I’m watching a war break out in the Lake District.
Tensions have been escalating for months between the blue forces in the south and the red forces in the north over disputed territory around Kendal. Now a helicopter is shot down and both sides are attacking.
Of course, it’s an exercise. Not at a military training ground, but in a nondescript building at Lancashire Airfield.
But I was in a room full of people representing different branches of the armed forces, the RAF in flight simulators, infantry personnel wearing VR headsets squatting behind walls of simulated sandbags, surveillance drones and satellite intelligence teams in large video Screen.
The military has been using computers to practice combat for decades. A flight simulator with realistic terrain to train pilots is the best example.
But what’s happening here is different.
It’s one of the first examples of what’s being called a single synthetic environment — a “digital twin” of real-world 3D terrain and airspace — used to train troops.
Armed forces around the world are exploring the power of these virtual worlds for rehearsing warfare.
“We will see a blur between the physical and digital worlds”
“Historically, simulation and simulators have gone together – we’ve separated the two,” said Lucy Walton, director of training at BAE Systems, which is developing the technology.
“It replicates the physics, it replicates real-world terrain, and now we have a system that everyone uses on the same central system.”
The concept may sound familiar — it’s the same technology used in massively multiplayer online gaming environments (MMOGs) — and it’s perhaps no surprise that the people behind these games are involved.
“We’re going to see a blur between the physical world and the digital world,” said Mimi Keshani, co-founder of Hadean, a London-based software company that works with companies like Minecraft to build virtual worlds.
“You have a huge amount of complexity to manage, and different people interact with different fidelity. So in this system, we have people in Typhoon and assets flying over the ground, we have ground forces. All or they need See things differently, but they need to see it in a common operating picture.”
The system has 60,000 AI “entities”
The system leverages cloud computing and vast improvements in speed and power in machine learning and artificial intelligence software.
In addition to the military forces participating in the exercise, the environment has “layers”, such as weather systems. A key element often missing from large-scale military training exercises is civilians.
The experimental system features 60,000 AI “entities,” each representing a civilian in a virtual environment that responds to actions taken by the military.
The potential advantages to the military are obvious.
In a time of constrained defense budgets, virtual and large-scale training can save millions of dollars in fuel, ammunition and the movement of personnel required for large-scale military exercises. And training is not limited to remote areas far from towns and civilian airspace.
It is also not vulnerable to snooping by hostile nation satellites.
worry about budget pressure
“This allows us to train more often. So not only can people do one mass workout in their 11-year career, they can do it once a week if you want,” Ms Walton said.
But there are concerns that real-world military experience will be lost as technology continues to improve and further blur the lines between the real and virtual worlds.
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Defense select committee chairman Tobias Ellwood MP said the idea of bringing all branches of the armed forces together for training virtually was “very, very welcome”.
“My concern is that because of budgetary pressures, we’re going to see flight simulators, we’re going to see these digital classrooms replace going into the field and having a real-world experience in a battlegroup, regiment or brigade.”
An ever-expanding virtual environment might be ideal for training armed forces, but can it recreate the reality of making life-or-death decisions in combat?