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Armed forces are looking at high-performance synthetic environments to accomplish more of their training and mission rehearsal.

Modern military operating environment is ever changing and increasing in complexity. As warfare and systems become more complex, so do requirements for military training. Recognising the need to be able to sense and understand the complexities, militaries across the world are trying to orchestrate integrated responses at an increasing tempo, and fully indulge in immersive training environments, that replicate the multiplicities of current and future conflict zones. Towards this goal, governments and defence forces are increasingly looking at high performance and cost-effective alternatives such as the use of simulation and synthetic environments to prepare their personnel for analysis, training and mission rehearsal, and operational decision-making.

In February this year, the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) announced the opening of a new distributed synthetic multi-domain integration training system, christened Gladiator. “Gladiator will enable our forces to trial, test, and practise their tactics in a secure environment, linked across all operational domains. It is an invaluable training tool for the next generation of warfighters across air, space, land, cyber and sea,” said Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff.

Through incremental acquisition, Gladiator will evolve allowing the UK to undertake synthetic training for air, land and maritime forces, all on a secure network and safe in the knowledge that the training cannot be observed by adversaries.

Gladiator is provided by Boeing Defence UK and operated on an MoD network. Typhoon and Lightning II pilots based out of RAF Coningsby, RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Marham will be the first to fly virtual missions using Gladiator. There are opportunities for maritime and land platforms to use the system with Protector, Type 45, Type 26, Apache, Crowsnest, Poseidon, E-7 Wedgetail and other platforms expected to join. UK pilots will also use Gladiator to conduct synthetic training exercises with the US and NATO.

The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston opened Gladiator, at the Air Battlespace Training Centre at RAF Waddington on 15 February 2023.
Credit: RAF

Synthetic training complements live training opportunities and enables delivery of effective combat forces. But a number of factors impact the UK’s ability to complete all necessary training in a live environment. These include airspace constraints, environmental considerations, cost, and operational security. Gladiator will overcome these limitations by safeguarding highly classified information while linking together simulators across the country and beyond.

Stuart Lafferty, Flight Simulation and Synthetic Trainers (FsAST) team leader, said: “With Gladiator we can fly a large number of aircraft together at any one time, which in real-life training would be almost impossible and not cost effective. Gladiator is about allowing pilots to do things they couldn’t normally practice in the real world. In addition, pilots won’t be ageing aircraft, burning jet fuel or firing expensive weapons – these are important environmental and financial benefits to the Ministry of Defence (MoD).”

UK serious on synthetic environment

Recently the UK Strategic Command asked Improbable, a UK technology company to supply its synthetic environment platform to deliver a multi-domain virtual world for operational planning and decision support.

CAE had helped the Strategic Command establish the project in the first year to create a prototype Single Synthetic Environment (SSE) that supported a detailed simulation of a part of the real world. CAE will continue to support in the second year as a key technology partner in the SSE ecosystem.

“We are excited that a SSE will provide the environment for realistic, credible but also affordable planning, training and mission rehearsal to meet the challenges of modern warfare complexities. Our aim is to foster the innovation which will underpin defence transformation, and an investigation of the technical viability and potential utility of an SSE is an ambitious and ground-breaking project which supports that aim,” observed Major General Jim Morris, Director of Joint Warfare at UK Strategic Command, the major organisation of the British Armed Forces responsible for leading integration across all domains – cyber, space, maritime, land and air.

SSEs provide a safe virtual proving ground to create and test all sorts of ideas, from policy choices about the size and shape of the armed forces, to design of new systems and technologies and exploring how best to use them. The SSE being jointly developed by Improbable and UK Strategic Command delivers a simulation demonstrator which models the conventional physical domains (maritime, land and air) as well as aspects of space, cyber and the information environment.

“In an increasingly complex world, where threats to national security demand a rapid and coordinated response, we continue to demonstrate that the SSE is a unique and powerful capability with the potential to give Britain a truly competitive edge over its adversaries,” said Joe Robinson, CEO of Improbable’s Defence business.

The Ministry of Defence’s Training and Simulation Systems Programme (TSSP) will also be rolling out VBS4 and VBS Blue IG to support the UK’s training, experimentation and mission rehearsal needs. VBS4 is whole-earth virtual and constructive desktop trainer and simulation host that allows users to create and run a vast range of military training scenarios anywhere on Earth. It provides a virtual training environment for land, air and sea training, mission rehearsal applications, and experimentation at any location on Earth, while VBS Blue IG is a whole-earth image generator software, which rapidly integrates with existing third-party host simulators and BISim’s VBS4.

The VBS4 and VBS Blue IG, developed by Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim), a wholly-owned subsidiary of BAE Systems, have passed defence virtual simulation’s (DVS2) full operating capability (FOC) acceptance tests. DVS2 is the UK MoD’s common virtual simulation tool, providing interoperable, accessible, and deployable virtual simulation capability across the MOD and Industry. The DVS2 capability enables simulated activity across all levels of training, as well as operations planning and rehearsal, decision support, and research and development.

British Army Soldiers engage in live training during the Army Warfighting Experiment 2021 at the Salisbury Plain Training Area.
Credit: British Army

US Army also developing SE

The US Army’s Synthetic Training Environment (STE) cross-functional team is developing a single environment that will allow soldiers to train together from anywhere in the world. The current room-sized simulators will be replaced by portable laptop-powered AR/VR headsets that easily can be transported to soldiers for use anywhere at any time.

