WASHINGTON — Training soldiers using virtual reality has been a common practice for many years, but the U.S. Army is applying that technology to something new: prototyping its future equipment in virtual environments to see what works and what doesn’t before dollars are spent on bending metal.

Developing a new system in the Army has historically taken too long, ended up costing far more than anticipated, and resulted in underperforming equipment and canceled programs. But the service is trying a new way to take conceptual designs for vehicles and other equipment, immerse those designs in a synthetic environment and have soldiers war game battlefield scenarios using the technology.

Operation Overmatch began as a concept in 2013 when the Army asked the question: How do gaming environments enable capability development?

Because soldiers already spend their free time playing games like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, and gaming is already used regularly in training, the Army decided to create a gaming environment where soldiers could try out concepts for equipment on a complex battlefield and provide feedback on the experience, Maj. Gen. Bo Dyess, the Army Capabilities Integration Center’s acting director, said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in October.

ARCIC and the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command partnered in 2016 to gauge soldiers’ interest in participating and to develop a way to collect feedback to enhance the prototyping and concept development going on within the service, Dyess said.

The Army game studio developed Operation Overmatch, essentially creating an immersive substantiation of synthetic prototyping, he added.

Many organizations in the Army, Dyess said, have dollars that are associated with simulating and modeling specific weapon systems, but there’s been no specific place to put them together, so Operation Overmatch can be seen as a “sandbox” where capabilities can come together, such as combining a vehicle with certain communications gear and night vision capabilities.

“This is innovation and I’m not sure it’s going to work or not, but we won’t be able to tell it’s going to work or not unless we try it,” Dyess said.

The Army’s intention is to gather feedback from soldiers in order to become more agile and more rapid in the development of weapons systems.

The hope is that the synthetic prototyping environment will help the Army think about what is needed when developing such modernization priorities — like the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle or Long-Range Precision Fires — and will help the Army better understand how to use robotics, respond to swarms of unmanned systems, use jammers and detect when being jammed, and even improve technology in such areas as advanced optics, according to Dyess.

And ultimately Operation Overmatch could help shape how the Army fights in the future, he said.

The game is set up so eight soldiers can go up against another team of eight. The game is designed to be competitive as “competition raises the level of participation and engagement in game environments,” Lt. Col. Brian Vogt, ARCIC’s early synthetic prototyping project lead, told Defense News. “Soldiers want to win, and they will inherently innovate to gain an advantage over other players.

“Teaming is very important to the creative process.”

The game entered beta testing in early October and currently has a limited offense and defense scenario. As it improves and expands, the game designers will add more terrain types to the database such as desert and rolling wooded hills in addition to the current urban environment featured in the game, according to Vogt.

As the Army looks to the future, it expects to fight not just in similar environments to the one it fought in over the last 15 years in the Middle East, but also urban environments as cities are exploding around the world and it becomes more likely conflict would take place in a densely populated area. And the service has already found itself operating regularly in wooded, hilly terrain in such places as Eastern Europe, where a rotational armored unit is now regularly deployed among other units to deter Russian aggression.

Beta testing of the game comes at the same time the Army is launching its new Modernization Command, expected to be fully stood up in the summer of 2018. The Army has identified six top priorities: Long-Range Precision Fires, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift, the network, air-and-missile defense, and soldier lethality.

To get after many of these efforts, the Army is either prototyping or gearing up to design prototypes to deliver a new capability. Two teams are building FVL demonstrators that will fly in the coming months, and the Army just kicked off a prototyping effort for the NGCV, where prototypes will be built by 2022.

While physical prototypes are being developed, the game could provide a virtual playground to test out the concepts in a low-cost way.

The game as of now has a mobile protected firepower platform, an unmanned ground combat vehicle, micro-UAVs launched from vehicles and wheeled vehicles. The Army also has an “emerging threat” platform to war game against, Vogt said.

The vehicles and equipment featured in the beta version of Operation Overmatch are near-term emerging capabilities.

The Army is planning to release a request for proposals this month for a competition to rapidly procure effective Mobile Protected Firepower for infantry brigade combat teams and will evaluate offerings in the spring of 2018.

And teaming micro-UAVs with vehicles is another concept surfacing not only with the U.S. Army but internationally.

For instance, Finnish defense company Patria displayed a concept integrating a drone with a vehicle — mounting a hand-launched micro-UAV from FLIR/Prox Dynamics atop a little stick on the roof of the back end of its armored modular vehicle.

So far there’s been a lack of integration of unmanned aircraft systems into vehicle concepts, which may reflect the lack of consensus around which crew member will operate the platform and sensor, who will buy and maintain the system, and how launching, recovery and reuse can be integrated into the vehicle architectures.

A gaming system like Operation Overmatch could provide the opportunity to answer a lot of those questions.

But while some problems can be solved using early synthetic prototyping, the game is only as good as the feedback coming from soldiers, so the developers are working just as hard on the processes needed to collect and analyze feedback in a way that actually improves capability development.

Soldiers have already provided valuable feedback on vehicle capabilities, manned-unmanned teaming, UAVs and operating in a complex urban environment, Vogt said.

But the Army has to learn how to take the feedback and gather it for scientists, engineers and capability developers “to think more clearly about the problem and potential solutions,” he added.

And for improving the game itself, soldiers “have been instrumental in identifying bugs as well as identifying future improvements to make the game more engaging,” Vogt noted.

The longer-term goal and vision for early synthetic prototyping is to use engaging game environments across the Army to develop, assess and give feedback about new ideas, Vogt said. “This is relatively boundless for [early synthetic prototyping].”

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.

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