Synthetic Training Technologies Gaining Foothold with Military

By Jon Harper

Photo: Army

As the Army looks for better ways to prepare soldiers for large scale and multi-domain battle against advanced adversaries, service leaders are trying to accelerate the creation of a new synthetic training environment. The initiative, also known as the STE, is seen as the key to survival and victory on tomorrow’s battlefields.

As National Defense reported last year when the initiative was unveiled, the STE is expected to harness new gaming technologies and other simulation tools to enhance readiness and create a more widely distributed virtual training architecture.

Army leaders envision a world where troops on training ranges wearing augmented reality goggles or similar equipment, could be connected with other soldiers sitting in simulators or looking at computer screens halfway around the world.

Soldiers conducting live training would be able to observe in real time what other soldiers are doing in a virtual environment, and vice versa, explained Maj. Gen. Maria Gervais, deputy commanding general of U.S. Army Combined Arms Center-Training.

They would all see a common operating picture and be able to train together using “one world terrain” gaming technology, she said in a recent interview with National Defense.

“I want live, virtual and constructive [training environments] all blended so … we’re all seeing the same thing, doing the same thing,” she said.

Additionally, units and individual soldiers deployed overseas or at home stations could use synthetic technologies — such as gaming tools and portable simulators — to experience realistic, complex battlefield simulations without having to conduct live training.

Gervais described the new paradigm as a “revolutionary” change in how troops gear up for war.

The project has been gaining steam in recent months. Army leaders are speaking about the STE with a greater sense of urgency, and they are throwing their weight behind the effort.

In an October memo outlining the service’s top modernization priorities, Acting Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called for a “rapid expansion” of the service’s synthetic training environment to improve soldier lethality.

“Putting this all together, we must improve human performance and decision-making by increasing training and assessment, starting at the soldier level,” they said.

“This will require a rapid expansion of our synthetic training environment and deeper distribution of simulations capabilities down to battalion and companies, with simulation capability to model combat in megacities, a likely battlefield of the future,” they added.

During his keynote address at the Association of the United States Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C., Milley elaborated on why he believes the STE is important.

“New equipment is … insufficient for a future battlefield,” he said. “Training is the key. Hard, rigorous, realistic, repetitive training — that’s the ultimate form of taking care of an American soldier. And the only way to do that is through repetition in combat-like conditions.”

Live training by itself is not enough, service officials said. Combined-arms exercises pose logistical challenges. They can be difficult or time-consuming to repeat or modify in situ.

“In the synthetic environment … you can change all the variables in the training very quickly,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy, commanding general of the Army Combined Arms Center.

“You can start out with one task or one set of collective tasks, and you can do it in a fairly permissive environment. Then you can ratchet up all of the threats to a higher level. You can do that in live training but it takes a lot of time to reset that,” he added during a presentation at the convention.

The price tag for live training is also higher than using simulators in many cases, Milley noted.

“Live fire or live force-on-force training — that is expensive and it doesn’t provide nearly enough repetition for developing high levels of soldier and leader skills needed in future battle,” Milley said. “Every day units must train on their individual and collective combat skills.”

The synthetic training environment is the solution for overcoming those challenges, he added.

Additionally, because of test range constraints and other limitations placed on live training, it would be easier to practice certain high-end warfare activities using the STE, officials noted. Examples include long-range fires, missile defense, cyber attacks and electronic warfare.

While virtual reality systems can be useful, many of the ones currently in use are outdated and they are not as widely available as they need to be, Lundy said.

“Those simulators are becoming obsolescent,” he said. “They have ‘80s technology.”

There are currently only about 30 mission training complexes that offer easy access to simulators. That makes it difficult for units deployed globally to receive that type of training, he said.

“We want to be able to get affordable solutions that you put down at the company, battalion level [and] do it at the point of need,” Lundy said. “That’s really going to be some of the big changes that the STE will bring.”

The simulation tools in use today are especially inadequate for infantry units, officials said.

