Technology is helping to better train soldiers, as the military incorporates gaming and entertainment software into increasingly sophisticated battle simulations.
How do soldiers “practice” for war? The classic picture of military training consists of heavy drills and grueling tests of endurance, as well as field exercises. But powerful, highly realistic simulation technology is drawing increasingly on gaming and entertainment software, mocking up intense, highly realistic war scenarios for soldier training and likely changing the nature of warfare itself.
Simulation was once the fever dream of sci-fi authors and “Star Trek” fans longing for real-life holodecks, but the technology has been employed and developed in military training for some time now, providing a less dangerous and less expensive alternative to field training on real equipment, which often leads to serious accidents and damage.
Serious integration of battle simulation into military training ramped after the Gulf War, according to The Economist. The Gulf War’s so-called Battle of 73 Easting, named after geolocation coordinates of the fight, found a small U.S. scout unit triumphing over a larger Iraqi force in the desert it stumbled upon in 1991.
Though outnumbered, the U.S. destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 armored vehicles and 39 trucks without suffering one U.S. casualty. The battle is considered a seminal example of U.S. military tactical maneuvering, and the Department of Defense wanted to create a digital training model of the battle for its soldiers.
The demo the DoD created was highly touted in D.C. during the 90s and sparked off “heavy-duty funding” for combat simulators, according to Timothy Lenoir of Duke University to the Economist. The influx of funding created highly sophisticated simulation software with a powerful attention to detail that can train soldiers in both the tactical strategy of battles, as well as war’s often overwhelming sensory overload and unique psychological pressures.
Sophisticated simulations can mimic conditions that ramp up trainees’ stress and duress under attack by increasing the frequency and intensity of problems faced in the virtual battle. Communications in these scenarios can be delayed or garbled, virtual enemies can switch to deadlier weapons and numbers of enemies can swell, for example.
Experimenting with variables in a battle simulation not only trains the soldiers on the ground but allows commanders to decide what strategies work best on the field. Because simulated battles run on software, commanders can see different points of view in the battle and name points of weakness and improvements in various strategies. Those strategies could play out in game-like scenarios, letting them swap in and out various factors — type of weapons, choice of armor, number of vehicles — and testing for different outcomes.
The result is a better-trained, better-prepared battle force — as well as a lucrative sector of technology that is still growing with powerful influences from the gaming and entertainment world.
New Influences: Gaming and Entertainment Tech
Though simulations cost much less than real-life training and are far less dangerous, the software and equipment is still expensive — and highly profitable for companies that specialize in it.
Paris-based Antycip Simulation, for example, makes simulation software ranging from control-room training laptops to training “pods” of visually immersive studios for foot soldiers. The company raked in $15 million in 2011 by selling its software and equipment to over 15 governments in Africa, Europe and North America, and its sales continue to rise. In the U.S., military contractor Lockheed Martin sold two F-16 fighter-jet simulators for $24.5 million to the government.
The expense of simulation software and equipment continues to rise, which could give an opening for gaming and entertainment companies who use similar technologies. Marietta, Ga.-based Motion Reality developed technology used to animate movies like “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and recently built a mixed-reality fight simulator called VIRTSIM in collaboration with defense contractor Raytheon.
With the VIRTSIM, trainees wear high-res 3D-capable goggles that deliver images wirelessly to the users’ field of vision. In a basketball-sized area, trainees can interact with real objects as well as computer-generated enemies and locations, registering real shocks and pains when shot or hit through electrodes attached to their skin. The FBI began the VIRTSIM in January, and a Middle Eastern country is also using the simulator.
Movie technology is finding a way into military simulations, but gaming software is also making inroads into the sector as well. Gaming company Epic is licensing its Unreal gaming engine, which rendered games like “Mass Effect” and “Infinity Blade,” to Virtual Heroes, an interaction learning simulation company in Raleigh, N.C., as part of the Unreal Government Network.
Through the agreement, the U.S. government will use the technology to help train various units and agencies in the U.S., including military units and the FBI, which will create a multiplayer crime scene simulator to train its cadets, according to GameSpot. Additionally, a top defense contractor and a national lab will use Epic’s engine to render custom visualizations.
The Army will also use Epic’s technology through a collaboration with Virtual Heroes and Duke University to create a training simulation for military physicians, proving the tech can find a place outside the battlefield.
Gaming software is increasingly important to the military, according to Col. Robert White, deputy commander of the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center-Training.
“Every leader struggles with limited time, dollars and resources,” said White at an Army conference in March. “Those same leaders know it’s better to practice something first before you do it for real in live training. Live training is where our highest risk and greatest expense comes from.”
Using gaming engines to create high-level sims, however, lowers the cost of creating virtual training environments, and the software’s sophistication allows each recruit to be trained in valuable situational and decision-making scenarios multiple times — without undue expense or loss of life.
“Gaming already has changed the way the Army trains and educates — changed it for the better,” White said.
Out on the Battlefield
Gaming and entertainment software is transforming military training and will likely lead to better-trained armed forces, but the technology itself will also find its way to the battlefield. According to Bruno de Roodenbeke, a former French army general who now advises French simulation firm MASA Group, simulation software is now being used in combat.
In some battles, commanders can use simulation technology to test out various strategies and scenarios before sending orders to ground troops on the field, says Roodenbeke. The ability to make mistakes and take risks virtually, without loss of life, will likely profoundly transform the conduct of war itself, potentially reducing casualties on the battlefield.
Blurring the lines between gaming, entertainment and the military in technology, of course, points to larger philosophical debates on how the “gamification” of war will impact the perception of violence and killing in the name of national interest. Some believe the trend will distort how the public sees warfare, while others believe it won’t desensitize the “players” of the game to the violence they are inflicting.
The debate reopened recently with revelations that Norway mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik used the game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2″ for target practice. Breivik eventually killed 77 people in a shooting spree last summer.
The relationship between technology and its effects on violence will likely always be debated. But war remains a fact of life and a persistent reality in nearly every part of the world, and evolving technology could confer a strong strategic and tactical advantage in an endgame that must always have a victor.