Home Defence, Training & Simulation Why everyone should be talking about Fight Club UK

Why everyone should be talking about Fight Club UK

Don't let the name fool you. UK Fight Club is not some sad spectacle allowing bored middle-aged men the excuse to knock each other's teeth out; it's a uniquely serious "wargaming experimentation group" that aims to dispel the notion of simulation being secondary to "real world" training.

UK Fight Club

Started by a group of soldiers and officers from across the UK military, UK Fight Club is a project that aims to make simulation training more accessible to all sectors of the armed forces. There is no ranking system. It doesn't matter whether you're Navy, Army, RAF, a UK civil servant or even a politician, everyone is equal and there's no obvious agenda.

The genesis for the idea came to US army strategist Arnel David when he realised a lot of the higher-ups in the military were unaware of what was possible in the modern gaming and simulation space. So, he put together a small team and set about creating a platform that would reveal just how disruptive simulation tech could and should be when it comes to military training.

The Fight Club story

Arnel decided to switch careers after 12 years in special operations to become an army strategist. His first job in his new role was to act as an advisor to the Chief of General Staff of the British Army - General Sir Mark Carlton Smith.

He explains: "We were working on an Army Operating Concept to change the way the British Army organises and fights. That meant theorising about all the new technologies, potential enemies, and all the other wide range of things the British Army has to do."

The concept team assembled to start a wargame, but it didn't quite develop in the way they had hoped. Arnel, who was involved in this game as a participant, noticed their ideas were insufficiently tested. He explains: "There was a genuine lack of technology to help. It wasn't real wargaming, It was a bunch of opinions being thrown around from a bunch of people who all had their preconceived agendas about what war should look like."

The solution was to double down on the technologies Arnel had been exposed to as part of the US Army and bring the concept of high-quality wargaming and simulations into the spotlight. Hence, UK Fight Club was born.

Facilitating organisational cultural change

As there is no definitive hierarchy at UK Fight Club and no agenda, everyone involved can focus solely on delivering meaningful output, games and technologies without the fear of overstepping boundaries.

Indeed, Arnel was quite confident there should be no boundaries. The idea was not only to modify existing games to suit simulation needs, but also to develop new prototypes with an ever-growing network of military personnel. That they could do this in a pressure-free environment was key.

It started small, with an idea that a team of "maybe 10 to 12 people would gather in the officer's mess," according to Arnel. "We bought some war games and started messing around with them until we got them to a point we were happy with." They were frustrated with the lack of innovation coming out of government labs and Fight Club was arguably born out of that frustration. It was also born around the time the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.

He explains: "When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we were just starting to set up but we were unable to physically assemble. So we had to do it online. It was a grassroots thing really. I put a couple of posters and flyers in the mess hall and 60 people right away said they wanted to get involved and that gave me the confidence to go to the generals and ask for more funding. Back then we didn't even have a website. It was just word of mouth."

Combat Mission: Shock Force 2

They started with games such as Combat Mission: Shock Force 2, which was able to bring the world of wargaming out of the 2D icon-based world so many were used to. It also helped that the pandemic meant people had more time on their hands, of course. "It blew up," Arnel says "because people had the time to play games and this was so much more productive than watching Netflix. Because these were not just games, they were tools to help you get better at your job."

They found their audience pretty quickly and within months there were personnel from 18 different countries taking part. Arnel continues: "In just over a year we've produced a number of prototypes and created so many new platforms. The growth has been exponential. So now we're setting up Fight Club as an international entity but we want to maintain the culture and the spirit of the original idea - to change the organisational culture within government and defence to appreciate wargaming."

Developing individuals in new ways

The great thing about wargaming and the UK Fight Club ethos is that it doesn't discriminate. As a case in point, Arnel mentions a junior soldier in the British Army who is on the autistic spectrum. He worked as their 'go-to' admin officer and became an invaluable asset for the team.

"He's been absolutely crucial in helping the group grow," Arnel says, "because of his passion and ability to manage all of the memberships, which is at about 1300 on the UK Fight Club side alone right now." It feeds into the idea that "we can develop ourselves in organisations simply by better integrating different tools."

Existing training programmes are still ongoing, of course, and UKFC isn't competing with those. What they are doing, however, is giving people - all elements of the military, plus civilians and academics - a new way to learn. They are supplemental programmes that could take decades to come to fruition with tools that allow so many different people from all kinds of backgrounds to connect with one another and learn through experience.

"That experience," Arnel says: "is making these guys and girls ultra-smart when it comes to all the different systems and platforms we use in the military. And they actually want to learn. They're competitive too and that's making them learn faster and better."

It also allowed people an outlet during the pandemic. Indeed, Arnel feels that COVID helped UKFC find its feet. The importance of the project was truly revealed to the Colonel, however, at the first live event in London where all those people who had been wargaming with each other for months online finally got to meet and game face-to-face. "It was like," he beams, "a nirvana of interaction."

