Building a Synthetic Warfighting World

A Marine infantry team practices tactical drills in a Future Immersive Training Environment Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration facility utilising Augmented Reality visors.

Many young soldiers have grown up with electronic gaming, but how can a military employ it across the spectrum of its fighting force with realism and in a combined arts virtual environment?

Military training is intended to develop the proficiency of the individual soldier in performing the tasks specific to their role in the unit. It also helps to bond the unit so that it can execute each missions that it is assigned.

The use of simulation and virtual reality has proved to be an effective tool for teaching soldier skills from weapons use and marksmanship, to crew gunnery, and driver training. However, these facilities are limited in number so rotating all soldiers regularly is nearly impossible without significant expansion, particularly in synthetic training systems.

A further limitation for current systems is their limitations in offering realistic unit training. It is long established that ‘drilling’, the practice of repeating a required individual or unit action again and again, is the best way to ingrain the response essential when faced by that situation in the heat of combat. The challenge is in providing the capability and opportunity to maximise the ability to conduct these integrations. In addition ideally it would be valuable to even offer alternate scenarios to further the scope of the exercises. Repetition and representation of the many uncertainties faced on the battlefield provide the soldier with an advanced familiarity of what will be faced in actual field operations, and will learn to anticipate how they should respond.


Currently initiatives are aimed at capitalising on the state-of-the-art in gaming, displays, networking, the internet, and other maturing technologies. The objects are to provide a more realistic, distributed, and adaptable medium to conduct both individual skill training and small unit exercises. An added objective is to investigate the use of the same equipment the soldier will use to accomplish this training. The thrust of these efforts is toward the use of Augmented Reality (AR). This is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information. Taken to its most immersive level it can include multiple senses, including visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), haptic (touch), and somatosensory (tactile information), although currently the focus is largely on the first and somewhat on the second.

Synthetic Training

The US Army has defined its effort as developing a Synthetic Training Environment (STE). The objective is to design a cognitive, collective, multi-echelon training and mission rehearsal capability for the operational, institutional and self-development training. According to the Army blueprint, “This effort intends to bring together the virtual, constructive and gaming training environments into a single STE for Army Active and Reserve Components as well as civilians. The Synthetic Training Environment will interact with and augment live training. The intent is for this training to be able to be conducted less at special facilities but rather by the unit itself at the point of need (PoN). Frank Ashe, a 30 year senior infantry non-commissioned officer and now capability manager for the Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Fort Benning, suggested “unit tactical combat effectiveness is a factor of being fully manned, stability of positions, and having adequate training as a unit. These are difficult to achieve.”

STE is comprised of a common One World Terrain (OWT), Training Simulation Software (TSS) Training Management Tools (TMT) and common user interfaces. OWT is a collection of digital terrain data covering areas of the world that can provide a common 3D simulation ‘story world’ within which on-site training can be conducted. With it a unit in Alaska could conduct ‘synthetic’ operations in a mid-eastern urban city. Darren Shavers, director for Business Development at Meggitt Training Systems, one of the contractors developing parts of the STE explained: “The objective is to structure a common system within which smooth conductivity is possible between training system components. The TSS, the STE’s “game engine”, uses open architecture and common application programming interfaces, or APIs, to deliver a centralised capability for representing and adjudicating each of the various simulation entities.” Finally the TMT provides an intuitive, easy to use application that’s accessible anywhere and anytime to create training scenarios. It will automatically retrieve and transforms data, automating the generation and population of simulation databases.

The ability to include the various weapons in addition to the infantry small arms in the STE ex-ercises is important in that it the allows soldiers to incorporate them and their specific capabilities and contribution to the unit mission.

Augmented Reality (AR)

AR is the medium through which the soldiers experience the training environment in real time. It essentially provides an interactive experience where objects in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information. The Army and Marines already fielded the Squad Advanced Marksmanship Trainer (SAM-T) that immerses users in a virtual environment that is projected all around them on large screens. However, the goal of STE is to allow the same experience in any environment.

To do so the US Army has selected Microsoft to build an Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) headset. It is based on its commercial HoloLens 2. According to a soldier that has used a prototype, “the headset visor displays 3D images, information, the wearer’s location, a compass heading and representations of other squad members also wearing headsets. The system shows a reticule for aiming a weapon, or one can the aim the weapon itself through the visor.” The IVAS offers both daylight and thermal viewing. The later is provided by a small thermal sensor developed by the firm FLIR which is mounted on the front of the system. The current configuration remains incompatible with the combat helmets so efforts are focused on reducing the size and refining its performance.

Although IVAS is still in development it has been trialled in the field by soldiers and Marines. A report on one exercise the participants particularly reflected on the training value and their use in tactical drills and mission rehearsals. Using the OWT or a customised scenario, the squad can practice in whatever environment or tactical situation it desires. The system allows for introducing specific situations, such as encountering non-combatants or responding to an ambush. In its training mode, IVAS projects simulated enemy ‘avatars’, much like commercial games that move, shoot, and react to ‘hits’ from the soldier’s weapon. The participants can rerun a game to fine-tune their skills and teamwork as well as play-back, review and critique each exercise and the actions of each member. The relatively self contained nature of this approach permits a number of exercises to be conducted over a given period.

