Elly Earls: To what extent are synthetic environments currently used to train the British Army?

Nick Taylor: Synthetic environments touch almost every aspect of training in the British Army. The depth and level of fidelity varies, but within collective training, the use of synthetic environments is widespread: they are used at every level from smaller-unit-level pre-deployment training to large-scale battlegroup and brigade exercises.

Even in ‘live’ exercises, there is now an element of synthetic environment to add capabilities that would be expensive, impractical or impossible to experience away from an operational theatre. For example, during ‘live’ exercises on Salisbury Plain, it’s not possible to fly real remotely piloted surveillance aircraft, and so the information these provide is simulated during the exercise.

There is no one answer to the ‘live-sim’ balance; it depends on the context and application of the training. Furthermore, owing to the rate of technological development, the balance changes frequently.

Are there particular roles and operations within the army that lend themselves to this type of training?

Often, the consideration of whether to apply synthetics to training in lieu of live events is a value judgement, but there are benefits that come from the use of simulation and synthetic environments that go beyond the financial consideration. For example:

  • the ability to train in various environmental conditions
  • the repeatability of training in a simulated environment
  • the ability to train in simulated environments that are more hazardous than would be possible in a live training situation
  • the ability to quickly replicate most operation theatres to enable more effective training earlier on.

How has the scope and breadth of training in these environments developed over the past decade?

The nature of the technology is probably the aspect that has changed most over the past decade. The technical development of training solutions has moved from a defence lead to a broad exploitation of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology. The last ten years has seen the application of developments made in the commercial gaming market to defence training solutions – this is ongoing.

What are the challenges of developing synthetic environments that replicate the real world as closely as possible?

The continued development of the application of new COTS technologies, such as cloud computing, to the defence training capability presents a real challenge in terms of maintaining the level of skill, experience and understanding necessary to deliver it.

The challenges of replicating the real world are broadly similar to those seen since the use of simulation in training began. Improving the visual scene to give the impression of reality requires an increasing amount of processing power, which is difficult to achieve.

As training audiences are exposed to increasingly sophisticated animation and international participation on their domestic gaming consoles, expectations are raised for defence simulations accordingly.

What international cooperation exists in the development of these synthetic environments? Do allies pool their resources?

We maintain regular communication and informal cooperation with numerous nations; notably the US, Canada and other NATO countries.

What role does DE&S play in the procurement and development of these systems?

DE&S delivers the training and simulation systems and other services that enable the army to train effectively. To achieve this, DE&S informs the development of requirements within the army user community and provides signficant input into the research programme in order to de-risk the delivery of training systems.

Do you think that technology will ever advance to such a degree that it enables real-world training to be completely replaced by this type of simulation?

No. There is a degree of realism and consequence involved in live training that cannot be replicated in the inherently ‘safe’ environment of a simulation or synthetic environment.

The use of simulation has a role to play, however – above and beyond the financial benefits – to enhance the live training opportunities.