In recent weeks, the ADF announced that it is looking to draw on VR technology to refine and build on its education strategies. Defence Connect reveals the specific areas and sectors in which the tech is being deployed.
As part of the recently released Defence Enterprise Learning Strategy (DELS) 2035 publication, the ADF unveiled that it plans to “exploit virtual reality (VR) and gaming technologies, machine learning and artificial intelligence across Defence to enhance learning”.
According to the DELS, the Commander ADC and Service Training Authorities will be responsible for achieving this strategic focal priority, in consultation with the Chief Defence Scientist.
Defence says that it has been “using and trialling a range of virtual reality and augmented reality products for a number of training programs across all three services, including language/cultural training, peacekeeping operations and joint operations.”
In reality, VR tech has been deployed for a number of years. While the UK’s Ministry of Defence revealed as recently as March that it was looking to base operational training programs off the back of the popular video game Fortnite, the Australian Defence College has been using virtual reality simulations for over 10 years for humanitarian operations.
VR at home
Since 2019, VR technology has also been used in the Defence Force School of Languages. While Australia has embraced the platforms relatively early, VR projects have been the main thrust of recent pushes by Defence Science and Technology, with augmented reality projects conducted under the purview of the Australian Defence Force Warfare Training Centre in support of the Introduction to Joint Operations Course.
The Australian Defence College also operates a “Wargaming and Simulation Centre”, which uses a wide array of simulations across the training continuum to meet educational needs in the modern era.
These include operational level simulations, which Defence says include “tactical simulations using avatar interactions for cultural training”. Curious, yes, but one can appreciate the necessity in the age of interoperability.
The ADF also told Defence Connect that “most of the key technologies available in the recreational gaming industry are exploited and repurposed for educational purposes by Defence”. While it is unclear exactly what is meant by this, the British example shows that operational exercises can be realistically recreated through VR exercises, which allow personnel to crouch, crawl and effectively complete practice operations through simulation.
Army, in particular, also notes that it repurposes virtual reality to deliver and enhance learning with its helicopter aircrew, in technical trades, intelligence analysts and in range safety. The branch plans to expand and develop this into other areas over time.
Defence says that VR is increasingly used by Army through its new Protected Mobility Vehicle (PMV) simulators and for close combat visualisation.
By adopting virtual reality and similar technologies in the barracks environment, the branch states that it is “able to help soldiers and officers visualise and practice scenarios and combat tactics in a more engaging, repeatable, coachable and safe methodology”. This approach to training in the barracks helps optimise time spent on more demanding and intensive exercises.
Yet VR training programs have been embraced across all branches. The RAN states that it is operating bridge simulators at both HMAS Watson and HMAS Stirling, which mimic a real-life ship’s bridge with highly realistic scenarios. These are used to train bridge teams, and in particular bridge officers, in ship navigation and handling techniques. HMAS Cerberus has a naval communications simulator, which offers improved training to sailors and prepare them for various operations at sea.
Virtual reality is used at HMAS Stirling to train submariners in complex procedures on board a submarine, and at the Navy Systems Training Centre at Randwick to familiarise personnel in the layout and damage-control features of the HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide, Navy’s biggest ships.
In essence, the role of VR in the training space is driven by the cost-saving aspect. For Navy, virtual reality allows complex and often critical drills and practices to be learned ashore, saving time at sea and ensuring Navy’s sailors join their ships better trained than their predecessors.
Synthetic training, hosted at the Navy Synthetic Warfare Centre, HMAS Watson, is an important enabler for the Navy’s warfighting capability.
Navy routinely conducts synthetic exercises, including the Viking Series, which continues to develop Navy’s ability to integrate simulated Australian air and surface assets with its US Navy partners in a complex virtual warfighting environment.
Yet at the same time, VR offers a way to better engage with younger recruits. “Previously, the emphasis was on the learner to maintain their attention and engagement. However, increasingly the emphasis is now on the education and training provider to provide content in a way that is more engaging,” said Defence in a statement.
“Technology offers opportunities to better engage learners, reach a much wider audience, and allows for remote learning. Learners are also now able to interact with others through digital technology, including their peers, educators, social networks and Defence communities of practice.”
As advances are made in VR in the commercial sector, we can expect those developments to translate through to the defence space. The technology is showing promise even in the medical sector, with VR being used in the United States to assist with the treatment of PTSD.
VR is also showing promise in terms of aviation. While Defence did not specify use of the VR or gaming tech by the RAAF, American outlets reported late last year that simulators are becoming more and more crucial to their training operations.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Knapp, operations officer at Air Force Education and Training Command Detachment 24, said that in the traditional pilot training construct, students start with some paper publications or an iPad that has their training documents on it, before advancing on to VR platforms.
“They go from that into an extremely expensive traditional simulator where they can do the full range of flight manoeuvres,” he said. “The problem with those expensive sims is there’s only a handful of them and they’re constrained on the number of times a student can get into them.”
Students participating in the Pilot Training Next initiative can sit in a chair and strap on a commercial device such as the HTC VIVE Pro – a platform sold on the retail market to gamers – and undergo intensive training programs.
While the embrace of VR tech is indicative of a broader trend in recent years, it is all the more likely to be bolstered by the advent of social distancing measures and remote collaboration. If the Australian experience is anything to go by, we can expect it to form a crucial part of the “new normal”.