In recent years, simulation tools have become a key part of military training. As the costs of the technology falls, trainee soldiers are spending more and more of their time in virtual worlds.

The advantages are obvious. Unlike live training, simulations don’t burn up real fuel, or use actual weapons. The conditions can be precisely calibrated to suit the mission ahead, and it doesn’t matter how many times a soldier gets it wrong.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the market for virtual training is growing fast. Currently valued at just over $14 billion, it is expected to reach $20 billion in a decade’s time.

As Graham McIntyre, chairman and CEO of the European Training and Simulation Association (ETSA), points out, virtual environments are reaching the point where they’re nearindistinguishable from real ones.

“When your synthetic environment is very rich – meaning you could almost mistake it for the real world – then you can train people as effectively as you would in a live environment,” he says. “It gives people a grounding in what they need to do and how they should go about it.”

Of course, military simulations are far from a new concept, having existed in one sense or another for as long as there have been organised missions. Historically, soldiers used dummy weapons to train against wooden opponents, while drill procedures simulated tactical manoeuvres.

Playing at soldiers

Today’s ‘constructive simulations’ – referring to software used by military leaders – have a similarly long precedent. In Roman times, commanders used sand tables with soldier icons, enabling them to manipulate a physical copy of the battlefield. And in the 1800s, each Prussian regiment was ordered to play a game called Kriegsspiel (German for ‘war game’), with rules derived from historical battles.

However, when we talk about military simulations today, we normally mean the computerised variety. This field, which began to gather steam in the 1970s and 80s, really took off in the late 90s, as the military and entertainment worlds explored areas of convergence.

By the turn of the century, training simulators were being credited with reducing the number of US casualties at war. According to a 2000 US Government report, “The new combat training approach invented 30 years ago develops, without bloodshed, individuals and units into aces.”

McIntyre has been involved in training and simulation since 1994, and witnessed its evolution. In the 1990s, he explains, simulation technology was developed by individual companies to suit their own needs.

“The simulation and training industry was dominated by big companies, which had their own processing engines and their own visual systems,” he says. “They could demand high prices, particularly if they had a good visual system.”

By contrast, today’s simulations are developed from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, meaning the big players lack proprietary technology and don’t have to shoulder the costs of maintaining them.

“Today, you can go down the high street and buy a game, and see everything in a virtual world as you would on TV,” says McIntyre. “The technology behind that is digital and modular, so you can take out a licence for the games tool and create your own environment.”

Since simulation companies no longer need to develop their tools from scratch, the technology has become far more affordable and accessible. On top of this, the image quality has improved, meaning people are more easily able to suspend their disbelief within a virtual environment.

“The level of resolution is now extremely good,” says McIntyre. “You can see it in people’s eyes – they’re sweating, they’re absorbed in that environment, they’re under pressure.

“So it’s not a question of ‘this is just a simulator, it doesn’t matter’; it’s a question of ‘we’ve got a problem and we need to find the way out of it’.”

He adds that other technology, such as GPS, can also be embedded in simulations. This means synthetic environments are not only sharper looking – they also have more sophisticated functions. On top of that, they’re more specific, with the ability to replicate the tank or cockpit the trainee will be using in real life.

Virtual worlds

As might be expected, these advances have led to a wide sphere of applications. While flight simulators (first used during the Second World War) still dominate the training market, there is also a growing demand for synthetic maritime environments and tools that simulate combat.

“To take the army as an example, you can simulate an environment in which they need to deal with IEDs,” says McIntyre. “How would they go about it if they were driving their Land Rover and spotted something suspicious? Then, if you’re building a new ship, you can also build a synthetic model of that vessel such that new recruits can develop familiarity with it and learn how to do their jobs.”

Mission rehearsals, he notes, have become far more involved since the advent of these kinds of simulations.

“You can rehearse the whole exercise before you do it, in such a way that you know where the doors of the building are; you know the whole geography,” he says. “Something like the capture of Osama bin Laden will have been gone through in the simulator.”

