Modern warfare is sometimes compared to a video game, but within ten years combat training may become the most realistic video game imaginable. The US Army’s Future Holistic Training Environment Live Synthetic program is a new approach to combat training that integrates various simulations into a single, remotely accessible system. Used on bases across the country, its goal is to provide the Pentagon with a cheaper, more effective way of training soldiers for future military operations.

The year is 2025 and you see a field full of infantry running about, shouting at one another, ducking at nothing,and generally looking like a load of overgrown children at play in a peaceful meadow. But to the soldiers, thanks to special goggles, earphones, and other technology, it’s a full-blown firefight of exploding mortars, the smell of cordite, the scream of shells, and the roar for jets blasting overhead in a haze of smoke. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the pilots of those planes sit in a room where the battle is just as realistic, as do the officers commanding the battle from their control center.

Is this some elaborate new immersive computer game? In a way, but it’s a game with a deadly purpose, which is to train soldiers for the wars of the future.

Many people think that they main purpose of the armed forces is to fight wars, but ask a soldier and you’ll probably be told that it’s to train, and train, and train some more. In fact, the main reason why major military powers like the United States do so well in the field isn’t their array of weapons, but the fact that men and women are relentlessly trained in using them and all the other combat and logistical systems. You can have the finest military technology in the world, but if the people operating them aren't properly trained, you might as well be throwing rocks.

Training goes back to the Greeks and the Romans, with the latter striving to make drills into bloodless wars and wars in to bloody drills. It’s been around ever since armies started practicing instead of just showing up on the day. For centuries, soldiers would drill with weighted dummy weapons against opponents made of wood and canvas. In the past two hundred years, drills have become more and more elaborate with flight simulators, mock command bridges, and even whole towns set up complete with actors to help train troops.

With the US involvement in Afghanistan winding down, training becomes more important than ever if skills are to be retained. The problem is how to make training realistic, cost effective, and just plain effective. Training is never completely safe. It can even be as dangerous as actual combat, such as during the training for the D-day landings in 1944 that saw hundreds dead when things went pear shaped. It’s also expensive. Running a tank or a jet or a submarine costs a staggering amount of money, and its often hard for civilians to understand why so much has to be spent so a battalion can run up and down a mountainside.

Four pieces of the puzzle

Future Holistic Training Environment Live Synthetic works by taking the four main areas of simulation training and turning them into one system. The US Army refers to the first of these as Live simulation (LS), which is defined as real people operating real systems in the field. It’s basically good, old-fashioned training. It’s the sort of thing you see when Marines rush ashore in a training exercise carrying assault rifles that fire harmless lasers and wear vests that tell referees how many times they've been hit.

This form of simulation has advanced to the point where US marines at camp Pendleton use computer generated images of people or animals and the hope is that in the future this will expand to soldiers in augmented reality glasses and earpieces to provide sound.

The second form of simulation is virtual simulation (VS). This is real people operating simulated systems. "Like your child driving the racing car at the video arcade,” says Col. John Janiszewski, director of the National Simulation Center (NSC), US Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansasi. “The child believes he's in a real vehicle with steering, gas, brakes and a display." It’s basically flight simulators, tank simulators, and similar set-ups like something out of any incredibly upmarket games arcade.

According to the Army, this hasn't really changed that much in recent years and the real need is to integrate these simulators into other systems.

Then there’s constructive simulation (CS), which is simulated people and equipment operating in a simulated environment. This is a bit like those strategy games where you move people and other assets around on a digital map as you try to build castles or conquer Europe. As these have grown more sophisticated, they’ve become a major component of military training, especially at the officer level for dealing with large-scale operations.

The newest area and one of the fastest advancing is gaming simulation (GS), which is similar to CS, but where the simulated world looks real to the participant, like in a game of Halo or Call of Duty. It’s so new that the Army still hasn’t worked it into the Live, Virtual, Constructive-Integrative Architecture (LVC-IA) acronym. GS has the advantage of being much more realistic, intuitive, and engaging than other simulators, and it can operate using conventional computers rather than specialized equipment.

The advantages of such simulations are that they are much safer than training under live fire and much cheaper. According to the Army, it costs US$3,500 to operate an attack helicopter for one hour, while a simulation only costs $500. Furthermore, simulations are more readily available and open up the possibility of even simulated instructors or robots being available in the future. So instead of bringing the soldiers to the simulators, it may be possible to bring the simulation to the soldiers.

Bringing it all together

The tricky thing about these simulations is that they’re currently designed to operate independently of one another. In other words, the pilot in a flight simulator gets his training without interacting with a soldier training in a simulated attack exercise on the ground. The US army hopes to change this with Future Holistic Training Environment Live Synthetic. As outlined by Janiszewski in a report by the Army News Service, the plan is to create a “live synthetic” system that fuses the main areas of simulation into one whole that will allow the participants to be scattered across various centers, yet still be able to fully participate in training exercises in real time.

Toward that end, the NSC is discussing the problems faced in creating such a system with industry experts and academics. The system in its development stages is currently being tested at Fort Hood, Texas and is being rolled out to other bases as development proceeds, with 15 more bases on the delivery list. According to the Army, this is still a long way from “live fusion,” but it is setting the basis for its eventual operation.The plan is to define the requirements for live synthetic by next year with field trials by 2022 and full deployment by 2025.

Source: US Army