The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 6/18/20
Military Training in The Digital Age
Alix Leboulanger, Research Associate
At a time where the ethics and proper utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) is being questioned for civilian use cases, digital technologies continue to gain prominence in the military as a way of optimizing conventional training solutions. Recent trends melding legacy training technologies, such as simulators and computer-based training with cloud computing, connectivity, and data analytics are dramatically expanding across the military. While use cases around improved training performance indicators and speeding process along the learning curve remain scarce, global armed forces are increasingly blending traditional and digital technologies to optimize financial costs, equipment footprint and access endless bespoke training scenarios. Addressing mobility challenges is also crucial in training. By adopting digital solutions, armed forces are then enabled to simultaneously train together while being based in different sites and in different geographical locations. In this configuration, digital tools are not only providing substantial reductions in travel and logistics costs, but also offer more opportunities to train together and hence meet readiness requirements.
Digital tools: the long-awaited cornerstone of military training
By leveraging digital technologies, militaries are hoping to mitigate training challenges by simplifying joint exercise logistics and overcoming resource and geographic constraints. Improving linkage and data streams between simulators located in different training centers is also closely considered by armed forces as a key area of future investments, since current setups limit virtual training and live virtual constructive efficiency.
However, some armed forces are already moving further into the digital ecosystem by adopting artificial intelligence-based training solutions, as illustrated by the recent contract awarded to MASA Group by the Finnish Defence Force for SWORD. As described by MASA Group, SWORD is a commercially off-the-shelf solution using AI and is intended to improve collaborative training for command and staff training, mission preparation, crisis management, doctrine, and equipment analysis. According to some military operators familiar with AI-based training, utilizing AI technology with existing analog solutions is achievable, but comes at a high cost of resource coordination and limited bandwidth (not just from a connectivity perspective but also personnel availability). In this regard, digital tools will empower distributed and collaborative training, especially as armed forces are increasingly being deployed in optempo missions and critically lack the time dedicated to training.
The operational environment is also driving armed forces to consider fully immersive training solutions. As an example, the French Army Battle Lab has been successively testing the Holographic Tactical Sandbox from Airbus Defence & Space with Microsoft HoloLens, and more recently the Virtual Map from Thales. Each solution implies augmented reality and avatars in command and control training in operations. The objective is aimed at optimizing the decision-making process with intuitive tools such as a 3D map to ease complex data visualization and ensure complete situational awareness in real-time for commanding officers.
Will COVID-19 accelerate digital training market adoption?
One may notice that the ever-changing combat landscape and threat evolution from asymmetric warfare to expeditionary missions to pandemic management keeps adding to training requirements and shortens combat readiness timelines. “Train as you fight” and “training on the move” have become the new training norms highly sought by commanding officers to ensure troops get sufficient combat preparedness and have a greater awareness of threats. It may eventually dictate larger usage and adoption of digital tools, as connectivity, data analysis, and sharing are at the heart of the process.
Furthermore, as COVID-19 is still unfolding, military deployment coordination and surrounding logistics are being hampered by the ongoing pandemic. Similar repercussions on training requirements are anticipated; less available resources, closed borders, travel restrictions and social distancing are challenges that armed forces will have to overcome while meeting training objectives. Besides, training contractors have been also impacted by COVID-19 for current and planned training activities.
Adoption of connected and immersive training solutions, especially via the cloud to enable remote and distributed training may appear as the right solution for troops operating in a restrictive environment. It may also help service members facing challenges to access regular training infrastructures. In this regard, COVID-19 could be an unexpected prompt to not only to boost adoption of digital tools, but also as a test bed for improving pandemic crisis management training scenario.