IVAS, a head worn visor, is the heart of the squad level augmented reality training solution being developed for the US Army by Microsoft. It combines actual images with emplaced simulations while also linking members of the unit in close combat exercises.

The current focus is on the small dismounted combat unit, particularly on the squad and fire team. This equates to a maximum of nine to 13 soldiers although most efforts so far have been fire teams of four to six people. In addition, since as Ashe reflected, “at the squad the fight is still a line of sight affair”, and AR is well suited to represent their situations. Early soldier testing is providing ‘real-world’ feedback that is incorporated by Microsoft into the IVAS prototype evolution. In public statements Brigadier General Anthony Potts, Army Program Executive Office Soldier, stated that “the development team is listening to soldier criticisms and suggestions with requirements being changed based on their inputs.” For example, the original need for 900 metre range was viewed by soldiers as far greater than needed while the peripheral view was too narrow. As a result these were changed to 300m but with an 80 degree field of view. These prototype field demonstrations have been scheduled throughout the development process and have been important in defining

The STE is viewed as a dynamic tool that will incorporate additional capabilities and expand the repertoire of contributors to the battlefield. Meggitt’s Shaver indicated that “the company has a contract to determine how to incorporate the soldier’s actual weapons into the STE. Ideally this could include marksmanship.” In November 2019 Raytheon unveiled an immersive Synthetic Training Environment Soldier Virtual Trainer (STE SVT). Harry Buhl, lead investigator, Synthetic Training Environment at Raytheon explained that it uses virtual reality to train dismounted rifle squads in multiple scenarios while using their service weapons. The trainers can be powered by a headset and a laptop and being cloud enabled are accessible where ever needed.”

Combined Arms

Another important consideration is reflecting the application, contribution and target effect of non-kinetic weapons which include exploding ordnance and indirect fires. In particular the need is to incorporate short range (counter defilade) like the 40mm launched grenade and indirect fires like mortars and artillery as well as direct fires of weapons like the Carl Gustav and even guns on main battle tanks (MBTs) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). The adage that an army needs to train as it intends to fight is well established. The corollary that soldiers will fight as they were trained may be more critical. Especially in the stress of combat soldiers will revert to what they are familiar with. Therefore it is important that the capabilities of the many weapons that support the squad be represented in the STE.

The US Army is pursing reconfigurable collective trainers as a partial solution to providing this. It has been assessing prototypes for aircraft, armoured vehicles and infantry weapons systems trainers. A Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer-Ground (RVCT-G), is being evaluated at Fort Riley for M2 Bradley and Stryker crews. Other RVCTs are being trialled for other infantry weapons like the M3 Carl Gustav. Trainers linking to the STE are also being provided for helicopters. Kyle Zick, director of business development at Bugeye Technologies, shared that they “have provided mixed reality rotorcraft reconfigurable cockpit systems, man-in-the loop Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), as well as virtual reality door gunner trainers.”

Two essential pieces of the STE are the TSS and TMT. When combined with One World Terrain they form the STE’s Common Synthetic Environment (CSE). It is the CSE that enables the RVCTs, the Soldier Squad Virtual Trainer and the IVAS to work together. VT MAK, a subsidiary of the Singapore company ST Engineering, is providing these pieces. Dan Brockway, vice president of Marketing and Information Systems in a VT MAK release explained: “MAK CSE solution ‘VR-Forces’ is based on the MAK Suite of simulation software. It provides a unified simulation engine for both computer generated forces and player-controlled entities. Components use the VR-Vantage visualisation engine for 3D rendering, 2D tactical maps and ensure consistent displays throughout the system. In addition, we use the common MAK Earth terrain engine to import, load, or stream whole-earth terrain data from VR-TheWorld Server, which acts as the interface to STE’s One World Terrain dataset. The MAK CSE will be deployed on-premise and in the cloud to support training at the point of need.” Raytheon’s Buhl further suggested that “a critical piece of STE will be how all these components are integrated. This challenge is complicated by the need to assure the actual model of equipment employed by the unit training is actually represented. Given the diversity of some equipment issues issued to different units this is a valid concern that will need to be accommodated”.

Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainers (RVCT) are a further component of the STE. These represent other ground and air combat systems which are linked into the common OWT. Here the helicopter door gunner trainer shows the simulated out-the-window scene in both the HMD.

STE Status and Promise

Three Army divisions and 24 Marine Corps battalions, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, as well as a number of US Special Forces have already begun using the One World Terrain capability. Major General Maria Gervais, director of the Synthetic Training Environment Cross Functional Team has suggested that other elements of the STE could be arriving at selected bases as early as 2021. However, the target for initial full operational capability is 2023.

STE is ambitious in that it seeks to provide an integrated common training in a form that provides the ability to apply the historically proved principle that military training should prepare the soldier and unit for combat by exposing them to the realities likely to be encountered. It should then provide the means for them to practice their appropriate response and to be able to perfect those responses so that they are ingrained and second nature. STE seeks to capitalise on state of the art technology to achieve this.

by Stephen W. Miller