“Simulation isn’t new. It’s been around in some form for the best part of 100 years or so. But it’s endlessly fascinating.”
Andy Fawkes is the Editor of Military Simulation & Training (MS&T) magazine and was formerly Head of Simulation Policy for the MoD. He has also been chair of the NATO Modelling and Simulation Group.
Despite having worked in simulation at the highest levels for over 20 years, he says that there’s still plenty to learn and explore.
“Previously I was in the submarine world. You decide how deep the submarine will go and you calculate the pressure hull thickness and no one argues afterwards. But the whole area of humans, technology and simulation - there’s still so much of that we don’t fully understand.”
We caught up with Andy to get his take on the key trends shaping the future of military training.
The modern notion of wargaming was invented by the Prussian Army and then taken up recreationally by gamers. These days, things have largely switched around. The gaming industry is now the driving force of simulation innovation.
“Young and senior serving military see the need for innovation,” says Andy. “They see things like VR and they ask, ‘Why can’t we do that? Why can’t our training centres use that technology?’”
It’s no surprise that the military is interested in games like ARMA and Call of Duty. But there are less obvious sources of inspiration as well.
“Fortnite is an interesting one. It just took over the world. The way they were able to scale it up quickly using the cloud. The fact that it can support so many players at once. It’s cross-platform so you can play it across Xbox, PC, PlayStation and mobile. It’s not even a static game anymore, it’s something that’s constantly changing and evolving. And also, in Fornite's Party Royale there are social-only spaces where you can socialise with friends. They even hold concerts there.”
“A lot of these ideas are really interesting from a military perspective. You could create a persistent military world where people can go in at any time to find people to train with. There could be leaderboards, so that you could see who has the best performance for armoured vehicles, for instance. You could have your instructors join at certain times as well.”
Fortnite’s model of an evolving virtual map could also be used to create more realistic maps for training exercises.
“You could constantly update your virtual world so that it’s always up to date. Real-time maps are already available in various simulations and with Epic Games Unreal you will soon be able to easily pull in real world data such as CAD too and update your virtual world. That’s leading to a very interesting concept. A real-time digital twin of the world. Some people call it the ‘metaverse’.”
Wearable suits and sensors can help trainers to gather data but also provide feedback in real-time. Andy says that some militaries are already starting to use wearables for training and operations.
“The Dutch Army just released this belt which vibrates and tells soldiers to go left or right. That sounds pretty simple but it’s actually very useful for situational awareness if you’re in fog or the dark or heavy smoke.”
Some of the wearables that are now hitting the conference circuit have massive potential for the military.
“I went to a conference in 2019 and saw something really exciting. It’s called a Teslasuit, which is a haptic suit that you wear. It vibrates and gives you feedback but it also tracks your movements.”
The combination of tracking and feedback helps trainees to rehearse their movements in training exercises, but also provides feedback on operations.
“So you could practice what you had to do in the real world over and over again, which creates a digital twin inside a simulation as you’re doing it. Then when you do it for real, it gives you physical feedback based on your previous efforts. Like an instructor guiding you. I thought that was very interesting.”
COVID-19 has highlighted how important it is for teams to be able to work remotely - and that includes the military. Andy believes that the pandemic has driven home the need for people to be able to train from their barracks and from their homes, as opposed to solely at training centres.
“The US Army has spoken about training at the points of need for some time. Taking training to the barracks, not taking people to training.”
“We now have the pandemic, so these ideas are even more relevant. And the longer this goes on, the more the military will understand what they can do remotely and what they can’t do. There’s never been a better chance than this to evaluate what works and what does not.”
There are plenty of exciting innovations on the horizon for military training simulations. But embracing new ideas isn’t always easy, especially when you’re working within large organisations that are subject to a lot of process and regulation.
“You can’t change things haphazardly. It’s important to have a system of large defence contractors who can provide security of supply and meet demand. But then you also need to balance your desire for innovation against that security of supply. And that’s challenging.”
“Sometimes security of supply can take too much precedence. The same people can end up getting the contracts over and over again. So somehow the MoD has to find a way to encourage their long term contractors to bring in more innovation.”
With gaming technology constantly evolving, the military will have plenty of new ideas to play with over the next few years. But as Andy says, the real challenge won’t be identifying opportunities for innovation, it will be making them happen.
Thanks to Andy for making time to catch up.