However, if militaries are showing a strong appetite for digital tools to make the most of their training doctrines, combat readiness, and retention rate, digital technologies also have their limitations that can slow adoption by military operators. Some of the leading digital players in the US such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM or Palantir or Chinese firms Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are present in many of the supply chains of digital training providers which serves to reduce costs but may create obstacles as countries may view various providers as strategic threats and seek to develop indigenous solutions. Cloud computing is today’s one of the best examples where the market is dominated by a handful of digital players and where alternatives choices from US, Chinese, Russian, and Israeli are rare. In this regard, the joint efforts in Europe to develop its own cloud architecture through collaborations of leading European firms together, dubbed project Gaia-X, is already a step in that direction.
Another important obstacle may be the revolution in business models to provide such solutions. New digital tools are nowadays offered under various services, rental or subscription forms, based on data consumption. It is quite different from conventional business models used in the military, primarily focusing on product ownership or user license or long-term service provisions. The shift from genuine ownership to a monthly subscription or data package is a step that some armed forces are not ready to take when it comes to specific military training activities, such as mission preparedness and doctrines. Furthermore, the hidden costs of training data usage, streamed and uploaded data, are also increasingly being taken in consideration. The cost of data is very often a topic left on the sidelines. And if ”the pay as you go” or “pay as you train” may be an attractive commercial offer in the civil world, in the military sphere data usage may vary from one mission to another, with direct repercussion on costs and therefore a limited visibility on the overall cost of one training product over its lifespan.
However, despite various obstacles, the digital transformation is bringing a new era of training contracts. “Training as a service” is a new business model that is progressively being offered by more military providers. Yet, it still needs to be demonstrated that armed forces would be ready to give up equipment ownership. In-house digital solutions and architecture, like a private cloud, might be preferred. Unfortunately, heavy investments in a technology privately owned and operated brings inherent security costs and additional operational burdens when it comes to software updates and new versions releases, amongst other built-in security matters. The overall costs and rapid obsolescence of private systems are also hard to justify from a taxpayer perspective, especially at a time of economies severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like any new technology, digital platforms have their own challenges. Besides, it is simply not just developing the ability to do something new but creating a process for humans to leverage that technology in an effective and efficient way. Success requires both technological capability and attractive use cases and right now the latter are still in development. Until military operators can figure out the tradeoff between data sovereignty, cost, and security, the military training and simulation market will keep blending digital and analog solutions for safety, efficiency, and affordability matters.
In a surprise announcement on June 15, Japanese defense minister Taro Kono announced that Japan’s Aegis Ashore acquisition and deployment had been suspended due to rising costs and mounting technical difficulties. The technical difficulties were reportedly related to an inability to ensure that SM-3 missile boosters would not fall on populated areas. Besides cost and technical difficulties, there has been significant controversy surrounding how the government engaged with residents about how they might be affected by Aegis Ashore. Japanese citizens living around the proposed Aegis Ashore sites had brought up concerns about the strong electromagnetic radiation that would be emitted by the radars and potential health effects. Others were concerned about their communities being targeted in the event of a conflict. Furthermore, one of the earlier proposed sites in Akita Prefecture had been selected based on an incorrect survey that used data from Google Earth.
There is no word on if or when Japan will restart its Aegis Ashore acquisition. Prime Minister Abe had pushed strongly to have Aegis Ashore deployed as quickly as possible. If Japan does not procure Aegis Ashore, it then raises the question of how Japan will fill this ballistic missile defense (BMD) gap. Japan’s ballistic missile defenses currently rely on short-range PAC-3 missiles and longer-range SM-3 missiles fired from guided missile destroyers, like those that would be used on Aegis Ashore. If a land-based solution continues to run up against public opposition, and a suitable site cannot be found, Japan may have to rely more on sea-based BMD and potentially build new BMD capable destroyer. But this comes with extra costs like ship crew fatigue and extensive ship maintenance to keep the vessels a viable BMD platform, all costs that Aegis Ashore was supposed to help address.
The Swiss Council of States has approved spending measures for the Swiss Military between 2021 and 2024. Despite a global slowdown due to COVID-19, the Swiss Council approved a $22.5 billion acquisition budget over those years that will not only allow for the execution of the Air2030 program (which is a future fighter and air-and-missile defense program), but also allow for the modernization of ground forces, particularly ground combat vehicles and disaster relief forces. This proposal was passed alongside measures that would sustain Swiss forces and operations for a cost of $3.15 billion per year.
