Science & Health

Part Live, Part Virtual: This Massive Australian Military Exercise Simulates An Entire War

The military is often an early adopter when it comes to technology. If there’s any way for them to gain an advantage, it’s worth looking into — and we’re used to seeing some of its cool gadgets and flight sims.

What we hear less about are the departments of the Australian military dedicated to tying all of these things together, from the grunts to the brass — and the scope of their exercises is astonishing.

The Australian Defence Simulation and Training Centre (ADSTC) is responsible for putting together simulations that take into account all aspects of large-scale warfare. The simulations span land, sea, and air, and span both the real world and the virtual. They span the different defence services, different allied countries, and even include civil government departments. The simulations’ sheer scope is hard to get your head around.

It’s no wonder the most recent of these exercises, Vital Prospect, took 14 months to plan.

“By way of an analogy, you can imagine the complexity required to pull together or manage a major natural disaster — a bushfire, or floods, or a cyclone,” Colonel Terry McCullagh, ADSTC’s Director of Simulations Services told us.

Using a combination of technologies, though, the ADSTC has figured out how to punch well above its weight. Exercise Vital Prospect, which ran in May this year, simulated an attack on a fictional country in northern Australia. It was a collaboration involving 5 different nations, and over 100,000 simulated participants — yet it did so with only 1,200 live soldiers.

So how does it work?

“We often talk about three types of simulation,” says McCullagh. “We talk about live, virtual, and constructive. In live, we’re talking about soldiers who are instrumented. So they’ve got laser designators, attachments on the ends of their rifles, they’ve got receiver units and a harness on the equipment they carry. And the upshot of that is, you can fire a low-powered laser and the detectors on the harness emit that, and you can then identify that there has been some casualties.”

On a scale of even 800 soldiers, this means you can map out movements, using GPS and radio communications, and work out who has been killed in a red versus blue engagement. “It’s a bit like laser tag, but on a far more sophisticated level,” says McCullagh.

“When we talk about virtual, a flight simulator is a good example. What we’re doing is putting a bloke in a cockpit — it looks and feels like a normal cockpit, and he’s actually flying an air combat mission.

“Constructive is the last form we use, and we use a lot of that at the moment. When you’re commanding and controlling a lot of troops, a lot of that is just done off a computer screen. This allows you to create additional troops, constructively.

“The trick is, you can integrate everything from instrumented soldiers on the ground, who might be up in Townsville, to having have some virtual simulators from an air crew that might be at an air force base somewhere else in the country. All coming together with players being in Brisbane, and they’ve now got a far more complex environment in which they’re fighting. So in reality, instead of having 100,000 people out in the field, in this training event, you might actually only have 1,000.”

The constructive side is where the real innovation and scope lies. Not only is the ADSTC calling out a hypothetical ship on the horizon, it’s simulating that actor and all of its characteristics — including secretive characteristics, relative to Australia’s current radar technology — so all allied screens can see what they’re supposed to see. From a ship’s captain in Canada, to the helicopter pilot in the UK, to the squad in Queensland taking a hill, all are connected at the same time.

“The real technical complexity comes into designing the simulation system,” says Colonel Christopher Mills, Director of Joint and Combined Training at ADSTC. “Being able to link those multiple objectives, and being able to connect multiple systems into a communications architecture that enables us to stimulate our real world command and control applications, that sit on our real-world systems that we would use in our operations.”

According to Colonel Mills, the exercise even extends outside of the military sphere — as once the simulated combat is over, the ultimate goal is to smoothly hand over power to the legitimate (fictional) government.

Exercise Vital Prospect, for example, is not only a combat exercise. It’s a practice in cohesion and communication for different departments, and different allies, who don’t normally work together. And it’s proving to be one of the most cost-effective ways to train.

“By using primarily constructive simulations, we’ve made enormous savings,” says McCullagh. “Instead of having 100,000 people in the field, and — more than that, flying people from four other countries to Australia — we can actually all train in our home locations.

“And the cost of it for us was, instead of accommodating 100,000 people, it was 1,200. It really stretches your organisation to the limit so you can understand where those limits are.

“There are other benefits,” he continues. “When you’re putting 100,000 people together in a real environment, there are safety considerations. Sometimes things can go wrong. This is a much safer way to do training. The other great benefit is that this is a low impact on the environment. Imagine 100,000 people in Shoalwater Bay, in central Queensland — just the impact on the environment, the wear and tear on the roads, the sea and the air, is quite considerable. So we’ve made an enormous savings on that.”

These factors become even more important when considering the ADSTC’s most recent, and largest, undertaking. Exercise Talisman Sabre involves 30,000 live troops, though through constructive methods, will simulate five to 10 times that many. Taking 18 months to organise, it began with initial planning in October last year, and will occur in the real and simulated world in July next year.

With that sort of scope, it’s important to be as cost effective as possible — which is why the ADSTC records everything, and can replay the entire simulation, from the strategic level of blips on a map to the tactical level of taking a hill.

“That’s very useful when you’re debriefing after an activity,” says McCullagh. “You can pull up a big screen, show everyone where they’ve gone, how everything unfolded. We also record the radio communications, so we can layer that over the top, and say this is what everyone said, as they moved around to the left or right. And as a result of that, this is how the battle unfolded.

“We use it mainly for tactical level training, but it’s a very useful way to train and debrief soldiers, and to refine our procedures. But also playing around with a range of leading-edge virtual reality technology.”

Currently, other technologies are also being looked at — some we’re very familiar with, such as the Oculus Rift, Microsoft Kinect, and consumer wearables. Speaking to the ADSTC, it didn’t just seem like a matter of being open-minded about the technology itself — there was genuine excitement and eagerness about it, as well.

Our thanks to the ADSTC for making time to talk.

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