VIEWPOINT SPECIAL OPERATIONS
SOCOM Must Tie Operational Data to Virtual Reality Training
Image: Special Operations Command
Today, the nexus of U.S. military advantage is rooted in the effective integration of new and disruptive technologies. The modern digital transformation is a strategic investment into the lethality value chain of U.S. Special Operations Command as well as the overall cognitive performance of its operators.
As today’s digital revolution continues to reshape the character of war, the command’s ability to maintain a persistent state of preparedness will require the agile acquisition of disruptive commercial technologies to synthesize the design, development and expedited delivery of immersive digital training tools.
With the exploitation of technological discoveries, the expansion of their military capabilities and the rapid transition of prototypes, Special Operations Command has identified the accelerating technology trends which possess the greatest potential to deliver superiority.
These areas define propensities for repetitive and customizable on-demand training, digital planning and immersive mission rehearsals to sustain a global future force capability defined by precision lethality.
To that end, this transformation must be rooted in the cultivation of an ecosystem approach which emphasizes the vitality of the collection, synthesis, storage and management of the command’s most valuable asset: its operational data.
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “virtual reality solutions will allow our close-combat soldiers to fight 25 ‘battles’ before the first battle begins.”
With its global market now expected to exceed $35 billion by 2022, virtual reality has reached a state of maturation which, once adopted, will deliver SOCOM digital tools for repetitive, on-demand, immersive training. Training at each of the four Special Operations Command components will no longer be constrained by funding, resources, assets and risk to their personnel. To prepare for the certainty of conflict posed by advancing global competition, the command must be diligent in its implementation of digital tools that far exceed the capabilities of legacy platforms currently being utilized to satisfy traditional training requirements.
The commercialization of virtual reality has resulted in countless tools for military advantage. In addition to the technology solutions being offered by industry, commercial gaming has advanced to a degree which now requires developers to adhere to principles defined in their recent publication of commercial industry standards.
These standards, which can be easily leveraged and adopted by the Defense Department, have been formulated to ensure that the open-standard for gaming results in the delivery of best-in-class applications to consumers. Users and developers would be provided a capability platform that is standardized, centralized and readily accessible.
These standards, derived from commercial gaming engines, fully encompass principles associated to hardware/software, data/security and communications that will be needed for secure and remote employment across special operations training. This process, once adopted, will enable the command to streamline its digital transformation, beginning with the modernization of training systems via an application programming interface, or API-based, architecture.
By leveraging tools to assist in breaking down the traditional bureaucratic barriers, leaders possess tools to better inform decisions with the individual operators now being able to better understand themselves, how they perform, and which areas can be improved upon.
The cultivation of a “Digital SOCOM” requires the alignment of technology investment with a modern data strategy, ensuring business units are structured to keep pace with the speed of development. With the adoption of new technologies, expansion of institutional knowledge and generation of an adaptive future strategy, the command will be able to synthesize the rapid delivery of objective metrics to its leaders for their evaluation of team and individual performance during training evolutions.
Currently, the inability to capture and codify training data results in a lack of performance knowledge, making it extremely difficult to capture individual operator readiness. As warfighters are provided with modern virtual reality tools for personalized learning, quantified digital data is unveiled to leaders.
The delivery of quantifiable, digital data to today’s leaders will be their first opportunity to capture how efficiently their men and women process data and take decisive action when faced with stressors similar to those endured in combat. Against this backdrop, the term Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson coined, “high-velocity learning,” can be applied to both humans and intelligent machines, uncovering opportunities for advantage not yet realized. In turn, virtual reality will deliver the ability to capture and codify priceless data into artificial intelligence systems while learning methods for interaction across environments that will deliver solutions at a fraction of the cost and at significantly less risk to the warfighter.
In short, the term high-velocity learning is rooted in SOCOM’s ability to extend and accelerate the reach of modern human capabilities.
Big data is not just about managing more or varied data. It is about asking new questions, formulating new hypotheses, exploration, exploitation and discovery to drive more effective and efficient data-driven decisions. Ultimately, these efforts employ new analytical techniques to determine overall mission effectiveness. With the implementation of virtual reality solutions into all phases of individual and team training blocks, leaders are enabled to employ a future force that can win and maintain presence across multiple fronts, no matter the environment or the capabilities posed by our adversaries.
As for future implications, commercial industry has recently matured technologies around an innovation solution referred to as digital reality, which is a combination of tools such as augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, 360-degree video and immersive technologies, that convey data and intelligence information across digital visualizations.
These tools have already presented tremendous value to multiple government entities, transforming data mining, warfighter performance and business unit efficiencies.
Although extremely beneficial, the cross-cutting nature of digital reality will present challenges for agile development and quick integration, as these tools touch multiple Defense Department program offices.
Leaders across special operations possess the requisite knowledge and authorities to improve upon existing methods associated in the collection, codification and protection of SOCOM’s proprietary user and team data. To that end, the individual and team data from training and operations, captured while using digital technologies must be protected with modern, not legacy, controls.
As these technologies continue to develop, leaders must further expand upon their understanding of modern security protocols, standards and concerns to ensure data is captured and protected. This focus must be driven from the top-down, with leaders ensuring security is key during the adoption of commercial industry standards for virtual reality and digital learning platforms.
Defined as a company of historic bureaucratic processes and systems, one of the largest roadblocks for the command’s software plans is its inability to expedite software interoperability measures. The ability to network new technology, data capture, virtual environments and associated software tools with the suite of legacy training platforms has become an extremely cumbersome process. This will become increasingly difficult as commercial technology readily becomes more advanced and the future battlefield requires teams to conduct virtual interoperability training, planning and rehearsals with partner nations to prepare for uncertain conflict.
Innovation processes, organizational ambidexterity and technological fluency will be required to seize the advantages provided through the rapid adoption of accelerating commercial technology. Real-time digital capture of our most valuable data — advanced tactics, operational inputs and warfighter decision-making — is the first step toward operationalizing artificial intelligence.
Embedding AI and machine learning algorithms into virtual reality will provide us with the insight needed to identify the measures of effectiveness for the human-machine team, highlighting former SOCOM Commander Army Gen. Raymond Thomas III’s vision for tomorrow’s hyper-enabled operator. The lethal combination of human and machine will provide capabilities that far exceed the effectiveness of platforms or humans operating separately.
With this understanding, the dedication of special operations teams and the ability to leverage their experiences and skillsets must continue to be the foundation of the command’s future strategy.
Digital technologies are fundamentally shifting the expectations and behaviors of the modern warfighter. It is incumbent on leaders and innovators to aggressively pursue new technologies to enhance how they train and fight in 2019 and into the future. They need to meet the warfighters where they are and engage with them to better understand modern needs and anticipate those of the future.
The speed at which warfighters expect the right information to be delivered to them will only continue to accelerate throughout the digital age. SOCOM must build for that today.
Lt. Brian Shubsda is assigned to Naval Special Warfare Command’s future concepts and innovation directorate, while also attending Georgetown University in pursuit of his MBA.