When the leaders of Australia, the UK, and the US announced the formation of the AUKUS partnership, one of their key messages was the need to focus on enhancing joint capabilities to secure the Indo-Pacific. What wasn’t said, but will need consideration, is the role of virtual simulation technologies in enabling this, writes Ryan Stephenson, managing director of Bohemia Interactive Australia.
AUKUS joins a growing list of nations that Australia’s military is interacting with across the Indo-Pacific: from our other Five Eyes partners New Zealand and Canada, to the Quad members of India and Japan, and regional partners such as South Korea. These are all nations that Australia will increasingly work with to maintain stability in a region that is becoming more unstable and where we will need innovative approaches to military preparedness across a range of sensitive scenarios.
Interoperability is fundamental to ensuring those militaries can work together, and the only way we achieve effective interoperability is through training. It is, after all, why significant amounts of taxpayer funds — more than $200 million in 2021-22 — go towards multinational training exercises such as Talisman Sabre and Exercise MALABAR. Only by sharing experiences and, crucially, understanding each other’s capabilities, can our forces truly know how to work effectively together should the need arise.
While extremely important, such exercises do have their limitations. As well as the impact on the national bottom line, coordinating the mass movement of personnel amid a pandemic poses its own challenges. COVID-19 has already affected the training and exercise schedule, leaving us behind the ball and impacting on our operational readiness. We need to use all available resources to catch-up on that readiness and develop strategies to mitigate against further restrictions.
Furthermore, expanding exercises such as Talisman Sabre to include other partners who may well wish to participate in future operations also has its limits, either because they cannot spare the equipment or personnel to deploy for an exercise, or due to geopolitical sensitivities about their participation.
An obvious and effective solution is for Australia and its partners to explore the revolutionary role that virtual simulation can play.
Virtual simulation in the Australian Defence Force has a long history. While primarily used for individual and collective training, virtual simulation has also been used in mission planning, mission preparation and experimentation. Virtual simulation is used in applications as diverse as Navy bridge simulators; widely across Army for weapon system simulators; for practising tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) at the section, platoon and company team level and inflight simulators for the Navy, Army and Air Force.
In terms of interoperability, it is worth making the distinction at this point between massive platforms and complex systems working together — which is obviously important — and an individual’s familiarity with another nation’s equipment and operating environment, allowing them to work effectively alongside their foreign colleagues.
Many of Australia’s partners make use of simulation software for training purposes, including the UK, US, Canada, and New Zealand. That means we can already link up with our key partners and cooperate in joint virtual training.
The greatest use of such virtual simulation is for the training of small teams at a platoon to battalion level — the personnel who will be the “boots on the ground” if their militaries are deployed. Virtual training not only gives these teams the opportunity for more frequent interoperability training with their counterparts abroad, it also gives them the chance to train with a far wider range of assets, and scenarios, than otherwise may be possible.
That can also include training in advance of receiving capabilities — such as UAVs, UGVs or naval vessels — allowing crews to be fully familiar with a platform well ahead of its entry into service. This means they can develop new TTPs to ensure capability implementation remains cutting edge and that training on the actual platforms, once they arrive, can be more advanced than would otherwise be the case.
It would also give ADF personnel the opportunity to train virtually with colleagues from regional nations to become familiar with their UGV and landing craft/water transport, for example. This would ensure greater interoperability between our respective forces without the overheads.
As tensions rise and relationships sour in the Indo-Pacific, it is more important than ever that friendly armed forces ensure they can work together. However, those very tensions can be further inflamed by such exercises. Training in plain sight can also reveal strategies and tactics.
However, carrying out joint training exercises through virtual simulation would allow for a host of nations to take part at a low cost and higher frequency. For the participants it would provide the granularity to differentiate between friendly and potentially hostile equipment; for their commanders it would ensure tactics and technologies were kept away from prying eyes; while for politicians, compared to large live training activities, it would mean not needing to deploy the diplomatic corps as well as the military.
Within the context of such an exercise, trainers would have the ability to shape challenges and training responses to meet more specific outcomes, as well as shaping an opponent and mission to provide a more realistic and targeted training experience. Any issues for capability interoperability could be ironed out ahead of time and TTPs developed prior to a conflict, which plays well to the ‘allied force’ model of defence engagement.
This is, of course, a best-case scenario. The reality is that deploying virtual simulation training on such a scale faces several challenges, chief among them the fact that the approach of different users to integrating the technology into their current training systems is inconsistent.
There is also a tendency to focus on the acquisition of the platforms themselves, rather than the system of systems to deliver the training and ongoing skill development necessary to operate those platforms in a joint and coalition environment. Where virtual training is used, it is often focused on a single platform, rather than integrating it across the force, with the associated risk that we end up with a series of siloed systems and no joint or coalition training capability.
However, all challenges produce opportunities and it is important for Australia to continue its engagement with key partners on best virtual simulation practices, sharing experiences and exchanging technology to help support coalition interoperability. Australian industry is at the forefront of worldwide virtual simulation technology so there is a golden opportunity for the ADF to leverage and grow sovereign capability in this domain whilst at the same time providing leadership in coalition engagement and training activities.
No matter what course Australia adopts, our allies and partners will continue investing in simulation technologies for the myriad advantages they bring and the role they will inevitably play in emerging domains such as space. Investing in the technology — even via a partnership — gives Australia a “seat at the table” to leverage the technologies invested in by our key strategic partners around the world.
Without investment in the right technology, Australia risks being left behind in the emerging training opportunities offered by best practice use of virtual simulation, with the potential to negatively impact our regional relationships, our interoperability, and the overall readiness of the ADF. That is not a situation we want to find ourselves in when it comes to a neighbourhood that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described as “more dangerous and more disorderly”.
Ryan Stephenson is the managing director of Bohemia Interactive Australia.