With every technological advance, new frontiers are opened to us. The smallest of developments can make the biggest contributions, redefining the world around us. But what if the world around us is not quite all it seems? Conflict in the classroom – not the type many of us might have had to face when a child has a falling out with their teacher – is fast becoming the norm, in military training at least.

The age of synthetic training, for years seemingly another world away, is dawning, and with it is a world of possibilities. “The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to develop an immersive type of simulation that can replicate any battle space, anywhere in the world, shows great promise,” says retired US Air Force Lieutenant-General Thomas L Baptiste. He has more than 40 years’ experience of military training, having first joined the US Air Force in the early 1970s, since chalking up more than 3,000 hours of flying time. His career has seen him take on a number of senior roles, culminating in the post of deputy of the NATO Military Committee in Brussels until 2007. Armed forces around the world are investing in VR and AR development to bring about a new era of military training. In part the result of advances in technology, the push to develop is also helping address another pressing issue for military commanders: budgetary pressures.

“In the current environment,” says Baptiste, “we find – and I think this is true across all military – that the cost of operating real weapons systems such as tanks, ships or aircraft is extremely expensive. So when you look at how you’re going to train, all of the services are being driven to more rather than less use of simulation as budgets won’t sustain the costs of traditional training.”

He says in the past decade, operational commanders – in the US at least – have been forced to rethink the balance between live training and simulation, driven by the budget stresses they’re under and their readiness to challenges they face. “So we’re seeing all services relying on simulation and virtual training in order to solve a portion of that readiness challenge,” he says.

Come a long way

It’s important, however, to note that the growing use of simulated training is far more about the advances in technology currently being enjoyed, and the positives that such advances bring. Baptiste says that when he started flying in the 1970s, simulation was neither particularly realistic, or indeed beneficial. “The F-4 Phantom was the first fighter that I flew. The simulator was fixed, with no motion, it sat in a dark simulator bay and there was no visual display; it was an exact replica of the front and back seat, with all the switches and stuff you’d expect to see. But it was really only a part-test trainer.

The use of virtual and augmented reality to develop an immersive type of simulation that can replicate any battle space, anywhere in the world, shows great promise.

Although you were able to practice emergency procedures and instrument approaches, that was the limit of what you could train in, apart from what Baptiste called some “very crude” intercepts using the radar. He says little else tactical was possible in what was then state-of-the-art simulation. “Today that has totally changed.”

Simulators have long been used in the military. Today’s fighter pilots, new and well versed in the art of combat in the skies, will be very familiar with sitting in a simulator cockpit, rehearsing manoeuvre and battling computer-generated adversaries. On the ground and at sea, military personnel will not be new to the proposition of using simulating technology to refine their skills. The biggest developments of recent years are those of AR and VR, which together are leading to what is becoming increasingly known as ‘synthetic training’. VR allows users to be immersed into another environment, full of different landscapes, settings and, importantly, scenarios. AR overlays the real world with visuals. The possibilities of both, according to experts, are almost limitless. Their use is not just valuable to combat training: they can be programmed to simulate medical scenarios and even bootcamp drills.

Baptiste says that all of the armed forces in the US, and likely in most developed countries, are looking for ways to best leverage the technology that is coming through. Aside from the cost benefits, he says, there are practical ones, too. “With virtual and augmented reality, and immersive types of simulation, you don’t need ten acres of space and live weapons. You can immerse a soldier, or group of soldiers, into an environment like Afghanistan or Iraq in a classroom where they just move their feet, transiting a replica of the battle station they’ll be in when they deploy,” he says.

Further planned developments

Now the US Airforce and its other counterparts are looking at ways of furthering the capabilities of synthetic training by introducing live training exercises. Baptiste says the US Air Force is developing what is called ‘distributed mission operations’, wherein live fighter pilots are joined by pilots using simulators in training scenarios, making the simulation exercise even more compelling. An example, he says, may include actual fighter jets taking to the skies from an air force base in Nevada, joined by simulator-based pilots on the ground at Charlotte air force base in South Carolina in a red-flag exercise. “Two shifts, operating together, who are integrated into that red-flag exercise. They are virtually inserted in where they fly and have a time on target, they have weapons on-board and go after a target, becoming integral to all of the aircraft that are flying. There is a simulated virtual force participating in that scenario with all the same threats,” he says.

