Virtual training environment as part of conscript training
So far, in the conscript training context, the virtual training environment has been utilised only for a while. Initially, the training implementation drawing from computer game simulators took off somewhat naturally with no need for specific directives stating so. This is, a number of instructors realised in practice that, while engaged in instructing tactics and combat techniques, these game simulators turned out to provide an increasingly efficient instruction method compared to what used to be known as PowerPoint drill sessions or equivalent. Obviously, this type of instructing presupposes that the instructor still remains substance-matter-wise competent. However, the virtual learning environment offers nearly limitless implementation opportunities.
Original operating framework
Way back in 2001-2002, the Armoured School gave the Steel Beast game a try in the instruction provided for cadets, which was then followed in 2003 by specific funding allocated for furnishing class room facilities dedicated to the Steel Beasts Professional that enabled the main battle tank specialists to get hands-on practice in keyboard agility and combat techniques. Fast forward, and in 2007, the then Commander of the Armoured Brigade posed the question deliberating how to practice inter-agency cooperation. At that point, all the service branches and functional areas were lacking access to a virtual simulator. Fairly quickly then a commercial off the shelf product, the Operation Flashpoint, surfaced, and its professional version, the Virtual Battle Space, had already been launched as well. The Armoured Brigade became the first brigade-level unit to field a trial experimentation of the VBS2 that had been developed on the basis of the Armed Assault, a follow-up version to the Flashpoint. In 2009, with the favourable results accrued from this experimentation, the Armoured Brigade received its first ever bespoke virtual training classroom facility.
National virtual training
Informed by the example set by the Armoured Brigade, a national Centre of Excellence for Simulators was established as part of the Army Academy in 2016. By the same token, a national Virtual Training Division subordinated to this Centre of Excellence was established as part of the Armoured Brigade. This division continues to remain responsible for leading the national implementation of virtual training, producing and testing material intended for utilisation in a virtual training environment as well as preparing for assuming responsibility for all the virtual simulators utilised in the Finnish Defence Forces. Executing this set mission continues to be aided by altogether circa 40 conscripts in total serving in all brigade-level units and selected via the special task selection process. Another major entity contributing to this implementation equals the two-way laser engagement system, KASI, operating as part of the Pori Brigade.
Over the past year, the virtual training environment became fielded in all garrisons across the country resulting in 35 classrooms and 1245 computers fitted with the VBS3.9.0 FDF. Those garrisons that provide training in the Leopard Main Battle Tank continue to avail of the Steel Beasts Professional. The extent to which these programs are used in the garrisons still varies but, nevertheless, continues to increase on the grounds of the quotas for practice munitions decreasing and the occasional restrictions of use imposed.
Virtual training environment beneficial both for students and instructors
The virtual training environment rests on the idea that the given unit be instructed the set contents in the same environment in which the training will take place also by means of the KASI simulator systems. This in turn has resulted in increasingly rapid operating agility in the field and alleviated the instructors’ tasks as the incorrect procedures have been eliminated already while undertaking in-class training. Furthermore, the virtual training environment also suits well for leadership training purposes, since while training prospective leaders, the trainees tend to lack subordinates. In a virtual training environment, the students may never become disengaged as each combatant must make their own virtual self to act on the battlefield in accordance with the set Army rules of engagement. Obviously, no PowerPoint slides will ever get to achieve this. The instructor will be able to observe each combatant on the screen, and, when applicable, disrupt, offer feedback, and have the performance be renewed at the starting setting in just a matter of seconds. The executed missions can be saved as files by the After Action Review programme that also allows for offering detailed feedback. This feedback will then double as instruction material for the following contingents to be trained. Moreover, the file can be turned into a video clip that can be watched on any end-user computer screen.
The virtual training environment is built to measure so that it corresponds to approximately two hours of usage by each conscript on a weekly basis. However, this objective may at times remain unattainable as the units vary in their implementation procedures from one training phase to another. Currently, it seems to be the case that simulator utilisation looms large during the special training period and force production period, whereas its role is less significant during the initial basic training period.
Unique training environment for a number of service branches and functional areas
As such, the virtual training environment provides for some service branches the only simulator that enables conducting training nationally. Take, for instance, the case of the simulator for use of support fires which has become outdated and therefore all forward observation instruction is trained by means of the VBS3. In the national setting, the virtual training environment now features altogether 17 versatile weapons systems including shaped charges and directed fragmentation charges as well as varying types of mines. The featured weapons account for the set reticle subtensions and wind factor impact. For example, the sniper rifle sports in its scope the variable magnification setting allowing for distance estimation, a feature unfeasible even for the programme manufacturer proper. In total, altogether 25 vehicle types and 30 human operator types have become modelled as part of the virtual training environment. The most recent vehicle type is that of a modernised BMP-2M whose only simulator utilised at the moment is the virtual training environment. In addition, bespoke control handles have been procured for all the key armoured fighting vehicles. Moreover, altogether 26 types of basemaps of a number of training exercise areas have been modelled in the scale ranging from 5km by 5km to 30km by 30 km. The objective is to be able to cover the country in its entirety at some point, and thereby also transform all national training material to be a functional part of the simulator.
Use case experiences drawn from the virtual training environment
Facilitating perception of substantial entities in particular, the virtual training environment rendered itself into developing cooperation between brigade-level units in the fields of intelligence, joint effects and targeting this past spring, in April 2018. Arranged by the Armoured Brigade and lead by the Army Command, this training exercise was undertaken by reconnaissance conscripts from the Kainuu Brigade, the Lapland Border Guard District and the Jaeger Brigade. The basemap legend covered the Rovajärvi area in the scale of 30km by 30km with an identical situational setting as that of the Pohjoinen18 exercise, albeit with its emphasis on intelligence activities. By and large, this training exercise implementation gave an indeed positive impression. The same basemap allowed for training the Pohjoinen18 exercise activities under the command of the Commander of the Armoured Brigade from the Armoured Brigade’s viewpoint. The exercise implementation included the operating levels from the platoon leaders upwards on the chain of command and comprised altogether some 50 players convened in the Armoured Brigade’s virtual learning environment classroom.
Only the imagination as the limit
Overall, as regards the utilisation options available in the realm of the virtual training environment, it is safe to say that only the imagination functions as the limit. Suitable in instructing combat techniques of all service branches and functional areas, the virtual training environment is particularly optimal in instructing topics that remain hard to visualise or challenging to tangibly implement, including the impact of indirect fires and minefields, activities of an aerial adversary, combat in built-up areas with the resulting debris as well as correctly proceeding to seek air cover. The benefits of the virtual training environment also include its open modifiability. In fact, no software products available commercially off the shelf are as modifiable and responsive to bespoke modelling. Similarly, using own basemaps as part of the commercially off the shelf products may be non-attainable as well.
Yet, it is worth keeping in mind that the virtual training environment represents just one instruction method among others, and thereby it remains essential to sustain training in the field and as part of live firing exercises.
The Finnish version of this text was authored by Major (Eng.) Lasse Lahdenmaa who serves in the Armoured Brigade and functions as the primary operator of the Finnish Defence Forces’ virtual training environment and as the Simulator Section Chief.