Realistic training environments have long been part of operational preparation for the UK’s three services. But rather than straw dummies and thunderflashes, today, it’s computer-aided simulation and synthetic training that are helping British forces train hard for the fight.

"Man-made tools to help prepare for war have been around since the sand tables of Roman times," says Michael Mifsud, principal engineer for training and simulation at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). "Even earlier, there were strategy board games in Asia and the Middle East."

As technology – cannons, rifles, tanks – became part of live warfare and continuously improved, so has synthetic training technology evolved. Flight simulation marked the earliest use of more complex systems.

The 1910 pilot trainer used two half-sections of a barrel, which was moved manually to represent the pitch and roll of an aircraft. The trainee sat at the top and tried to stay in line with the horizon.

Flying simulator sophistication increased rapidly with the 1929 Link Trainer, which taught new pilots to fly using their instruments rather than just visual references. More than 500,000 American pilots were trained on link simulators during World War II.

"It was the first modern simulator," explains Mifsud. "It sat on pneumatic pillows, which responded to controls and changed the altitude of the aircraft."

Post-war, aviation continued to set the simulation pace with faster computing platforms powering much more realistic environments in the 1950s and 1960s. RAE Bedford’s unique advanced flight was a particular landmark, taking simulation beyond training to help develop new aircraft designs.

Today, flight simulators have left cameras and map boards far behind. From the Hawk Trainer at RAF Valley to the new A400 simulator at RAF Brize Norton, 360º displays and modern computing hardware deliver an immersive virtual environment.
As aircraft become fewer in number and more expensive to deploy, flight simulation is increasingly supplanting live-flying training. Always available, they bring training to a wider audience at lower cost, reduce wear on valuable and life-limited airframes, and offer safe foundation training for raw recruits.

Benefits such as these drive the growing investment in synthetic training across all three UK forces. The Ministry of Defence’s Strategic Defence and Security Review emphasised its use "to produce a more efficient and cost-effective training environment".

Leading examples
The navy’s maritime composite training system (MCTS) and the army’s combined arms tactical trainer (CATT) at Warminster are two leading examples. MCTS replicates multiple vessels, letting different ship teams train together in simulated control rooms, while CATT delivers foundation and mission-specific tactical training that represents over 70 different vehicle types. Up to 150 vehicle simulations can run either individually or together within a synthetic environment.

"You can assess how they work as part of the battle group to deliver missions, and you can undertake specific training for different environments," says Mifsud. "They use computer-generated forces (CGF) to symbolise and present enemy threats against which you have to deliver the mission."

This virtual world is also the perfect place to safely learn the basics of a vehicle such as the 62t Challenger 2 tank. In fact, recent Dstl research found that driver training with a high-fidelity simulator was as effective as a real vehicle.

CAST (combined arms staff trainer), Warminster’s other simulator, is a more strategic tool for brigade and company-level officers. It recreates a forward-operating base (FOB) headquarters environment, which informs how one role talks to another, and who needs to know what in order to maintain collective control of the assets and mission.

"That actually reflects what a real FOB is like," comments Mifsud. "You might hear some bangs in the distance, but otherwise you are in a tent looking at the data feeds on the computer screen, discussing plans and making decisions with the military commanders."

With CAST, outright realism is less of a priority and participants use a normal desktop computer screen alongside command and control systems such as Bowman. Battlegroup command and control training (BC2T) takes a similar FOB-like approach, with a classroom-based network of computers displaying digital maps, air defence, artillery, combat engineering and close air support to train subordinate commanders and staff in battle planning and execution.

Synthetic training offers unique features that even the most ambitious live exercises can’t match. For example, recording and then replaying a simulation shows exactly what happened, and when it happened during a session. Trainers can recap the mission minute by minute, and compare it with students’ own situational awareness, with a plethora of quantitative and qualitative metrics available.

"Simulation can greatly increase the effectiveness of after-action reviews," says Mifsud. "They can see how the mission played out and what worked and what didn’t."

Tracking and analysis during live exercises is what the tactical engagement simulation does effectively. Laser-based training weapons work in tandem with sensors that monitor personnel and vehicle location, registering any hits. Smoke devices and pyrotechnics mimic other arms such as grenades, IEDs or artillery fire, adding realism to this simulated, dismounted war-fighting environment.

