I/ITSEC NEWS: Special Operators Want Multi-Player, Combined Simulations

By Sean Carberry

Defense Dept. photo

ORLANDO, Florida — Training simulators have come a long way and facilitate an increasing range of scenarios, but special operators say they still need more reality and variety in simulators, as well as improved collaborative, networked training tools.

Special operators described some of the important advances in modeling and simulation and what they want to see from the technology during a panel discussion Dec. 1 at the National Training and Simulation Association's annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando. NTSA is an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Maj. Brent Birchum, operations officer in the 3rd Marine Raider Support Battalion, served in Iraq in 2017. He recalled a clearing operation against ISIS in Mosul with U.S. and Iraqi forces maneuvering with armed air assets.

“So, within that scenario, I thought it was probably the peak pinnacle of what a battlefield commander would have to balance out — that ability to collect, identify threats moving into the area in real time, while battle tracking and simultaneously clearing through the area,” he said.

He subsequently worked with the Air Force Research Lab and Marine Corps Special Operations Command, which have simulator capabilities that can replicate much of what he experienced in Mosul. The next step, he said, is adding more complexity with intelligence and information operations in the simulated environment.

“And where I think that there's a lot of opportunity for improvement is getting intelligence infused into that virtual environment,” instead of having instructors script and role play that, he said.

The demand signal is there to introduce intelligence scripting into virtual environments, he said. Developers need to be thinking about how to replicate intelligence reporting and concepts like target confidence into simulations.

“So, it's building out those layers of complexity for the training audience,” he said. “My perception of it is that the demand signal is out there … it's just a matter of like, who's going to be able to do it the best?”

He likened current simulated training to a football team practicing drills from the 2-yard line. “You can get a lot of good reps and sets out of that,” he said. But it would be better “to move the ball back to about the 50-yard line, where you're really having to develop that scenario for the commander to make those decisions,” he said.

In addition to adding intelligence tasks to simulations, there is a need to rapidly replicate operating environments, he said.

“I think we're getting a lot of good information about what a peer-to-peer fight would look like. It’s the ability to then replicate that in a virtual environment and then utilizing that in our wargaming efforts,” he said.

One of the important functions of simulated training is allowing for some risk-taking and contingency planning and training, he and other panelists said.

“It's not every day that you're having one of those catastrophic events. But you don't want to wait for that to happen to find out that you could have learned something in the virtual environment,” he said.

Chief Petty Officer Oran Feiner is a Joint Tactical Air Controller program manager in the Navy’s Special Warfare Boat Operator Force. He said that simulators have advanced dramatically since he started working with them in 2014. They are ideal for internalizing rote JTAC functions, but simulators can’t replicate the emotional aspect of live training, he said.

“There's an added stress to when you're on the radio, you're finally going to say, ‘Cleared hot,’ even if it's a training range … there’s something in your mind that makes you take pause and make sure— do I have all my ducks in a row here? We don't feel that a simulator,” he said.

That leads to a tendency for operators not to take simulated training as seriously, Feiner said.

“And that's okay, but as long as we understand these two things have a role, especially in the JTAC realm, that one is never going to probably replace the other.”

The other deficiency with simulators is the lack of environmental factors that force trainees to adapt, he said.

“One of those things I've seen a million times — we'll go in a simulator, and they'll be able to spread out their equipment,” he said. “As soon as we get out to the range, we'll do the same thing with their maps and other equipment, and the first gust of wind throws their plan out the window. And it's actually fun for me to watch.”

There is a flip side to that, he noted. Simulated devices are smaller and more portable, so they can take systems to live training, and if weather shuts down the training they can go inside and use the simulated devices so the time isn’t lost, he said.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Daniel Cosson, with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Army Regiment (Airborne), said that his forces rely heavily on tools produced by the Special Operations Forces Planning, Rehearsal, and Execution Preparation program, a modeling and simulation program under SOCOM.

“One of the reasons they're such value added to us is the format that their products are delivered in are run from a standard laptop computer that we have and enable us to be expeditionary,” he said.

“They also have the ability to inject that those data sets into our full motion simulators,” he said. “And the end result is just to increase our situational awareness at the end of the day and getting to the target and mitigate risk in a huge way.”

Going forward, it’s critical to maintain the portability and flexibility of training systems and devices, he said. “Adding another CONEX full of proprietary boxes that are going to require a person to support and maintain … that's a non-starter,” he said.

“It has to be something that is highly mobile, and not proprietary in any way, shape or form and runs on equipment — laptops, tablets, phones — that we already have in issue to be valuable,” he added.

Currently, most of the tools Cosson's regiment is using are single-player simulations. “I think if we can expand upon that and make it more of a multiplayer kind of gaming environment [it] would be tremendous value added, especially to SOF because of the joint nature of our missions and how many players are involved in everything, every mission that we do.”

Because forces are rarely co-located prior to an operation, a collaborative, networked environment is all the more important, he said.

Lt. Col. Heather Demis, with the Air Force’s 492 Special Operations Wing, said that the tools exist to conduct collaborative training, but the problem is often getting the tools connected, which is mostly a matter of bureaucracy and authorities.

“It's just getting that connection and getting past the cybersecurity and all of proprietary information,” she said. “If we can get past that part, there's so many opportunities to connect with our NATO partners. There's exercises that we can do in Germany … so to me, it's frustrating, the capability is there.”

Furthermore, the active-duty personnel don’t have the training and knowledge to navigate the system to develop requirements and engage with developers to make sure the right capabilities are being developed and procured.

“I personally do not have the training or the qualifications to go out and go, ‘We need to have this requirement,’” she said. “I don't know what I don't know. … And if we don't have the training required, or the at least the base understanding, we're never going to get there.”

Topics: Special Operations, Training and Simulation