Military aviators spend significant time in simulators during training. Tank crews have similar opportunities as well, Milley noted. But Army foot soldiers are getting the short end of the stick, he said.

“We have limited simulations for individuals and squads, but tens of millions of dollars are spent and invested in training and simulation for an F-35 pilot before they are ever allowed to come near a fifth-generation fighter,” he said.

“Our squads and platoons … are actually fighting every day. So we must do the same thing for them. Any soldier that engages in close quarters combat deserves the same investment for anyone that’s flying at 30,000 feet. There’s no reason that we do not do that. The technology already exists,” he added.

Gervais said the emergence of the multi-domain battle concept has increased interest in the service’s plans for the synthetic training environment.

Multi-domain battle is the latest Pentagon buzzword used to describe a future operating environment in which U.S. forces would be simultaneously fighting in the land, air, sea, space and cyber domains against advanced adversaries.

“We also see [the STE] as bringing in … the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines as part of the synthetic training environment so we can get after multi-domain battle, and we’re having those dialogues now,” Gervais said.

Lundy said different-sized units must be able to use the technology to train, from the squad level all the way up to the corps or theater headquarters level.

Gervais said the synthetic training environment is now closer to reality than she had anticipated just a year ago. The Army has completed an analysis of alternatives. The service concluded that the current training model is not sufficient and the synthetic training environment is the best option for replacing it, she noted.

Commercial gaming technology has also matured faster than expected, she said.

“We’re right on the cusp of this thing exploding,” Gervais said. “We’re on the verge of just taking this from just kind of that idea and concept that we talked about, to … getting to where we’re going to look to put in prototypes and do technology demonstrations.”

Engagement with industry has ramped up in recent months. In September, the Army held an industry day at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. About 80 vendors and 200 individuals attended, including multinational partners, Gervais said.

Army officials have been explaining the concept to industry executives and asking them about the state of technology, she said.

The need to adhere to common standards has been a point of emphasis as the service seeks to move beyond the stove-piped systems that exist today, she noted.

“Everybody knows if I want to come in and be part of STE, I’ve got to meet this standard,” she said. “That allows our architecture to remain open so as technology evolves all we do is pull that out, put this in, plug and play.”

The Army intends to host more industry days before releasing requests for proposals.

“Our intent is to get to some RFPs coming out but we’re still waiting on a couple decisions to be made,” she said. “I want [industry] to focus on getting an understanding of STE first.”

Gervais expects traditional defense contractors as well as nontraditional partners in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to be involved in the creation of the synthetic training environment.

“It’s going to have to be a partnership between our smaller innovative companies that are out there and … our typical defense industry partners because of the scope and the scale of it,” she said. “I see it as an opportunity for everybody.”

An immediate focus will be on developing the so-called One World Terrain component of the synthetic training environment, Gervais said. It is a mapping project intended to accurately replicate any real-world location, including megacities, in the virtual realm.

To illustrate the concept, the Army has developed a demonstration of how the streets of San Francisco might look to a soldier using this technology.

Troops could eventually use the training tool to prepare for an upcoming deployment or conduct mission rehearsals. The aim is to provide a common operating picture to enable individuals and units in different locations to train together, she said.

“If I’m getting ready to go to Africa, I just pull it up … [and] we’re all on the same terrain,” she explained.

“We don’t have this kind of data for everywhere in the world, so there’s places where we’re going to have to generate that terrain. And that’s difficult,” she added.

The Army hopes to have a robust synthetic training environment in place around 2023. “But that’s just a mark on the wall,” Gervais said. “It’s all going to be [dependent on] how industry brings technology in and we figure out is it working as we hoped.”

Milley said Defense Department leaders must put significant funding behind the effort.

“It’s through iteration and intense, realistic training that … our soldiers will prevail and survive on the battlefield,” Milley said. “We just need at our level to focus our resources and provide them the opportunity.”

— Vivienne Machi contributed to this report

Topics: Training and Simulation, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training

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