There is new vigor to an old campaign of integrating simulations into Army training. And why not? Simulations can allow soldiers and units to maximize field training by achieving learning goals beforehand. Soldiers can get the repetitions needed to master critical tasks, reduce the stress of unpreparedness and explore environments not readily available to them. But while simulations offer these and other benefits, there are reasons to doubt whether they can be all Army leaders hope they will be.
Many simulations are major enablers to Army training. Flight simulator hours are required for pilots. Training on tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicle simulators is required before gunnery exercises. And rifle simulators are often a key part of individual weapons qualification. The contribution to individual and unit readiness, improved training outcomes, a natural fit with traditional crawl-walk-run approaches to training—the benefit of simulations, whether for Apache helicopter aviators or infantry soldiers, is clear. So it’s equally clear to see why there are new calls to expand simulations into a wider range of Army training programs.
The desire for simulations goes to the highest levels. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has said he wants infantry soldiers to fight “25 bloodless battles” before they ever face real life-or-death combat.
How can we produce those battles? Simulations. That’s why the recently released Army Vision emphasizes supplementing training with simulations: “Training will require rapid expansion of our synthetic training environments and deeper distribution of simulations capabilities down to the company level to significantly enhance Soldier and team lethality.”
There is also a strong and compelling case in favor of simulations based on an argument that the operating environment is becoming increasingly complex. Convergence of domains complicates the battlespace. Technological change speeds the pace at which decisions must be made and actions executed. U.S. soldiers will operate without the assurance of air supremacy, and surrounded by a contested electromagnetic spectrum, cyber domain and information dimension. Demographic trends make the possibility of cities becoming battlefields more and more likely, and the challenges posed by dense urban terrain are unique and substantial.
That’s why the Army wants simulations to support large urban-area training. Given that soldiers will find themselves challenged by all these factors to complete even the most basic tasks—shoot, move and communicate—it’s no surprise Army leaders would embrace simulations as an attractive means to prepare soldiers for future conflicts and operating environments.
So what are the biggest barriers keeping the Army from effectively introducing simulators into every unit to train a host of individual and collective tasks? Is it a matter of money? That is perhaps part of the issue. But the larger part is a function of assumptions we make about the value of simulation-based training. In conjunction with more investment, the Army needs more research into some of these baseline assumptions about the use of simulated environments to identify what military tasks can be improved through the use of simulations. Will they improve training? What will they improve? Are they right for all soldiers?
Recently, researchers at West Point’s Modern War Institute conducted an experiment to test the simple assumption that tech-savvy, entry-level soldiers could easily use technology to increase performance while executing military tasks. They reorganized a training lane in which cadets were asked to conduct a platoon-sized raid. Roughly 1,000 cadets took part in the lane. Platoons were given the ability to hack into security cameras in the target village. They were equipped with a “cyber capability rifle” that allowed them to disable an enemy drone.
For the purposes of the experiment, half the platoons that cycled through the lane were given traditional overhead imagery of the target, while the other half were given virtual-reality goggles preloaded with imagery of the site obtained by a notional “source” inside the village. The platoons in this latter group were thus able to “walk the target,” theoretically eliminating the need to conduct a traditional leader’s reconnaissance and giving them better and more accurate spatial knowledge of the village’s layout.
The results were surprising. The cadets grew up surrounded by technology, part of a generation raised with first-person shooter games and Google Maps always available at the tap of a smartphone screen. But when presented with the virtual-reality goggles and preloaded imagery, many simply rejected these tools. They were too cognitively overloaded to make effective use of the simulated environment. Presented with a simpler means of getting vital intelligence data (the objective task) to support their tactical plan of attack, they discarded the new tool.
What does the institute’s research tell us about the future role of simulations in Army training? Mainly this: Every assumption must be tested. The expectation that young soldiers otherwise comfortable with technology would adopt technological tools in training environments is not an unnatural one, and neither are many of the others on which the success of simulation-based training will rest. Army leaders sometimes envision simulations without knowing if there has been research to show skill improvement can be achieved by using them. They just know they want more of them. We must resist this impulse. The best first-person shooter game might feel realistic and learning might be achieved, but little research exists to show what specific military skills are being developed or their effectiveness to the overall training curriculum.
This is not to say simulations don’t hold immense value. Aviators’ use of flight simulators, simulated gunnery exercises and repetitions on simulated rifle ranges are proven to have recognized training benefits. There are also many in experimentation that could yield equally promising results, such as creating simulated environments for soldier education. Simulations are used to conduct virtual staff rides of battlefields where soldiers can learn the effects of terrain on military operations, visualize the range of weapon systems and study the decisions of soldiers who fought the battle—all without the time, expense or difficulty of traveling to Gettysburg, Pa.; Bastogne, Belgium; or Mosul, Iraq. But even here, the effectiveness of these types of simulation-supported exercises in achieving learning goals is heavily contingent on the knowledge and expertise of the instructor. There are few “plug-and-play” simulations with researched and recognized learning value.
The Army clearly plans to continue to invest in simulations. And it should. But along with the necessary funding of technology and simulations platforms, it should also invest equally, if not more, into research that will enable units to make the most effective use of simulations to meet their training requirements.