Appearing in Financial Review, Defence feature, 22 June 2017
Game-based computer simulations have become a key element in the training of ADF personnel, underpinning the high performance of troops in the field. There are Battle Simulation Centres in the military bases in Darwin, Townsville, Brisbane, Adelaide and Puckapunyal, and across the branches of the ADF. There is also the Australian Defence College Simulation Centre which provides simulation services and advice on soldier and officer training, and the government recently committed $500 million to fund a major simulation facility in Adelaide to ensure that the ADF’s electronic warfare systems are capable of standing up to modern threats.
“The ADF is in the top tier of military services around the world in the use of computer simulations,” says Pete Morrison, co-CEO of Bohemia Interactive Simulations, a global supplier of software training packages. “The Australian Army was one of the first to grasp the value of this technology and is seen as one of the most innovative in its use and development.”
Training simulations can represent the actual terrain of a combat theatre, such as a plain in Afghanistan or a town in Iraq, and can provide a remarkably realistic combat experience. They can operate at the individual level or commander level, with a range of conditions and limitations.
But Morrison emphasises that the point of theatre simulations is not to re-create reality in every detail.
“It’s a model, an approximation,” he says. “The aim is to give as much information as is necessary to make the training effective. Yes, you can keep adding more and more detail, but that requires more computer power, and we want packages that are not only simple to use but can be loaded onto laptop computers and even phones.”
Morrison points out that Bohemia grew out of the gaming sector, starting with a successful game called Operation Flashpoint. One part of the company still makes games but it was the development of a package called the Virtual Battle Space simulator that moved it into the military training field. ADF personnel have used the VBS simulator since 2005, when VBS1 was used to train soldiers deploying to Iraq.
The package is now in its third generation, and in the ADF it runs on over a thousand desktop computers as well as many other devices. The VBS package, however, is a long way from a shoot-‘em-up video game.
“What it is really about is teaching cognitive thinking,” Morrison says. “It is a way to test tactics and techniques in a risk-free environment. With so much terrain data available – effectively, the whole planet – it allows for detailed scenario training and mission rehearsal.”
Although VBS3 is meant as a model of reality, much greater realism is required in areas such as flight simulators. These need a high level of detail in the immediate environment of the cockpit as well as what the pilot sees when he or she looks ‘outside’. This requires more computing power, although new developments in the technology are allowing a move away from room-like simulators towards desktop options.
Morrison sees a generational difference in attitudes toward training simulations. Younger people, who have grown up with screen-based technology, grasp it very quickly. Older people sometimes find it difficult, often expecting it to be more realistic. But practice with the packages usually helps to bring people up to the required level.
The simulation package starts in a generic form and is then tailored to the needs of each client or situation. Aside from packages like VBS3, there are packages designed for specific task training. One of the packages considered to be most successful for the ADF is an immersive trainer for helicopter loadmasters, called Aircrewman Virtual Reality Simulators.
Integrating virtual reality into simulations is seen as a crucial path forward. It is already happening in flight training and vehicle training, to the degree that tank simulators can create images of ‘enemies’ through the gunsight.
But Morrison is aware of the current limitations of simulations.
“You can build any sort of training environment, from a foot patrol to a tank battle,” he says. “But those operations are only one part of the modern combat theatre. They won’t help you much with personal relations, such as winning the hearts and minds of a group of villagers. So we see that aspect of interactivity as a new frontier for us.
“To date, the anecdotal feedback we have received from people who have trained with simulations and then gone into the field has been positive. We see this technology as a highly valuable tool for people who are, in the end, putting their lives on the line. It’s the difference between going in prepared and going in not really knowing what to expect.”