There is no agreement on what Russian President Vladimir Putin may do next in Ukraine. Expectations among senior government officials differ, with some warning that an invasion seems likely and others expressing hope that diplomacy could prevail. There is, however, one thing that experts agree on: The Kremlin’s exact intentions remain difficult to discern.

This points to a broader problem within NATO: Predicting an adversary’s intentions and operational aims remains a thorny challenge. Contingency planning in this climate of uncertainty is no easy task. As the trans-Atlantic alliance grapples with an increasingly revanchist and unpredictable Russia, greater reliance on simulation — and in particular synthetic environments — may offer a range of benefits.

Here are five ways synthetic environments could assist the U.S. and NATO:

  1. Enhance collective experimentation, planning and decision-making: Synthetic environments provide a way to experiment and plan around the Kremlin’s and NATO’s current and future actions. Much like a video game, synthetic environments help users visualize and assess scenarios in real time, allowing them to explore the cascading effects of various stimuli on a target — for instance, sanctions on the Russian government. Faster-than-real-time simulations can run thousands of concurrent scenarios in tandem, revealing the full range of ways the current crisis in Ukraine could unfold — from a diplomatic truce to the use of force. The outcomes of these simulations furnish leaders with predictive insights that can build cross-alliance consensus and inform future decision-making.
  2. Transform training: As recent Russian operations have highlighted, the Kremlin views electronic, information and cyber warfare as key asymmetric tools to gain an advantage in competition and conflict. Therefore, the alliance must operate effectively despite Russia’s efforts to sabotage, subvert or degrade NATO systems, platforms and information. At present, however, training to maintain “degradation dominance” is limited in a live environment — the use of live cyber or electronic effects could present safety risks to warfighters and local civilians. Synthetic environments offer a path forward. NATO exercises, which tend to be live and highly visible, could benefit from the use of these lower-risk virtual spaces. Not only would they provide opportunities for the alliance to train together for a more “informationized” battlespace, but they also offer operational security in a way that live environments do not.
  3. Strengthen interoperability across the alliance: NATO’s credibility relies on its common defense guarantee, known as Article 5, under which an attack on any member is considered an attack on all. However, this deterrent depends on the willingness, capacity and lethality of a NATO collective response. Interoperability across the alliance bolsters its ability to respond; but in practice, achieving an interoperable fighting force is difficult. It depends on a range of factors, such as realistic multinational training, a history of military cooperation, and equipment and technology that can effectively connect and communicate. NATO programs like Connected Forces and Smart Defence have deepened interoperability, but more can be done. Short of a wartime experience, synthetic environments may help to strengthen ties across the alliance, providing a cost-effective and risk-free environment for training, military experimentation and cooperation.
  4. Test and investigate new technologies and technical concepts: In 2021, the alliance released a flurry of initiatives aimed at fostering innovation in core technologies, such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics and space. At the root of programs like NATO’s DIANA is a recognition that unless technical innovation pathways are promoted within the alliance, it may cede its technological edge to competitors. Synthetic environments can be a core element of this innovation process, allowing technical teams to experiment together as they design and build new capabilities. Virtual mockups of future weapon systems or platforms can aid and de-risk acquisition decisions, helping to condense acquisition timelines and speed the delivery and fielding of new capabilities.
  5. Better assess readiness across the force: Maintaining and assessing military readiness is troublesome for states, let alone an alliance of 30 member states. Most models or assessments of military readiness utilize “resource inputs,” such as flying hours, as a corollary for readiness. NATO’s Readiness Initiative is an example of this. Only in the best of circumstances are objective “readiness outputs,” like the ability to place a munition on target, used to assess readiness. More could be done in NATO to this end, for instance by using synthetic environments. By capturing every tick within a simulation, synthetic environments can collect descriptive, diagnostic and predictive indicators of readiness, which can drive more objective readiness appraisals. For NATO military leaders like the supreme allied commander Europe, who often must rely on disparate readiness certifications submitted by individual nations, this data would inform a more holistic assessment and build consensus around the alliance’s overall readiness.

While the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.K. Ministry of Defence, and NATO’s Modelling & Simulation Centre of Excellence have embraced the power of synthetic environments, these capabilities still hold a great deal of unfulfilled potential across the alliance. To prepare for and win on the battlefields of tomorrow, the U.S. and NATO should deepen their adoption of simulation.

Lauren Speranza is director of the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Jennifer McArdle is the head of research at Improbable U.S. Defense and National Security and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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