At the recent Defence iQ Future Training and Simulation for Military and Security event, Doug Livermore, a US Special Forces officer and contracted advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, discussed the burgeoning world of virtual military training exercises and the effects they could have on everything from expenses to geopolitics.

Since 11 September 2001, US war doctrine has been focused on fighting terror through asymmetric warfare. That view has now shifted, with the US Department of Defence (DoD) increasingly focusing on what it calls near-peer conflict. With the rise of China and Russia as more dominant forces in the global sphere, the need for a more measured approach to training has become apparent.

Livermore cited the threats of miscommunication and what he calls “spoilers” – when smaller nations with sizable military might, such as Iran and North Korea, can see how enemy forces operate and the equipment they use during exercises – as prime arguments for the more restrained use of training exercises. The virtual sphere, he argued, can step in to ease tensions.

Tailoring military training to new threats

In a world where we are assessing whether Iran shooting down a drone in the Strait of Hormuz constitutes an act of war, the threat of military training destabilising a region is increasingly apparent. This has been seen in the past with the joint US and South Korean military exercise Foal Eagle increasing tensions on the already volatile peninsula. It has also played out with massive NATO wargames in Scandinavia in response to Russian exercises.

There are a myriad of benefits to virtual training, one of which is safety. Livermore mentioned a CNN study which makes this point strikingly clear.

“Between 2006 and 2018 31.9% of all US military deaths occurred during training, whereas only 16.3% occurred were due to combat,” he said, adding that with virtual training this number would be significantly lower. By not exposing soldiers to live-fire exercises and other training activity, the risk of a soldier dying while being taught to use equipment would drop significantly.

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Another issue Livermore focused on is minimising the risk of “strategic miscalculation and escalation” – the use of military exercises being perceived as a threat by other nations located near the training arena. Given the geopolitical tensions already bubbling in various parts of the world, Livermore argued that any way to reduce tensions is a benefit, adding that exercise Foal Eagle almost always culminates with the threat of wiping South Korea and the US Forces stationed there off the map.

The most obvious benefit of virtual training is its cost-effectiveness. Livermore explained that by conducting training virtually militaries would no longer have to expend a vast amount of ordinance, move a vast amount of vehicles and an even vaster amount of troops to train them all the while increasingly stringent regulations cut down the list of places armed forces can train. He cited Germany as an example of how the impact on the civilian population has become a limiting factor in how often and where its armed forces can train.

In a virtual environment, if deployed properly, troops can train from anywhere, cutting down the logistical requirements that comes with organising these exercises.

Virtual training pros and cons: finding balance

However, despite its benefits, virtual training is not a complete substitute for live training, according to Livermore. “Even if something is taught virtually, militaries must ensure troops are tested in a real-world environment,” he said. “This is where the need for balance comes in. While virtual training is absolutely important… it cannot replace certain aspects of real-world training.”

One major drawback of shifting to purely virtual training would be diminishing military personnel’s confidence in the use of equipment. Livermore warned that it is important to get this balance right early, before armed forces are faced with a crisis.

Another downside of virtual training is that it cannot encapsulate “friction points” that the training could cause and would not teach how other forces would respond to training exercises. However, the ability to repeat and reload scenarios with different variables allows troops to learn how to respond to more threats and play out different tactical scenarios so they are always ready for what they may encounter in a combat theatre.

Hard-tactical training, such as the employment of air and land assets including close-air support, tanks and mortars, can be achieved with much greater ease in a virtual setting and no expenditure of munitions.

The cyber dimension and beyond

Another place virtual training can shine is cybersecurity. Currently, when training with cyber-weapons in a live environment, there is an ever-present threat of exposure and the malware employed being discovered. This happened in 2010 when the US used Stuxnet – a worm that exploits faults in Windows – to destroy Iranian centrifuge capabilities. However, in doing so the US revealed the capabilities of the malware and diminished the possibility of its successful use in future.

By using a virtual environment cyber weaponry could be tested in an environment free from the threat of exposure, allowing the weapons capabilities to be fully tested and explore safely.

This concealment aspect also relates to more conventional warfare. Military exercises are essential for training troops but they also are highly visible, revealing a country’s equipment, strategies, and logistics capabilities.

This all comes back to Livermore’s final point and the idea of balance: when applied correctly militaries can reap all the benefits of virtual training in terms of cost, convenience and safety while allowing for exercises to take a greater foothold in geopolitical strategy. Real-world exercises are still essential and the primary way to flex muscle on the world stage, but the future of military training certainly lies in finding the right balance of live and virtual elements.