Behind Pretend Enemy Lines

Advancements in virtual simulation are taking fun and games from the living room to the military battlefield. David Braue reports on how this technology, once left for the living room, is now being used for training troops.


The word 'wargames' is taking on a completely new meaning at the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), which in February announced it would begin integrating military simulator Virtual BattleSpace 2 (VBS2) into its regular training exercises.

Using computer-based simulations in troop training is far from new; military software developers and subcontractors have been among the earliest proponents of the practice.

"Soldiers' familiarity with COTS simulators is delivering strong learning outcomes."

VBS2, developed by Czech Republic-based Bohemia Interactive and customised for a growing number of military organisations around the world by Australia-based Bohemia Interactive Australia (BIA), breaks that mould by building on common PC technology to create a package that looks much like any other first-person shooter in a hardcore gamer's arsenal.

3D GAMES BUILT FOR REALISM

An earlier Bohemia Interactive 3D game built for extreme realism, Operation Flashpoint, originally designed for a commercial audience, caught the eye of staff at the Australian Army Simulation Wing. So, too, did later game Virtual BattleSpace (VBS). Soon, the Czech company joined forces with BIA, an Australian affiliate established with the sole purpose of adapting VBS for use by that country's military.

This involved a broad range of graphical modifications to the game's objects, such as developing 3D models of Australian military vehicles and weapons and putting appropriate patterns on the soldiers' clothes. Other improvements added further sophistication below the surface – adding, for example, a rules engine for more complex simulation and a stamina model so that soldiers get tired when they run for long distances.

"Some of the components were added at the request of various military organisations," says BIA business development manager Andrew Benke. "The intention of VBS was always to get as realistic as possible."

VIRTUAL COMBAT

Although many of the modifications involved changing the shape of equipment and the design of uniforms in the game, many of the changes were more than skin deep. Over the course of four years, BIA worked with the Australian Department of Defence to ensure that Virtual BattleSpace – a follow-on from Operation Flashpoint (a critically acclaimed tactical shooter and battlefield simulator) – was itself expanded to provide an unprecedented level of realism in the successor VBS2.

"Military training rooms that once would have housed
purpose-built, machine-based systems are now beginning to resemble internet cafes."

The results were warmly received by trainers within the Australian military, which used it, along with eSim Games' Steel Beasts tank simulator, within efforts such as the virtual immersive combat environment (VICE) project.

"The key for defence is getting value for money, while meeting the training need," says an Australian Department of Defence (DoD) spokesperson. "The Australian Army has found that properly employed gaming technology coupled with skilled instructors leads to excellent training outcomes being achieved, with soldiers well prepared for warlike, peacekeeping and population support operations alike."

Since then, military organisations in New Zealand, Canada, the US and Netherlands have also signed on for VBS2, working with BIA to develop comprehensive, accurate models reflecting particular defence forces. The UK MoD contract, announced in February, will soon see localised training simulators – including Challenger tanks and other UK-favoured armoury – rolled out across the armed forces.

FROM COTS TO MILITARY TROOP TRAINING

It may be the paradigm of the 3D shooter-turned military simulator but VBS2 isn't the only commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) game being adapted for military purposes. Graphically rich and realistically styled applications such as eSim Games' Steel Beasts tank simulator, HPS Simulations' Decisive Action and TacOpsCav 4 (available in a mass-market analogue called TacOps 4) are also increasingly being brought into everyday troop training.

Training rooms that once would have housed purpose-built, machine-based systems now resemble internet cafes, with up to 100 standard desktop PCs in a line and networked together to let trainees explore the boundaries of collaborative training scenarios. Importantly, VBS2 also allows instructors to participate in the virtual world, freezing the action to explain a point or inserting additional objects to add an element of unpredictability to the training.

"The word 'wargames' is taking on a completely new meaning for the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD)."

Given the familiarity of today's new soldiers with 3D shooter-style games, the similarity to a networked gaming lounge is more than casual. "Uptake of COTS simulation products within the Army has been assisted by the computer-literate nature of today's soldiers," says the Australian DoD spokesperson. "These soldiers are familiar with these products and are able to utilise the systems very quickly with a minimum of training."

MORE THAN JUST FUN AND GAMES

Soldiers' familiarity with COTS simulators may be delivering strong learning outcomes but it also introduces a range of issues for military trainers. Foremost among these is the issue of realism: while VBS2's $1,500-a-seat price tag isn't exactly cheap compared with mainstream games, it's far less expensive than previous alternatives that had to be built around custom-built graphics engines and simulator components.

While computers made in the last two years generally pack enough graphics and CPU power to run the game smoothly, there are inevitable compromises between the real world and the level of detail possible in the simulated one.

