going to be a significant challenge,” he said.
PEO STRI is going to make sure science and technology is clearly aligned with gaps in the training portfolio, and the projects it is working on are aligned with training device modernization plans, Pulford said.
“Those that are not clearly aligned, maybe things we take some risk on or defer or delay,” he added.Photo Credit: Alelo