One recent example comes from the simulation company NSC, where McIntyre is a non-executive director. Its unit-based virtual training (UBVT) system enables troops to practise their skills in an immersive, graphic-rich environment.

“It allows units in the British Army to train for all sorts of tasks, meaning when they come to do a live exercise the efficiency is improved quite dramatically,” says McIntyre. “The programme was awarded just last year.”

Virtual training of this kind is designed to complement live training, rather than replace it. After all, there are lots of things that can be achieved in a simulator that would never be feasible in the real world. Take firing certain types of round from a tank – a job that in a trainee’s hands might prove expensive or even deadly.

In a simulator, it doesn’t matter if trainees mess up. By the time they do undertake field exercises, they’re much better prepared for the task in hand, meaning less scope for wasting time and money.

“Because of the quality of the simulations that are available today, people are actually seeing significant cost savings over live training,” says McIntyre. “You can repeat it many times and it doesn’t cost any more.”

He adds that, in these days of cutbacks, there are fewer skilled instructors around to guide people through their training. Simulators enable a single instructor to train large groups together, while quickly flagging up any problems from their instructor operator station.

“That helps very much in the overall training process and also addresses skills shortages among instructors,” says McIntyre.

The upshot is clear – although simulators require an upfront investment, it doesn’t always take long to achieve a return on an investment. In 2012, the US Air Force estimated it could save $1.7 billion over five years by shifting more of its pilot and crew training to simulators.

That same year, the US Navy said a $500-million investment in flight simulators over seven years could lower annual aviation training costs by $119 million.

Simulators can also yield improvements in mission readiness. In particular, they can facilitate training in many different kinds of conditions, which would otherwise be hard to conjure on cue.

“With a flight simulator, you need to prepare people for all kinds of conditions – lightning, snow, ice, high winds – so you can input those physical or meteorological conditions,” says McIntyre.

“If you’re talking about land sites, you can train people in different types of terrain, along with the right weather conditions. It would be extremely difficult to put them into these situations in the real world.”

With simulation here to stay, are there any disadvantages? McIntyre thinks there are two main issues, both of which are likely to become less of a problem over time. “The simulator itself doesn’t improve training – it’s how you use it that matters,” he points out. “If you bought a new computer, you wouldn’t expect Microsoft Word to write your letter for you – you’d need to understand how to use it. Simulation won’t help unless you learn how to deliver it in the right way.”

The second potential snag also comes down to a misuse of technology. “You can have soldiers who become so familiar with the simulation that they end up taking risks that they would never take in the real world,” he says. “There’s always the danger someone can treat it as a game.”

He feels, however, that the past five or six years have seen significant improvements in this regard. Many key customers have changed their training syllabi to maximise the benefits, embedding more and more simulation training into their requirements.

“Simulation has now been around for a whole generation, and it’s established that people are taught this way,” he points out. “If I go back to the early 1990s, people were trained in live environments. They felt that, unless they got down and dirty, it wasn’t real training. But you’ve now got people coming through at quite senior levels who don’t think like that.”

The right blend

The real question, then, will not be whether simulation training is worthwhile – that much has been established – but whether it is worth doing more. McIntyre expects we will see more in the way of ‘blended environments’ – in other words, environments that combine several different types of simulation. “At the annual ITECS show in Orlando, there’s a project called Operation Blended Warrior that shows how you can use simulation in the bigger picture – not just how you fire your rifle, but how you can train from the commander down to gain an awareness of what you need to do to win,” he says. “Blended environments are an important part of where we’re going in the future.”

If you take a long-term view, we may ultimately see applications that currently sound like science-fiction – think simulations that can be controlled through the power of thought alone. However, you don’t need to think this far ahead to appreciate the benefits.

“We’re seeing a level of understanding and acceptance in our customer base, which I think is extremely helpful,” says McIntyre. “So we’ve got a customer base that wants to use simulation, and an industry that can provide its customers with something more cost-effective than live training. The future is bright.”