This is quite alright – as long as trainers know the products' limitations and work around them. Yet while COTS simulators may provide a quite realistic simulation in some environments, once soldiers start pushing the boundaries they will soon lose faith in the simulation if it starts to show its limitations in unexpected ways.

"We're complex people, and if you give smart people tools that on the face appear to be pretty clever – but have limitations underneath – they'll pretty quickly discover them," says Peter Cantwell, manager of the simulation group within global defence giant Tenix Aerospace & Defence.

"The key for defence is getting value for money, while meeting the training need."

"Their primary response is going to be 'how good does this look', but experienced users will look at cognitive issues, and how well it causes the end user to behave in a way that is representative of their behaviour in the real world. It's not just about writing cool software and being able to use the latest technologies; you really need to understand how you can go from a particular training need to a simulation."

In many cases, these training needs don't even involve weapons. Amongst the military bodies adopting VBS2, for example, scenarios have been developed to cover tasks as seemingly mundane as the proper way to take witches' hats out of a Humvee and position them when setting up a roadblock.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Naval and specific equipment simulations may focus more on the interaction between various systems than on the specific outcomes the trainees achieve. In these situations, the operation of a particular valve – and its relation to a switch on the other side of the virtual console – needs to reflect reality even when the specific processes underneath the dashboard may be classified.

For this reason, COTS simulators aren't likely to fully replace the traditional arsenal of purpose-built simulators – which are usually true-to-life models provided by defence contractors intimately familiar with the equipment's inner workings. But as computer and graphics processing power continues to increase, military organisations are looking for new ways to exploit the flexibility of modern computing platforms.

A natural offshoot of closed-network gaming, for example, will be the linking of military simulations in different locations into a unified virtual theatre of operations. An army simulator might, for example, link up with a separate team running a flight simulator in another location; the teams' respective machines would ideally show up to both groups within the same virtual world.

"The intention of VBS was always to get as realistic as possible."

Making this happen smoothly will require more than just good graphics. "I don't think computing power is an issue any longer," says Alan Johnson, chairman of the Simulation Industry Association of Australia, which hosted the NATO modelling and simulation group workshop on exploiting commercial games for military use at its recent SimTecT annual conference in Brisbane, Australia.

"The new challenge is getting sufficient bandwidth to network the simulators together and achieve the highest fidelity," he continues. "For online games like World of Warcraft it's fine [to have low-bandwidth connections] because you're only sending small packets of data here and there. But when you're trying to network up a cluster of simulators in a potentially shared airspace, bandwidth is an issue."

REALISTIC VIRTUAL REALITIES

In such situations, fidelity of virtual equipment models is equally important, since participants in a training simulation need to be confident that the objects in the games have been modelled realistically – and not tricked up to outperform their rivals' video-game style.

To this end, many companies experimenting with COTS-based military training have been working on more open specification standards for modelling the capabilities of the equipment – and landscapes – they're simulating.

"Virtual BatttleSpace was expanded to provide an unprecedented level of realism in the successor VBS2."

MultiGen-Paradigm's OpenFlight standard, for example, provides a common way of modelling the capabilities and performance of aircraft and terrain, allowing models to be loaded into any compliant application using a well-documented application programming interface.

That's a major improvement from the past, says Tony Landers, sales and marketing manager with defence contractor Thales Australia. "20 years ago forums and groups such as the Simulation Interoperability Standards Organisation were only just appearing," he explains.

"Their efforts have produced standards that enable investments made developing one simulator to deliver benefits in subsequent simulator applications, and to facilitate the use of simulation in collective applications.

"However, the challenges in readily reusing vast investments in things such as entity behaviour and doctrine, which are required to deliver effective results in military training, are yet to be solved. A large proportion of this investment has been within the military domain's very structured verification and validation process."

THE FUTURE OF MILITARY SIMULATORS

Another trend in adding reality to the simulators is bringing in third-party data sources, such as satellite imagery, to produce realistic terrain models of specific battle theatres.

"Using computer-based simulations in troop training is far from new."

Other development teams are exploring the possibilities posed by more open graphical engines, such as the open-source Delta 3D gaming and simulation engine. That platform's open design "means you can bring in a whole suite of functionality that ten years ago you would have been developing from scratch," says Tenix's Cantwell. "These tools are constantly leapfrogging each other in terms of functionality."

Landers isn't ready to write off conventional simulators just yet, but he sees COTS games as an important development that could significantly reshape the way large-scale military simulation is conducted.

"There will always be a requirement for high-fidelity [simulation] devices," he explains, "but one of the really exciting things I see in gaming is the community that you have around it – and, therefore, how quickly they can develop things. [For COTS games] it's not a technological challenge, but a programmatic and cultural challenge as to how you bring what's grown up in an almost anarchic kind of gaming development, into a very structured military environment. There is a lot of promise."