Equipping personnel with a richer, more complex and more realistic VBS4 for collective training that's a cut above
In this blog series, we look at how specialists across industry are using Improbable’s synthetic environment development platform, Skyral, to collaborate in new ways and help defence transform how it trains.
Daniel Harris, Principal Systems Engineer
Eight months in and Putin’s ‘special military operation’ has experienced more setbacks than successes. Cast your mind back to March and these issues were perhaps foreshadowed from the start in the form of a 40-mile convoy that came to a grinding halt 18 miles north of Kyiv.
It was an embarrassment for Putin. The convoy, estimated to have held up to 15,000 troops, was paralysed by food and fuel shortages just as Russian personnel were preparing to storm Kyiv in what would have perhaps been the most pivotal point in the war. Instead, they had to come cap in hand to Ukrainian locals for supplies.
The US Department of Defense would go on to state that the convoy “never really accomplished its mission.” Three days after this statement, the Ukranian Ministry of Defense declared the whole of Kyiv Oblast – where the convoy was deployed – free of Russian troops.
The failure of the convoy tells us a lot about the nature of warfare and, in turn, the sort of training that’s needed to tackle conflict in all its complexity. War isn’t just about who fells the most opponents, who fires the most bullets, or which side has the highest-spec weaponry. It’s also about logistical challenges. It’s about morale. It’s about shifting narratives and how these influence the sentiment of a population, especially with online fast becoming part of the modern frontline.
So training needs to exist to explore, assess and analyse every aspect of warfare to avoid mishaps like the food and fuel-less Russian convoy becoming commonplace.
That’s why tools like VBS4 from Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) are a critical capability for every organisation training for operations. A whole-earth virtual desktop trainer and simulation host, it allows users to create and run wide range of military training scenarios. Its ubiquity amongst defence organisations is just one reason why I’m excited by the prospect of working closely with BISim over the coming months. The other is that, through our collaboration, we’ll be integrating VBS4 with other specialist technologies via Skyral for added nuance, depth and realism to reflect the complexity of the modern operating environment.
VBS4: virtual world experimentation for real world application
Much like Improbable, Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) has its roots in video game technology. And much like Improbable Defence, BISim knows all too well the value of creating richly detailed virtual worlds for real-world training, planning and decision making.
Now its own standalone entity of BAE Systems, BISim was once the sister company of Bohemia Interactive Studios, a Czech video game developer launched in 1997. Studios’ pioneering title was Operation Flashpoint, a first-person shooter that aimed to capture the reality of war more accurately than any game before it through an unprecedented sense of scale and detail. Adapting Operation Flashpoint with numerous specific military-grade training capabilities (such as After Action Review and AI with militarily-accurate doctrine) spawned BISim’s own Virtual Battlespace 1 (VBS1) product.
Now at VBS4, things have moved on massively since the early days of Operation Flashpoint. Through whole earth rendering and customised ‘Battlespaces’, VBS4 empowers warfighters everywhere to collectively train, experiment and rehearse in a powerful, high-fidelity simulation.
VBS’s value in support of the wider defence mission is not in doubt. It’s used by more than 60 NATO and NATO-friendly countries and over 300 military organisations, including the U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, Canadian Armed Forces, French Army and
the UK MOD. So when the opportunity arose to augment it with specialist applications and technologies to create value greater than the sum of the parts, we jumped at the chance.
Cause and effect: the case for better correlated training environments
For truly immersive collective training, the concept is simple: you want a fair fight for everyone involved. This is especially true in regards to simulated training. When using different virtual environments, they need to be correlated otherwise discrepancies arise in outcomes that undermine the value of the training.
A tree blocking the view of a user in one environment and not in another, for example, will cause problems and a break down in communication. Should these same users get ambushed during a virtual training exercise, they’ll need correlated lines of sight and head direction so both know which direction to look in. Their weapon positions should sync so both are aiming accurately at the same target – which, again, should look the same across different environments.
VBS4 provides immensely rich and detailed terrains, coupled with dynamic entities, which makes solving these correlation challenges harder when using different virtual environments together. But the correlation challenge needs solving, given that VBS4 has been selected as the Defence Virtual Simulation (DVS2) solution for UK. Its widespread use and usefulness means we must explore the art of the possible to provide fully correlated environments in which both a foot soldier and a tank crewman who may be in a different virtual environment can train fairly and to the best of their ability.
To do this, we’re going beyond network standards to capture the level of nuance required for better, fairer and more effective training. Skyral will integrate with VBS4 at an API level, using the VBS4 SDK, which comprises BISim’s extensible API library, as part of its toolbox.