In-field instrumentation
Blending simulation with real-life manoeuvres finds its ultimate expression in synthetic wrap. By linking in-field instrumentation to a simulated environment, live assets appear within the virtual battlespace, while CGF capability adds military and civilian activity as required.

"You might be running around Salisbury Plain, but through your systems you have a synthetic warfighting environment going on around you," explains Mifsud. "You might see enemy forces coming from a certain direction and have to respond appropriately."

Via projects such as QinetiQ’s Creole, it’s possible to integrate ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) capabilities into the synthetic wrap, including an array of cameras and sensors. Participants can control virtual assets such as unmanned aerial systems in real time, and view video feeds that mix simulated and real images.
Simulators can also bring different services together to train for joint operations. The Air Battlespace Training Centre at RAF Waddington combines air and land simulation to train forward air controllers and joint tactical air controllers.

The land-based trainee will look through virtual binoculars at the same synthetic environment as the fast-jet pilot sitting in his simulator cockpit in the same building. The Typhoon, Tornado, E-3D Sentry, UAVs such as the Reaper and other aircraft can be represented with the system, which also encompasses army mission command-planning functions.

Understanding challenges
"They will have been trained in separate services so this is about enabling better air-land integration," says Mifsud. "In the run of normal operations, it’s actually quite rare for army personnel to meet aircrew. This gets them talking to each other and understanding the challenges each of them face, like target identification."

Networking multiple distributed simulators together to create complex environments like this is the focus for current research. Some army units can already train remotely as a group without leaving their home bases, and improved system interoperability will allow more UK and international forces to train together in synthetic combined operations. Central to this goal are modular, web-friendly solutions based on modern, open and standardised architectures that use off-the-shelf hardware.
In the UK, Dstl’s synthetic environment tower of excellence (SE Tower) programme has long brought together suppliers and academics to research simulation technologies, including system architectures, interoperability and management, and how best to exploit emerging technologies. The defence operational training capability (DOTC) projects are MoD-acquisition programmes that exploit these advanced research outputs, while NATO modelling and simulation groups (MSG) are the focus for multinational collaboration on topics such as architectures and ‘simulation as a service’, which refers to implementing a service-oriented approach that could use cloud computing to support synthetic training environments.

"We want to be able to plug and play different systems together to be able to represent different environments," Mifsud says, noting that the Joint Forces Command has helped bring the three forces’ simulation initiatives more closely together. "We need to join up our air simulators on one base with land simulators in another, and with those of our international partners."
The international high level architecture (HLA Evolved) simulation standard is a recent achievement adopted by the MoD as the core simulation architecture standard for future projects. Standardisation, improved compatibility and the agility to present different training scenarios within a single simulation system combine to reduce the costs of simulator development and training. The navy’s 3D close range weapons trainer has a ship-borne gunnery simulator based on the off-the-shelf VBS2 virtual battlespace platform.

Dstl keeps a close eye on commercial software, noting any possible simulation applications. Mifsud notes the potential of the computing horsepower harnessed by Google and Amazon, plus the realistic and responsive environments created by the $90-billion global computer games industry.

"It used to be that government budgets paid for new technology development," he says. "Now it could be search engines or even kids in their bedrooms that come up with an amazing application or algorithm that could be applied to defence."

Realistic representation
Though research projects such as the SE tower’s SCORE focus on realistic representation of terrain, features and weather – the synthetic natural environment – and how forces and threats are represented, realism for its own sake is not the point.
"Fully replicating the real world doesn’t necessarily help in delivering training goals," says Mifsud. "Firstly, we have to decide what effect we are trying to achieve, and from those requirements decide what to represent in the simulation."

Instead, it’s the evolving nature of conflict that continues to be the driver of change. Cyber and urban warfare are two current examples.

"How to represent the complexity of the urban operational environment is a big area of research at the moment," Mifsud says. "The ability to insert virtual elements into a live exercise may help us reduce the need to build more physical environments."
Dstl constantly seeks new technologies and methodologies to improve synthetic training. Many aspects of live exercises simply can’t be replicated and the optimum mix is still a work in progress. With simulation’s potent combination of effectiveness and lower costs, we’re certain to see a lot more of it in future.