Dipping a toe in the US Synthetic Training Environment

16 November 2017 (Last Updated November 17th, 2017 12:35)

In the last few years training grounds have become increasingly virtual but it’s only the beginning. A new Synthetic Training Environment, built to fuse the real world with the virtual world into one giant training platform, could change soldier training forever.

Dipping a toe in the US Synthetic Training Environment
The ‘mixed-reality environment’ of the training programme will link virtual and live elements to maximise realism. Credit: USC Institute for Creative Technologies.

“For the past seven decades, the US military has accepted a role similar to that of Rome’s legionary army, guaranteeing peace through training and discipline,” wrote General Robert W. Cone, former commander of the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). In ‘The Future Army; Preparation and Readiness’ he makes the point that military training and preparedness underscore our security today every bit as much as they did in Roman times.

What has changed, however, since Julius Caesar embarked on his Gallic Wars, is the means by which that is achieved. In the 21st Century, training has gone digital and the training grounds have become increasingly virtual, but that is only the beginning. Work is currently underway that will ultimately see America’s ‘legionnaires’ of the future achieving the highest levels of war-fighting readiness through the advanced technologies of the Synthetic Training Environment (STE).

STE is officially described as “a collective training environment that leverages the latest technology for optimised human performance within a multi-echelon, mixed-reality environment.” A collaborative effort between the US Army Research Laboratory, the University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies, the Combined Arms Center – Training and the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, at its core, it seeks to link live and virtual training to produce a comprehensive landscape of augmented reality (AR).

Ryan McAlinden, director for modelling, simulation and training at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies explains: “My best description of [AR] is technology that fuses the real world with the virtual world in a single interface/display.”

He says that it is most useful in cases where using the real, physical medium may be impossible, cost prohibitive, or simply unavailable. In this way, tactics and procedures that cannot easily be accommodated in a live training environment, or which call for hard-to-arrange access to supporting assets, can be practised, such as training a forward observer how to call in close-air attack, using a virtual plane instead of a real one.

Integrating existing training capabilities

The idea itself is not particularly new. The US Army already makes extensive use of simulation, the British Army has its Unit Based Virtual Training (UBVT) programme and many other of the world’s armed forces run broadly similar training regimes. According to McAlinden, what makes this approach different is that the focus of STE is on integrating the army’s existing training capabilities into one consolidated set of technologies and platforms.

“Currently the army has dozens of different training systems and simulators for a range of different purposes, from teaching dismounted operations to learning how to operate an M1 [rifle],” he says. “This effort is trying to consolidate training technologies and platforms into a manageable set of systems and capabilities that don’t require tens of millions of dollars to sustain, hundreds of contractors to manage, and proprietary technologies that the government does not own.”

The single open architecture envisioned for STE should also benefit other agencies and international allies, particularly at a time when security and defence co-operation is gaining ever greater importance. As Brigadier General Maria Gervais, deputy commanding general of the Combined Arms Center – Training, explained at last October’s Association of the US Army’s Annual Exposition, it is intended to “solve or mitigate some of our interoperability issues” and allow inter-organisational and multi-national partners to participate.

Replicating reality

Although the system has not yet been developed and only prototypes have been released, like many of its kind, the virtual reality world of STE does look a lot like ‘Call of Duty’ but McAlinden is quick to point out that the resemblance to commercial computer games is only skin deep.

“First-person shooters are driven by two very separate requirements – number one, making money and number two, entertaining people. What we are trying to do is teach and train folks how to accomplish a task, or set of tasks.”

Many of those tasks have a significant cognitive element, and consequently demand high levels of realism in the synthetic environment to replicate the real-life situation as closely as possible, something which is not so critical in the gaming world. McAlinden readily concedes that live training will never be replaced entirely, but argues that augmenting live training with compelling virtual experiences will allow for many more repetitions, and at lower cost. “It’s much cheaper to put someone through a Stryker virtual trainer than an actual one,” he says.

Wide-ranging benefits

McAlinden believes that the combined low cost, high repetition aspect is the primary benefit of this kind of training. By increasing the level of realism, and allowing collective tasks to be trained, involving combined units and different capabilities, equipment and assets, STE allows soldiers to be exposed to situations that they may find themselves in one day, and which would be hard if not impossible to replicate conventionally.

In addition, AR training missions can take place in parts of the world where troops might eventually be required to fight, without them actually setting foot on the ground, and be set at any time and in any weather. It also enables the army to keep up with changing operational realities, and eases the pressure on regular training facilities, allowing training to be delivered at the point of need, be that on base, at a combat training centre or on overseas deployment.

Another big plus for the STE is that it allows complex potential operational environments to be created and trained in, even if they do not currently exist. Over recent years, a large part of US military future planning has been dedicated to the possible problems of megacities – urban sprawls with populations of ten million or more. Today there are over 20 around the globe; the UN predicts that as soon as 2025, there will be nearer 40, and according to the US Agency for International Development, most of that expansion will occur in the developing world.

As the STE concept video makes very clear, at some time and probably not too far into the future, the Pentagon believes that US forces will be involved in fighting or policing operations in one of these huge and densely inhabited conurbations. In 2014, the Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies Group, examined their strategic importance and concluded that “they will generate most of the friction which compels future military intervention” and that US involvement would be “inevitable.”

There is a long-standing saying that armies are always ready to ‘fight the last war’; getting ready for tomorrow’s conflict, today, seems to make much more sense, even if the battleground on which it will be fought has not yet been built in the real world. The Romans would surely have approved.

The well-known Latin adage si vis pacem, para bellum (if you wish for peace, prepare for war) was born out of the writings of Vegetius in the late fourth century and even after all this time, seemingly little has changed. It looks like General Cone had a point.