FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan., and WASHINGTON — It’s one thing to build an aircraft or a vehicle, it’s another to build an entire virtual world with enough realism in which soldiers and units can effectively train, but that is what the Army is doing right now.
The service isn’t unfamiliar with virtual training and, before the gaming industry took off, it was the only game in town when it came to building virtual environments. But those Army developed trainers from the ‘80s and ‘90s are stove-piped, antiquated and lack the realism soldiers need to train effectively, Maj. Gen. Maria Gervais, who is in charge of developing the Army’s Synthetic Training Environment (STE), told Defense News in a March 13 interview.
And stove-piped training systems are the last thing the Army needs as it looks to fight in a multidomain operational environment in line with the service’s new multidomain battle concept that assumes the Army and the other services will be fighting collectively across different domains such as land, sea, air and cyber.
Just a few years ago, it was thought a STE wouldn’t be ready until roughly 2030, Gervais said, but with major advancements in technology in the gaming world and a new approach to the development and acquisition of a virtual training environment, the STE will come online much earlier than that.
STE development also has newfound support with the advent of the Army’s newest four-star command set to reach initial capability in the summer. The Army Futures Command (AFC) is being established to address the Army’s top six priorities: Long-Range Precision Fires, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift, the Network, Air-and-Missile Defense and Soldier Lethality.
The STE capability is important to each of the Army’s top priorities. The command established cross-functional teams to help manage the progress of modernization within each priority. While the STE is not one of the priorities, it was assigned its own CFT. Gervais is the lead.
One World Terrain
The Army set out to build what it is calling One World Terrain that compiles realistic and, in some cases, extremely accurate virtual maps of territory all over the globe. The idea is to be able to click on any place on a virtual globe and go there, sometimes with door-knob fidelity. Soldiers can then train virtually in an exact environment in which they can expect to operate in reality.
Just a few years ago, building One World Terrain was painstaking, tedious and expensive.
Trying to piece together a world’s worth of terrain meant 57 different terrain formats that wouldn’t work universally on different training systems. And terrain lacked realism and variety.
Combined Arms Center Commander Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy said he was told just four years ago that building a virtual terrain environment that encompassed the globe was next to impossible.
“Every time we had to do an exercise or a simulation, we had to build terrain for it. It got to be very expensive. I mean, millions of dollars,” Lundy told Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy on a trip last month to Fort Leaveworth, where the STE is being built in a lab. “What I said was, ‘We need to get to One World Terrain.’”
Building out a city like San Francisco, for instance, would have taken a year. Just to build a small part of Ukraine took nine months and $1.7 million.
But to build San Francisco for OWT, took the lab eight hours, pulling data from publicly available open street maps like Google Earth. And because it takes less time to put together an entire city, more details like the interiors of building can be incorporated, which would be highly useful for training in megacities. There are roughly 6 million buildings in San Francisco.
Where Google Earth has less fidelity, the Army, in conjunction with the University of Southern California, has also developed a way to quickly sew together virtual terrain using a drone that flies over a specific area — roughly 2.3 square kilometers — and takes roughly 800 photos in a four hour period, which is then run through a processor that creates detailed, current terrain.
With the capability, “you could go anywhere in the world and a dismounted soldier could do a rehearsal on the objective that we have already virtualized without us having to build it today,” Lundy said.
The STE effort has a lot of support, not because it has a CFT, but also because it is closely linked to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ new priority, which is to study close combat and lethality.
So the Army is requesting in fiscal year 2019 roughly $111 million more in funding across FY19 through FY22 than it anticipated just a year ago.
With that funding, according to Gervais, the STE team is going to be able to focus its effort on building a soldier-squad virtual trainer, which is a squad-immersive trainer that will help achieve training repetitions and increase competency before heading to real-life complex training exercises.
The Army will continue its work on One World Terrain, Gervais said, and a reconfigurable virtual collective trainer that replaces stove-piped aviation, tanks and Bradley virtual trainers.
The service is also requesting $25 million in gaming technology that will support a powerful operating engine for the STE that will support virtual constructive training from the soldier level all the way to large-scale training exercises, Gervais said.
Gervais has already found ways to build virtual trainers for various systems at much lower costs and much faster by involving users immediately in the process.
The last Stryker combat vehicle trainer was developed as part of the failed Future Combat Systems program and the Army found itself experiencing a 16-year gap in its ability to train on Strykers virtually.
Gervais immediately built a capability for $300,000 that was more focused on software and less on hardware and took it out to soldiers and commanders to try, first at Fort Carson, Colorado, and after refinements, to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Through that process she knew the Army had a system that met the needs of the users.
In less than two years, the system went from a requirement to delivered capability.
The hardware is just a wooden frame, seats and computer monitors, but the software allows for the Army to adapt the training easily, so, if, for example, the Army fully adopts a 30mm cannon on the vehicle, all that takes is a quick software change to bring that into the trainer.
Procuring a STE
When Gervais was first on the job, the Army was headed down a traditional acquisition approach to develop the STE. The plan wouldn’t have brought the system online until 2030 and it would have delivered it at a very high cost, she added.
“It just didn’t make sense to me,” Gervais said, adding, she knew the approach needed to change. “I challenged pretty much everything.” It made no sense when considering advancements in the $5.2 billion virtual gaming industry why the Army couldn’t field the STE sooner, she added.
Gervais made sure the team was constantly engaging with industry, on a daily basis. She put out a statement of need and took industry feedback to help shape the realm of the possible.
Then the Army put out a request for white papers from industry and the service has now selected the seven best from the pot and is now asking these companies if they think they can meet the whole requirement or part of the requirement.
Users and representatives from the centers of excellence, testers and program managers are all part of the assessment, Gervais said.
The plan is to work with these companies over the next three months and then conduct a technology demonstration in July for possible prototypes for the STE.
The team is also experimenting with industry because it wants to test early and fail early to get to better solutions.
The process is allowing the Army to see that some things it didn’t think were feasible for many years, actually are.
For instance, the service is connecting a company set of virtual collective trainers together to train at a company level, but it’s now realizing it’s possible to connect trainers at a battalion level because there is a business out there capable of doing the work to get there. The Army originally thought that wouldn’t be doable until 2025, Gervais said.
“As we go through these technology demonstrations and experimentations,” she said, “our plan is like in ’18, we will see where we are at, we may have to do some additional demonstrations as we try to get requirements right and that may take us into ‘19, but in ’19 we will feel pretty confident about the requirement … to enter the acquisition process.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.