The end goal is to harness VBS4 as a window onto a wider correlated virtual environment, composed of specialist technologies and applications that enable humans-in-the-loop to experience entirely new aspects of training:
• Accurate visual representation of modelling and simulation involving civilian sentiment and infrastructure effects;
• Massive scale and density comprising upwards of 1m complex entities;
• The exchange and tracking of nuanced data for in-scenario monitoring control and analysis to better understand training performance both as it happened and as it could be conducted in future.
Simulating the information domain: synthetic sentiment, accurate animations and infrastructure modelling
The real world is complex. So are the humans that inhabit it. Collective training – whether live, virtual or constructive – needs to reflect this complexity to give trainees as realistic an experience as possible.
So we turn to modelling and simulation. Non-player characters (NPCs) in VBS4 will exhibit behavioural visual traits based on sentiment that’s been generated by the complex interaction within applications such as Montvieux’s ASAIR and Improbable’s civilian population models, coupled with critical national infrastructure (CNI) networks and information spread effects through those networks. Should an exercise facilitator inject a CNI event, VBS4 can make use of Skyral’s infrastructure network modelling capabilities.
Once triggered, the aforementioned foot soldier and tank crewman will witness the visual manifestation of sentiment change in the affected civilian population controlled by Skyral, but visualised in VBS4. Alongside trainees at HQ level who can see wider changes across the region, they must decide on the best course of action according to their skillsets and experience. And that’s the beauty of a correlated operating environment composed from multiple specialist technologies in which cause and effect impacts training as part of a larger feedback loop.
A (no so) small world: maximum scale and density
Complex NPCs are essential for truly immersive collective training. In the case of VBS4’s integration with Skyral, there will be a lot of them: over 1m, to be exact, each optimised for unprecedented scale and running in the cloud. They’ll exhibit a range of specific traits, such as social media use, connection to telecom networks, fear for life and sentiment towards local government. These will be updated at different rates by multiple models, simultaneously across the whole population.
Improbable’s games heritage gave us a head start in achieving this. Advances made by our Games Technology Unit in the development of ScavLab and Project Morpheus have extended the technological limits of scale and density, with minimal latency and network burden. These same technological advances also underpin Skyral. For the first time, users can experience a window onto a vast, densely populated world visualised in VBS4, tailored to their exact objectives and at the scale needed to accurately reflect real-world operations.
Harnessing data for in-scenario monitoring control and analysis
Deeper levels of integration between specialist technologies means we can tap into more nuanced data for richer, more immersive training.
To return to my opening example: standalone VBS4 can simulate the look, feel and formation of a military convoy. By integrating VBS4 and Skyral, we can go a step further by making use of better data to set up triggers that alert users to very granular in-scenario events.
Let’s say this convoy forms an essential part of a resupply to front line troops. Naturally, VBS4 has a trigger to alert trainees if a vehicle’s fuel level has become critically low. This feature is fed directly into Skyral’s canonical view of the operating environment.
The prospect of the vehicle’s paralysis means trainees will have to collectively stop, take stock and figure out the next best course of action. Thanks to our work with 4C Strategies, events such as fuel states, civilian casualties or sentiment changes can be automatically flagged in Exonaut so observer-mentors know to analyse trainee response during after-action review.
Remember: the Russian operation stalled on Kyiv Oblast precisely because of this logistical oversight. By simulating situations like it, trainees are better prepared and more confident in the face of similar logistical challenges on real-world operations.
Industry collaboration: providing the right tools for the job at the right time
Any talk of integration typically touches on the standards that underpin it. It might be Distributed Interactive Simulation (DIS). Or High-level Architecture (HLA). Or the Data Distribution Service (DDS). Each has their place to power interoperability between applications and technologies depending on their different strengths and weaknesses.
Our work with VBS4 is underpinned by an API-API integration – not because it’s better than other standards, but because it’s the best tool for this particular job: tracking and exchanging nuanced data between applications for deeper data exchange and analysis, and better visual correlation.
Allowing industry specialists and system integrators to pick and choose the level of integration that suits them plays a huge part in the development of Skyral. Choice, optionality, flexibility: these are key to fast and effective industry collaboration. And it’s industry collaboration that will get the latest innovations into the hands of the organisations we serve to help them better train the next generation of warfighters so that, in the face of adversity, they’ll never be caught short for fuel.
The Skyral Partner Network consists of organisations that share our commitment to developing the best possible capabilities and getting them into the hands of end users fast.