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  • John Antal

How to Train for the Coming Drone Wars

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

The Urgent Need for Immersive Training with Extended Reality

Warfare is changing, and training is not keeping pace. Recent combat actions in Libya, Syria, and especially in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, demonstrated the value of unmanned systems in conducting precision strikes. According to confirmed drone video footage, during the recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan destroyed at least 1,021 Armenian military systems with Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). These included air defense and electronic warfare systems, tanks, howitzers and trucks. In addition, UAS killed hundreds of troops occupying dug-in positions. Azerbaijan’s UAS and loitering munitions were difficult to detect and hard to destroy with traditional air defense systems. This level of destruction by unmanned systems is unprecedented in the history of war. One Armenian soldier explained it this way: “We could not hide, and we could not fight back.”

As militaries around the world comprehend the lessons from these recent conflicts, they are scrambling to purchase and field their own UAS precision strike capabilities and Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems (CUAS). New systems alone are not the answer; the solution involves both equipment and training. The urgent requirement to train personnel in both offensive and defensive UAS operations using actual systems is costly and time-consuming. Evolving immersive training technologies, such as Extended Reality (XR), provide an immediate, effective and less expensive training venue.

XR is the conglomeration of three realities: Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality. Integrating XR into Live (soldiers training on real systems), Virtual (soldiers operating simulated systems), and Constructive (soldiers placed in a manual or computer driven simulation to learn specific tactics, techniques or procedures) training can offer a viable, cost-effective means to train forces for offensive and defensive UAS warfare.

Virtual Reality (VR) Systems

VR places the user in a computer-generated, virtual world. VR has rapidly evolved in commercial gaming and education over the past two decades, and VR systems are used to train warfighters, units and staffs. One example is Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3) developed by Bohemia Interactive Simulations. VBS3 is a comprehensive, desktop training package used by NATO forces that is based on commercial video game technology. The latest version is VBS4, which can connect to a VR headset, such as the Oculus Quest, to create an immersive training environment. Oculus Quest, developed by Facebook, is a stand-alone device that runs on the Android operating system and retails for about $400. The US Army and many NATO countries use Oculus headsets for immersive training. By adapting the existing VBS4 software development kit (SDK), trainers can create immersive scenarios like what occurred in the Nagorno-Karabakh War to raise tactical awareness of the emergent UAS threat, by adaptive, repetitive training in both offensive and CUAS scenarios.

Augmented Reality (AR)

AR also provides an available and inexpensive method of training for UAS warfare. AR overlays digital information onto the actual world and allows users to place virtual objects in the real world. This enables nearly any smart device with a camera and the proper software to function as an AR training tool. An example of AR is the “Call for Fire” app produced by Simulation Training Group and offered on the Apple App Store for $1.99. It trains the user to call for artillery fire. Creating a similar AR app to w provide for the placement of digital UAS targets onto actual, geospecific terrain, would permit a warfighter to engage enemy UAS with CUAS weapons. These digital targets could move at realistic speeds and represent individual UAS systems or swarms. This entire exercise, conducted at the cost of a smartphone or tablet, software and battery power, would enable warfighters to train repetitively to gain mastery of critical cognitive tasks, thus transforming Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) hardware, with specially designed software, into powerful, low cost AR UAS training devices.

Mixed Reality (MR)

MR combines VR and AR into an environment that enables the user to interact with both the virtual and physical world in real time. The US Army is rapidly fielding an MR capability called the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS). The US Army Chief of Staff, Gen. James C. McConville, described IVAS as “cutting edge technology, that will transform the way we train Soldiers, and the way Soldiers operate in combat.” IVAS uses MR to provide soldiers with enhanced visual and command and control (C2) awareness. Developed by Microsoft using their Hololens2 technology, IVAS is both a tactical goggle and a training device. “HoloLens is essentially a Windows 10 computer that you wear on your face,” said Mark Valentine, director of the Army team at Microsoft in November 2019, “but the display methodology is not a screen. It’s now a mixed-reality portal to the real world.” Using MR, digital holograms, representing enemy UAVs, could appear in the sky during live training. With the proper software, IVAS could engage warfighters in realistic UAS and CUAS battle scenarios.

Extended Reality (XR)

The key to training in XR is the development of military training software to run on COTS devices. VBS3 software is already available, and with targeted software modifications, could rapidly fill s portion of the UAS and CUAS training gap using VR. The next priority must be to develop immersive UAS and CUAS operations software for AR and MR devices. The US Army recognized the need for agile software development and will establish the first-of-its kind Army Software Factory in Austin, Texas, at the US Army’s Futures Command, in the summer of 2021. In addition, the US Army recently awarded a contract to Octo, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet Technologies (IT) solutions company, and QinetiQ, British multinational defense technology company headquartered in Farnborough, Hampshire, to provide machine and deep learning (ML and DL) support for the IVAS. These two new efforts will provide a robust software development base to help address the shortfalls in UAS and CUAS training.

Recent history proves that UAS, used in the right conditions, are deadly and can be decisive. Leaders, both friendly and threat, who recognize this are actively pursuing ways to use UAS and to counter UAS in the next conflict. Most importantly, the most focused leaders are also looking for ways to train their forces to win in a battlespace saturated with unmanned systems. “The average Soldier, Airman, or Marine lacks adequate counter-UAS training. It’s not fully embedded in the [program of instruction] from basic training onward,” said Lt. Col. David Morgan, with the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office’s Requirements and Capabilities Division in October 2020. This statement is also accurate for all NATO forces and represents a glaring training deficit. As a result, training for offensive and defensive UAS and CUAS operations in XR has the potential to be the most immediate and cost-effective method to provide immersive training to combat the looming UAS threat.

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