“You can make two hours or so in a flight simulator very compelling and realistic. The pilots are actually inserted into a real environment and they practice their warfare tactics, techniques and procedures. They come out of the simulator sweating, with a beating heart.”

This type of immersive training is something that the US has had in development for a little time now. The Synthetic Training Environment (STE) programme aims to construct a platform for what the army says will provide a cognitive, collective, multiechelon training and missionrehearsal capability for the operational, institutional and selfdevelopment training domains and is part of the annual $14-billion spend on training by the US Department of Defense. The army says: “The Synthetic Training Environment will interact with and augment live training, which is the primary training approach for the army. This concept will allow the army to provide a single STE that delivers a training service to the points of need. The capability will train all war-fighting functions and the human dimension across all echelons with Joint and Unified Action Partners in the context of Unified Land Operations.”

Once fully operational, it will allow personnel to develop their training and mission capabilities in a virtual military environment, using live training instrumentation. Offering immersive and semi-immersive experiences, the hardware is already available, off-the-shelf, from commercial and government providers, although some customisation will be required.

“It brings together the virtual, constructive and gaming-training environments into a single STE for Army Active and Reserve Components as well as civilians. It will provide training services to ground, dismounted and aerial platforms and command post,” the army says. “That’s what all the services looking at, how do we integrate virtual or synthetic training into the live exercises to make live and synthetic training much more valuable and realistic?” remarks Baptiste. But challenges remain such as the amount of data flow needed to support these training methods.

To a degree, this type of exercise is not new to pilots coming through academies today, many of whom having grown up with the likes of the Ace Combat game series on the Sony PlayStation, Xbox and PC. Being able to use controls without having to look at them is an essential part of being a good pilot, something that Baptiste likens to playing the piccolo.

“Playing the piccolo was something very foreign to me, someone who grew up flying the F-4,” he says. “But it was second nature to the lieutenants that came to be my students. They were very comfortable with using their hands to change the displays and sensors;and they picked it up rapidly.”

With virtual and augmented reality, and immersive types of simulation, you don’t need ten acres of space and live weapons.

Virtual reality and video games

The gaming generation has brought benefits to the armed services, particularly air forces. “I think the people we get today are not afraid of technology, they’re savvy and comfortable with the new type of weapon systems they will fly and operate. That has been a boon to the quality of people we attract, whether it be an aircraft, ship or tank.”

However, the evolution of VR and AR, and synthetic training models, hasn’t just assisted in combative roles. It’s helping to train medics, put under pressure in a battlefield situation without the usual risks of actually being on the ground. Baptiste believes that the advances in this sort of technology have helped prepare medics for their roles in theatre, bringing a new realism to the training they go through and ultimately having a direct impact on the chances of survival for the wounded soldiers that they treat.

Although this is great news, the increases in survival rates has meant services, and society, have had to face a new reality, one where survival means servicemen and women are faced with life-changing injuries and disabilities.

So technology is changing the way training is delivered and having a real impact on the ground, or in the air.

“Simulation provides you the opportunity to operate in a safe and secure environment where you don’t put the trainee and others at risk,” says Baptiste. “You can make mistakes, stop, critique, talk about what went wrong and what was good, then you start over and solidify those lessons. You can master basic skills through repetition at much less cost.”

Putting pilots and civilians on the ground at risk – however much you try to minimise that – is always going to be a matter for consideration for when training fighter pilots. Putting expensive military equipment at risk will too, and there’s the cost of burning huge amounts of Jet Propellant 8. Simulated training can help reduce those risks, and cut costs. However, although simulation is set to be a huge part of the training environment of tomorrow, Baptiste concludes, it won’t offer all the answers. Baptiste, now the president and CEO of the National Center for Simulation in the US, says, “You can never replace all of that live training with simulation. You have to fly the aircraft, sail the ship, drive the tank, so we’ll never get to a point where everything will be done virtually. But it is part of the answer, and it’s certainly much better than what I saw 40-plus years ago.”