An additional measure allowed for the retirement of the Rapier air-defense system by 2022, ahead of the system’s replacement by the air-and-missile defense component of the Air2030 program. Originally purchased in the 1980s, the 60 Rapier launch systems are not only viewed as outdated compared to modern air assets, but also were actively being cannibalized in order to sustain operational units due to a lack of spare parts.
On June 16, the United States approved the upgrade of Canada’s CF-18 fleet via Foreign Military Sale (FMS) to meet Canada’s Hornet Extension Project Phase 2 requirement. The overall package has a potential value of $862.3 million. The program will see 36 aircraft upgraded with initial delivery in 2023. The upgrades will focus on sensors, weapons, and survivability. The FMS package confirmed by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency includes 38 APG-79(V)4 active electronically scanned array radars; 38 APG-79(V)4 AESA radar A1 kits, and 46 F/A-18A wide-band RADOMEs.
In addition, the proposed sale also includes 50 AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder missiles which will modernize Canada’s short-range air-to-air missile capability. Canada has already procured AIM-120D AMRAAM missiles from the US to provide a greater beyond visual range engagement capability. The strike capability of Canada’s CF-18 fleet will also be enhanced under the proposed sale with the inclusion of 20 AGM-154C Joint Stand-Off Weapons as well as upgraded bomb release racks. Survivability of the platform is to be enhanced through the installation of Automated Ground Collision Avoidance System and the procurement of 30 Improved Tactical Air Launched Decoys. The upgrade package will also include 104 Data Transfer Device/Data Transfer Units; 12 Joint Mission Planning Systems; and 112 AN/ARC-210 RT-2036 (Gen 6) radios.
On June 15, Australian news outlets reported that the nation’s Collins-class submarine fleet would require a roughly $2.4 billion refit, equivalent to just over $400 million per sub. The program will replace motors and diesel generators, and upgrade key systems, enabling the fleet to operate until 2048 with the first boat expected to retire in 2038. This new proposal would replace the original Collins-class retirement plan which sought to decommission one submarine every two years beginning in 2026. The refitting program will serve as a key stopgap measure as French company Naval Group builds the Australian Navy 12 Attack-class submarines as part of a deal worth nearly $35 billion. The new deliveries have been heavily delayed, with the first Attack-class submarines not expected to be commissioned until 2034 at the earliest.
On June 17, the UK and Germany are expected to sign a joint procurement agreement for the acquisition of a new Collaborative All-Terrain Vehicle which will replace the BAE Systems Bv-206 fleet in both countries. Germany has a requirement for 140 vehicles which will equip Mountain Infantry Brigade 23 while the UK’s vehicles will be used by the Royal Marines. The UK has had a requirement for a Bv-206 replacement for several years however the acquisition has been postponed several times. Previous tender notices suggest a requirement of up to 233 vehicles for the UK. Likely contenders are BAE’s BvS-10 from Sweden and STK’s Bronco from Singapore. The BvS-10 is already in service with the UK’s Royal Marines while the Bronco was procured for use in Afghanistan as an urgent operational requirement.
While the agreement is initially between Germany and the UK, there is the possibility that other European nations such as the Netherlands and Sweden might consider joining the program as well. Sweden is currently looking at the potential procurement of a new ATV and has stated that it is preparing to enter negotiations with Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. The inclusion of Sweden is likely to favor BAE Systems given that the BvS-10 is produced by BAE Systems Hägglunds in Sweden.
On June 16, the German government decided to stop upgrading its Orion maritime patrol aircraft. A refurbishment program has been in place, but a recent economic feasibility study has inclined the government to look for a replacement aircraft instead. According to reports, the Bundeswehr is currently examining the C-295, the RAS 72 and the P-8A as potential alternatives. The new maritime patrol aircraft will be used for anti-submarine and long-distance maritime reconnaissance missions.