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Supplementing the physical

"We don't execute often enough" is a common complaint among military personnel. There aren't enough live training exercises because they are not only costly but also incredibly time-consuming to set up and actualise. UKFC isn't designed to replace these exercises, but to supplement and augment them.

Arnel says: "There's nothing like simulating something 100 times before you do it and I think it's obvious it would be preferable if you use physics-based simulations that are accurate as far as how things will react in the real world. And why would you not do that when the technology already exists?"

A lot of live training scenarios are also incredibly scripted and don't necessarily reflect reality. This means they lack the innate tension of a real-world combat scenario. In a digital game, meanwhile, those scenarios can be procedurally generated within certain parameters to ensure a realistic and unique experience every time.

Arnel uses an interesting analogy here. "In US football, a quarterback will have a play in mind but when he gets on the field, there might be something making that play untenable. So he'll change the play there and then by using code words and numbers. Then the team repeats and executes. I think that's how combat should work really. So that you're more agile and adaptive."

It's all about developing mental agility and the UKFC team have been doing just that on a daily basis. As such, their members have been getting really good at thinking and fighting on their feet. If fighters are able to create a playbook of potential tactics in their minds, they are going to be smarter and more capable fighters.

Why gamers will win the next war

Whether you realise it or not, we're using AI every day. It's not science fiction and it's definitely not magic. It's simply machines analysing data and using that analysis to make decisions. Arnel explains: "It's just a matter of starting to integrate specific use cases to improve our ways of operating. Automation is a big part of that obviously. Because humans cost more money than machines." Without human beings, however, that valuable data simply wouldn't exist.

Arnel again brings up the example of the game Combat Mission, which is incredibly popular among non-military gamers. He explains: "In the commercial world we have civilians of all ages who are phenomenal at the game, testing the realistic missions that we're creating and playing through the scenarios so we can analyse the data. What that data tells us is that civilians are performing better than the military. So what does that tell us?"

It could mean many things. Perhaps military doctrine is becoming antiquated in an always-connected world? Or perhaps they are coming at problems from a completely different angle because they don't have the same training and the same biases. The game is forcing the UKFC team to think about how younger generations of the military should be taught and trained.

"That's how you make progress," Arnel posits, "questioning what we're teaching our younger leaders and how they might fight. Because at the end of the day we just want to make everyone better at what they do."

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The war for talent

As it stands, the bar when it comes to wargaming in the military is pretty low. That's why UK Fight Club has, in Arnel's words, "illuminated so many different simulations and games that are commercially available right now and are flexible and powerful enough to be used as real learning tools."

Of course, there are always going to be those curmudgeons standing in the way of progress, but simulation's use as a recruitment tool might be the final straw that pushes the naysayers over the brink. The fact is, Fight Club could be used to encourage gamers to consider a job in the military.

It's no secret that there's something of a war for talent going on right now across all sectors. It's the individuals who hold all the power in today's economy, after all. So younger, digital-savvy talent should be celebrated and encouraged. As Arnel says: "The Army is bleeding talent at the moment because it's so stuck in its ways and controlling. With this new generation of young talent, you've got to let them breathe and find their own path. And that's something Fight Club offers in spades."

America's Army Simulation Series

This is far from the first time gaming has been used as a potential recruitment tool, of course. As far back as 2002, the America's Army first-person shooter series was being used to expose young gamers to life in the army. But that was an overly simplistic tool. The games Arnel and his team are using today, 20 years later, are far more realistic, flexible and intelligent.

"We're taking gaming, simulation and virtual reality and we're getting serious about how to use those tools and apply them in our day to day business," Arnel adds. "How to organise ourselves better and how to think better. And I think that's really exciting."

Introducing simulation: The challenges

Of course, with any major organisational and cultural shift there will always be challenges to overcome. The primary challenge, at least initially, was pushing the idea of commercial games to a bunch of generals who had only ever known the 'traditional' model of software in the military.

"You have the old guard," Arnel explains, "that are 50 or older and they're very comfortable with the manual style of games that they've mastered their entire career. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's just that they don't want to steer into something new because they're worried it might be a flash in the pan."

Then there's the worry about licensing, but Arnel expresses he's been able to make some incredible connections within the industry and that has meant some great deals on cost-per-licence. Really, the only thing holding them back is a lack of funding but one very clear way around that is to branch out globally.

The US has already created their version of UKFC and the Canadians, Dutch, Czech, and the Australians are working to do the same. If all those different armies can pool their financial resources to make things even bigger and better, then the true future of military training could be represented by a global Fight Club.

"That's the benefit of being an alliance," Arnel finishes with. "You're not alone and there are so many different ideas and people from all walks of life coming together and bringing new ideas to the table too."

If only all warfare was so dignified.

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Posted in Defence, Training & Simulation

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Published on 15 Mar 2022

Last updated on 15 Mar 2022

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