This post is a continuation of last week’s post, which outlined the history and current state of Virtual Reality. Today, I look forward into the future of the technology and examine its potential national security implications. To read part 1 and catch up on the topic check out last week’s blog here.
In the future, it is possible that nearly every aspect of warfare training will have some sort of virtual reality component to it. Everything from combat, to medical help, to driving and flying, to language will be linked together in a complete virtual world that can be simulated before testing in real life. Imagine a multi-national exercise the size of Operation Red Flag, taking place in large virtual labs. Of course, most military strategists still hold to the fact that no amount of virtual training can replace the need for physical training. But advances in this realm will continue to challenge that thought pattern.
Advances in the field of virtual reality could bring the above scenario into an all-level training program. Ralph Ernest Chatham foresees a day when VR is integrated into all of the services ways of training, and keeps a vast database of training logs. In his vision the training module can even monitor participants attention (eye movement), and will alert if a trainee tries to skip over a section of the reading. In his example, a pilot trains on some skills to refresh, and is linked up with two other pilots training as well elsewhere in the world. It creates an avatar for the 4th pilot and they all take off together for a practice mission. Once in the air they can be linked up with soldiers on the ground doing their own missions, in this context language training. The system realizes that the soldier on the ground needs medical training and has one of the pilots shot down. The soldier aids the fallen pilot, and continues on another mission. After this is all done, everyone can return ‘home’ and conduct an After Action Review. The training records are updated and the AAR information is submitted and analyzed by the system to make the experience better or more realistic in the future. This happens continuously, always keeping service-members up to speed on current Standard Operating Procedures and training material.
There are advantages to VR technology being implemented and for the United States to continue pursuing advancements. Some of them are discussed below.
Superior Training. VR provides a realistic environment for service-members to train in. It can start with relatively simple tasks and progress to more complex scenarios. It aids in giving leaders situations in which they must make a quick decision and can provide appropriate responses based upon good and bad decision-making. Virtual reality will allow different units to train together without having to travel to different bases, negating huge logistical issues. It provides realistic training environments for flying, driving, language, medical, shooting, and a whole host of other skills a service-member would need to know. VR can take trainees out of a traditional classroom, where attentions can easily wander, and put them in an immersive environment that forces them to react. VR can also assist in acclimating service-members to the rigors of real combat, potentially limiting the effects of combat on the psyche and reducing potential cases of PTSD. This will add to the capabilities of our armed forces.
Better Operational Awareness. Commanders need VR technology as well. The virtual workbenches mentioned above like the Dragon System will be integrated more and more into command posts. They will allow troops on the ground to project their precise location onto a map back at a headquarters location, where a commander can make decision based upon accurate real-time information from the battlefield. Someone in the rear will be able to pinpoint each individual soldier and be able to direct him or her to where the enemy is. This will eventually incorporate all assets available to the commander, including aircraft, long range artillery, and naval resources, allowing him to make the best decision based upon all information available.
Cost Savings. Virtual reality is quite expensive to setup and maintain right now, but advances in processing capabilities and graphics displays will continue to drive down the cost of these systems. For training simulators, the cost has to be looked at from a long-term perspective. It might be expensive initially, but in the long run, after running hundreds of soldiers through a tank driving and firing simulator, the cost of that system will seem miniscule compared to having real tanks on hand for such training. Logistical costs will also be slashed significantly by eliminating the fuel required to operate aircraft, ships, tanks, and other vehicles. Fuel will also be saved by allowing units to train together in different parts of the world, likely even with allied troops in other countries. Using VR will also help save ammunition. These cost savings can be passed down in different ways, from increasing salaries for service-members to reinvesting in R&D efforts.
Safety. One of the most important benefits of using virtual reality for military application is the potential of saving lives and reducing injury. Many injuries are created in training environment before soldiers even reach combat. VR used for scenarios like parachuting, shooting, and urban combat can greatly reduce the risks to soldiers. Realistic combat scenarios can even offer some sort of pain-based reaction to being shot, without an actual physical injury. This type of realistic training can help teach a young soldier to keep his head down when under fire, or to learn the difference between cover and concealment. Training individuals in medical scenarios will lead to more lives being saved on the actual battlefield as well. Further, better battlefield awareness for a commander can help save lives by him being able to accurately direct troops away from danger or on the best route toward a target.
Virtual reality has come a long way since Ivan Sutherland created the first light pen to interact with a computer. Advances in computer technology have paved the way for simulators, realistic training scenarios, and better battlefield awareness. As technology in this field continues to improve over the years, it is important for military decision-makers to continue to implement it in ways that are meaningful and realistic. It is also important to remember that no amount of virtual reality will be able to replace real-life training. A soldier depends upon his buddies in combat. If he never trains directly with other humans or in real environments, exposure to elements in a virtual world will be of no comparison to the real thing, and he will falter when confronted with it. Nevertheless, virtual reality technologies should continue to be pursued, as they are a great way to reduce cost, save lives, and empower our next greatest generation of military men and women.