The integrated STE system comprises three foundational capabilities: the Training Simulation Software/Training Management Tools (TSS/TMT) software, Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer (RVCT) hardware, and One World Terrain (OWT). “With STE, the army won’t have to deal with the logistics of scheduling and transportation of soldiers to training centers, where they compete for precious training time,” said Harry Buhl, STE lead investigator for Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business. “They can train at their home stations with minimal overhead, or even while deployed,” Buhl added.

STE will train for air, land, sea, space and cyber using virtual and constructive environments that will be initially synthetic-virtual to replace the army’s ageing and costly simulators. The TSS//TMT foundation will expand to bring in live training, from squads at home stations to brigade combat teams at combat training centres, and constructive training for commanders and their staffs across distributed locations.

The US Army’s STE, of which TSS/TMT supplies the central software capabilities, allow military leaders and instructors to set up complex virtual battles, coordinating with thousands of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered allies, and fighting against artificially intelligent or instructor-controlled adversaries, with realistic AI behaviours and at theatre-wide scale. Soldiers will also be able to repeat these training missions many times over, facing new challenges that will help them to better prepare for live training and enhance their readiness for operations.

US Army’s One World Terrain (OWT) programme, which supports current and future combat missions, is on track to become the army’s authoritative source for foundation geospatial content and terrain data—from training to operations and targeting. The army will be able to draw terrain data from STE’s OWT data and soldiers will be able to interact either through PC-based soldier stations or through STE’s RVCT. “We have got to make every round fired count, whether it is live, virtual or constructive, train as many echelons as possible,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Lombardo, Deputy Commanding General of the Army’s Combined Arms Center-Training (CAC-T). “What the STE will provide us and what you can help deliver is a natural persistent environment where we can do that every month.”

Maxar Technologies, provider of space solutions, was recently awarded the Phase 3b of the OWT prototype contract by the US Army. The OWT programme delivers 3D global terrain capability and associated information services that support a fully accessible virtual representation of the physical Earth through the Army network. “The evolution of OWT shows how 3D terrain and information services are becoming essential tools for planning and decision-making not just for the US Army but for a wide range of military, civil and commercial institutions,” Tony Frazier, Maxar’s Executive Vice President and General Manager, Public Sector Earth Intelligence said.

In 2022, Maxar’s Phase 3a work focused on improving 3D terrain dataset fidelity and refining the automation processes to generate realistic terrain derived from Maxar’s satellite imagery for high-fidelity modelling and simulation systems, as well as terrain data export capability for operational mission command information systems.

In Phase 3b, Maxar will focus on enhanced conflation with open-source geospatial data and enhanced training areas using multi-source collection, high-resolution insets. The OWT prototype will evaluate the use of small unmanned aerial collections and the geo-registration of existing US Army terrain datasets. OWT is expected to reach full operational capability by 2024.

Recently, the US army also awarded a contract to Cole Engineering Services (CESI) to build a RVCT prototype. CESI has subcontracted Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim), a developer of advanced military simulation and training software, to deliver significant components of the US Army’s next generation of collective training technology. CESI is also building a Soldier Virtual Trainer (SVT). This prototype project will extend upon the STE modular open systems architecture to deliver an immersive SVT capability that empowers soldier-led training at the point of need.

The SVT combines and integrates several individual soldier training capabilities such as weapon skills development, joint fires training, and use of force. Each SVT capability is integrated and delivered through the SVT Core, which provides common hardware and biometrics powered by the STE-Information System (STE-IS) software.

Defence Firms Invest in SE Platforms

The global synthetic and digital training solution market size is estimated to reach about US$18 billion by 2026. Defence companies in the industry are expanding their investment research and development to guarantee that militaries get the finest possible solution environment.

Leonardo, which is part of the tri-nation Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) is building a ‘battle lab’ for the study and evaluation of the future sixth-generation air combat system. To support this, Leonardo has created an environment that combines physical systems, synthetic and immersive reality. The aim is to validate new operational concepts well before a demonstrator or flying prototype will become available. The digital simulator reproduces what a sixth-generation fighter cockpit could look like, where only the stick and throttle of an aircraft are physical, and everything else is virtual/using augmented reality. This interface will provide the pilot with an immersive experience when operating the fighter of the future.

British Army Soldiers engage in VR-based training during the Army Warfighting Experiment 2021 at the Salisbury Plain Training Area.
Credit: British Army

Raytheon is also building the Synthetic Training Environment Soldier Virtual Trainer, or STE SVT, used for virtual reality to train squads of soldiers in multiple scenarios while using real and virtual weapons. The new virtual simulator is designed to train dismounted infantry and uses the latest technological advances to deliver highly effective training at a moment’s notice from any location.

“Live training will always be the final test before the Army sends units into combat; it’s graduate-level training,” Buhl said. “But before live training, they’ll do their undergraduate training in synthetic-virtual and constructive worlds. Soldiers can rehearse a mission dozens of times without risking life or limb. They can practice battle drills, emergency situations and mission-critical tasks – what is known as high-consequence training – that can’t be replicated safely in live training, like having an engine fail on a real aircraft.”

With the likes of the US and UK making continual advances in their pursuit of a fully-fledged collective training environment, the future of armed forces training looks to be on the cusp of a major revolution.

J.C. Menon