NATO Moving Toward Interconnected Simulators

By Stew Magnuson

U.K. Ministry of Defence photo

LONDON — NATO’s 30 members are working toward a day when they can link their simulators and carry out virtual exercises to make training more efficient.

“What we want to do is connect the national synthetic training systems so that we can train together on a daily basis,” Robert Siegfried, chair of the NATO modeling and simulation group, said in London at the IT2EC conference, Europe’s largest training and simulation trade show.

NATO members see many benefits of using simulators to replace live training. It is more cost efficient, there is less wear and tear on equipment, vehicles and aircraft, and it can be conducted out of the range of spies who want to learn the treaty organization’s tactics, techniques and procedures, he said.

“It’s not about replacing one with the other. It’s about finding the right balance — how much training can you afford to do live and how much training will work in simulated environment?” he said during a panel discussion.

U.S. Army Col. Mark Madden, chief of NATO’s modelling and simulation/training technology branch within joint force development, Allied Command Transformation, said “COVID has really opened the eyes [of] senior leaders to the use of technology to train.”

Currently, “what NATO uses in their training environments aren’t really able to rapidly adapt to the complexities of today’s ever changing world. We believe the development of a next-gen simulation is the answer to the needs of today’s changing world. That’s what we’re really targeting,” Madden said.

NATO’s Distributed Synthetic Training vision calls for a “coalition-wide federation of national synthetic mission training capabilities powered by coherent architectures and security procedures, common standards and training objectives and shared data; delivering regular and frequent access to high quality, secure, immersive operational training opportunities at team, collective, joint and coalition levels,” according to Siegfried’s presentation.

One glaring inefficiency NATO wants to address is the amount of time it takes to prepare for a multi-national exercise — normally 12 to 18 months, Siegfried said.

For each major exercise, the organization always starts over — scrapping everything from the previous event — and pulling together again the infrastructure, network and security, he said.

The ultimate goal is to drastically reduce the organizational lead time to where a French and German pilot, for example, could agree to jump on their simulators at a specified time and train any day they want, he said.

The roadblock to this long-term goal is interoperability, a long-standing issue with NATO members as they acquire their military technologies separately, he said.

The other is network security, which is one of the key reasons that NATO exercises take so long to re-organize, he added.

“We have to build up the infrastructure again and again, and after each exercise tear down then start from scratch again next time. We are not getting anywhere,” Siegfried said.

Standards are the answer, he said. While 30 different nations purchase simulators developed by different vendors, they should have some common standards in place so they can link up, he added.

The good news is that the technology is out there, Siegfried said.

“We can do this. It has been demonstrated many, many times,” he added.

Wim Huiskamp, chief scientist of modeling and simulation at TNO Defence, Security and Safety, an independent research group, said, “we need a common architecture … to make sure that such a complex environment works and that it will increase the efficiency to make it more easy and possible to maintain it and to grow in capabilities.”

NATO for the past year has been working on a “reference architecture” to serve as guidelines to member nations who want to link their training systems, he said.

That includes: top level identification requirements for security purposes; basic building blocks based on standards needed for interoperability; and an implementation plan.

That plan will soon be available in a guideline document for members to follow, he said.
Madden said what emerges needs to be an affordable, shareable and reusable capability for all users. As a member of the U.S. Army, he is used to looking at training just in that context. But NATO operates in all domains — land, air, sea, cyber and space, adding to the complexity of distributed synthetic training.

“Right now, you don’t have simulations that can represent really more than one area, which causes a lot of issues with data,” he said.

Many NATO nations are recognizing that it may be time to upgrade simulation capabilities in order to create interoperable, networked environments, Madden said.

However, he has been in the simulation world for some 16 years of his career.

“I really don’t think we’re a whole lot farther down that road now than we ever have been. With all the smart people in the world working on interoperability, we’re still not really better off,” he said.

Next-generation training needs to support geographically separate domains and nations and the complexity of operations in strategic and operational levels within NATO structure, Madden said.

Is there is silver bullet solution for that? No, Madden said, but a modular approach that takes on smaller tasks can get the organization there.

“Within hopefully a very short amount of time you can insert a module into a capability and move forward with that concept,” he said.

Starting off developing bigger, more complex training tasks could take years to develop, he added.

Ruari Henderson-Begg, the Royal Air Force’s program manager for the Defence Operational Training Capability program, said NATO needs a regular and frequent drumbeat of high-quality synthetic exercises.

The initial building-block approach for NATO is going to be using what we already have in a number of different countries, Henderson-Begg said.

The Netherlands, United States and Britain all have national distributed synthetic training capabilities, or are close to acquiring it, he added.

“We can actually use each other’s facilities to deliver NATO-level exercises,” he said.

This year will be important as members work on a roadmap on how to achieve the grand vision, Henderson-Begg said.

Several initiatives are running parallel to move the effort along, he said.

There will be a series of meetings scheduled to begin in May that will look at training requirements for three to five use cases based on collective NATO needs.

Members will also define their needs, identify and agree on a means of delivery and establish an architecture board, he said.

By the end of the first meeting in May, NATO should have agreed to an organizational structure for a main training working group, allocated work to sub-groups and finalized a roadmap, he said.

And it will also prepare a first distributed synthetic training exercise for 2023, he added.

That’s where we will make sure we’ve got the avenues nailed down … and make sure we know what we’re trying to deliver and exactly how we’re going to do it. We will know what we are doing for the next couple of years,” Henderson-Begg said.

“We know the general direction we’re going, and we know the holy grail we’re going after. So we have to do this in an iterative process that makes sure that we’re doing the right thing and if you need to change tack, or we’re going slightly different direction, we are able to do so without having committed ourselves too far,” he added.

NATO will need help from industry, which has already been involved in helping it set up exercises. Companies should be on the lookout for requests for information, panelists said.

Huiskamp said outside experts have looked at the technical gaps, procedural gaps and what solutions are available. “That is certainly taking place already. And that will continue in the future as we do these experiments over the next year.” Huiskamp said.

“I’m sure that we’ll need the suppliers, the vendors of these different existing systems, to help us make sure that we are interoperable and we can use them in a way we intend to,” he added.

Madden said NATO’s philosophy is that it would rather adopt or buy than create.

“NATO doesn’t want to be in the business of developing a capability. They would rather adopt it from a nation or purchase it from industry,” he said.

There is plenty of low-hanging fruit out there as individual countries pursue their synthetic training goals, Henderson-Begg said.

The U.S. Army is working on its new Synthetic Training Environment, which it hopes to deliver in fiscal year 2024.

The British Army is pursuing its version of the Collective Training Transformation Program. The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are also on their own paths to modernize what they believe are outdated training and simulation systems. Ultimately, they want to merge their exercises.

Technologies being developed for such programs should be leveraged for NATO’s purposes, Henderson-Begg said.

Topics: Training and Simulation

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