Moving ahead in the virtual battlespace
‘Wargames’ have taken on a whole new meaning with the advent of realistic simulation technology, as the British army, like an increasing number of the world’s armed forces, has embraced the benefits of training on a virtual battlefield.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) Joint Combat Operations Virtual Environment (Op JCOVE) programme has, over a period of eight and a half years, already prepared more than 16,000 soldiers for overseas deployments and delivered significant savings in logistics and training costs. Now, with the award in January of a major contract to NSC – the training simulation consultancy behind Op JCOVE – British troops, both Regulars and Reserves, are to benefit from the arrival of the next-generation Unit Based Virtual Training (UBVT) capability.
UBVT may well be the successor to their previous programme, but as Steve Yates, NSC’s head of business development explains, there are some significant differences between the two.
“JCOVE was originally an urgent operational requirement programme for Afghanistan and as such there was an ‘ad-hoc’ element to the training delivery to support flexible and evolving requirements for operations. UBVT represents an evolution of the capability as it becomes a formally established army training system.”
Yates explains that the new programme involves a more structured approach with the objectives tracked and recorded in accordance with the established Land Collective Training objectives, and the technology has been significantly updated too. Using Bohemia Interactive Simulation (BISim) Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3) state-of-the-art, game-based software rather than previous VBS2, under the MoD’s Defence Virtual Simulation (DVS) programme, it also now includes representative in-vehicle/dismounted communications and emulated command, control, communications, computer and intelligence (C4I) capabilities.
More than a game
Back in 2013, when the British Army staged its then largest virtual battle simulation, involving 220 soldiers, it drew some inevitable comparisons with widely available first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty. However, as Yates points out, although the underlying technology used by UBVT is shared in common with commercial gaming, the delivery is fundamentally different.
“There are no zombie hoards waiting round the corner,” he says. “The delivery of exercise scenarios – we avoid use of the term ‘game’ – is properly structured and controlled by training experts, with specific scenarios being exercised to train troops in real-world tactics techniques and procedures.”
Everything within the virtual environment looks and behaves appropriately: troops wear the correct uniforms, vehicles look and handle like the real systems, weapon and ammunition effects are accurately reproduced, and buildings collapse to rubble authentically. Achieving that level of sophistication draws on some of the inbuilt features of the VBS3 simulation software.
“Our content library is created entirely from open-source data, gathered from various internet research,” says Pete Morrison, co-CEO of BISim. “In some cases, we have to make educated guesses or approximations regarding specific details. For example, we don’t have data on the exact ballistic trajectory for every single type of ammunition we simulate, so we often use a closest approximation for a given round based on the data we are able to find from public sources.”
Morrison says that customers can also configure the details, which is a particularly useful feature where there may be possible concerns over commercial confidentiality, export controls or national security. This kind of sensitive content can be controlled outside of the BISim content library and then loaded locally at run-time.
A collection of geo-typical terrains comes as standard and the system features bundled development tools, including the Visitor 4 small-terrain building tool and VBS3’s compatibility with TerraTools from BISim’s sister company TerraSim for larger and more complex terrains. High-fidelity environments can be modelled, too. It allows for actual locations to be faithfully reproduced, but Morrison says that this process calls for the right base data, the right tool and then some hard work and expertise.
“If a lot of detail is required, it is very important to optimise the terrain,” he warns, “because lots of detail equals lots of data to crunch which means a slower frame rate at run time.”
Cross domain training
It all adds up to an unparalleled training opportunity, with systems and even terrain which is familiar to the soldiers. Yates says that in many cases the virtual world is based on a real training area, allowing exercises already designed for the live domain to be conducted virtually.
“The use of virtual versions of live training areas increases [a] soldier’s familiarity with the system and the scenarios,” he says. “It is also possible to link the live and virtual training to provide ‘synthetic wrap’ with real troops on a live training area working as part of a larger scenario alongside troops in the virtual environment.”
That could make for a very complex simulation indeed. According to BISim’s Morrison, VBS3 can accommodate as many as 2,000 such AI participants, although in practice, Yates says that while UBVT capability is extremely flexible in the numbers that can take part, it is based around simulated exercises for between 30 and 110 soldiers.
It seems there are some major benefits to be had from virtual training. JCOVE was credited with significant savings in ammunition, vehicle track mileage and maintenance costs, but safeguarding the taxpayer’s money is certainly not the only advantage to be gained.
For one thing, it provides extraordinary flexibility, enabling a broad range of training objectives to be reached, and scenarios can also be adapted at short notice, often while running, to bring out particular points or unit-specific training needs. Then, Yates says, following completion an after action review will be conducted with training staff debriefing troops on what they did – or did not do – and promoting discussion about ways that outcomes could be improved.
Moreover, because the capability goes to the user rather than the other way round, the logistical burden is reduced, allowing soldiers to practice working together in a complex mission, without the need to travel to a live training area. Yates says that having soldiers practice the basics in a benign and cost-effective environment means that they get the most utility from their live training time later. It also enables tactics, techniques and procedures to be practiced that cannot be trained in the live environment, or that require access to certain supporting assets or equipment that is difficult to arrange, and allows troops to stop and rewind if necessary. Additionally, scenarios can be conducted in any weather, on any terrain, and at any time of day or night.
More to come
Simulation does have its limitations, of course, and as Morrison readily acknowledges, virtual training will never be able to replace live exercises entirely. However, he points to the systems that have already been developed and are beginning to give troops the ability to move through digital environments - and believes that there is more to come.
“Advances in VR hardware and augmented reality technologies for virtual training will mean virtual and live training are blended even more closely, allowing soldiers to train live in the field, while viewing virtual targets,” he says. “This is already happening in certain ground-based training [situations] and will surely increase in scope over the next few years.”