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Virtual Theater Prepares Warfighters

February 2009
By Henry S. Kenyon

Thales U.K.’s Battlespace Transformation Center in Crawley, England, is training British forces’ headquarters personnel before they deploy to Afghanistan. Specifically tuned to training intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) specialists, the simulation provides sensor feeds from a variety of ground and aerial platforms. The virtual world accurately replicates towns in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province to familiarize personnel with their operational area.
Simulator training enhances headquarters staff skills.

A new virtual training facility is helping British troops hone their command and control skills before they deploy to Afghanistan. The center creates geographically accurate simulations that allow headquarters personnel to become familiar with managing intelligence data from manned and unmanned platforms during a series of operational scenarios. The networked battlefield simulator can be rapidly modified to include new lessons learned from units returning from overseas missions.

This pre-deployment training takes place at Thales United Kingdom’s BattlespaceTransformationCenter in Crawley, England. A major part of these virtual operations occurs in the center’s Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) Theater. According to Peter Wright, a business development executive for information superiority at Thales U.K., when the center launched in 2003, its training techniques were based on lessons learned from the U.K. Watchkeeper program (SIGNAL, November 2005). For Watchkeeper, Thales developed a simulation to put unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators into a virtual operating environment.

The Crawley center is transitioning to a new purpose-built facility featuring a number of networked and specifically equipped rooms and trailers simulating headquarters and vehicles. The new training facility became operational last month. Wright says that the next opportunity for providing pre-deployment training probably will be this March.

The ISTAR Theater is a major part of the new facility. One wall of the theater features a multidisplay media wall representing a joint operations center. The displays can present data from a variety of ISTAR sources such as Reaper or Watchkeeper UAVs. Wright explains that his company initially assumed that the media wall would be used to study how a command center ingests information. However, personnel at the brigade and battle group level were more interested in understanding how to operate their equipment more efficiently. 

A typical brigade or tactical headquarters features a central table with an operational map on it. Plastic overlays and grease pencils provide situational awareness. The ISTAR liaison officers operate terminals around the map table and relay information from simulated ground and airborne sensors to the commanders at the map table. Wright notes that the BattlespaceTransformationCenter can simulate the headquarters operation down to the brigade and battle group levels. The center’s rooms can be sectioned to represent deployed and vehicle-based headquarters. “Our audience is the ISTAR headquarters team. We’re looking at training the management of the deployed ISTAR capability, not the hands-on operator training of any specific platform. Other operator training facilities are probably better able to do that,” he says.

The current ISTAR simulation and training program began in late 2005 and early 2006. Wright notes that it grew out of discussions with members of the Royal Marines who were being reassigned to Afghanistan with UAV systems that they had been unable to train with due to flight restrictions. Because Thales provides much of the Royal Marines’ ISTAR training, the company offered to create a virtual training exercise for the Marines to improve their pre-deployment readiness.

Another part of the BattlespaceTransformationCenter’s work is helping ISTAR headquarters personnel to understand better the collaborative use and function of a variety of reconnaissance assets. The center can simulate sensor feeds from systems including small tactical UAVs, such as the Desert Hawk; wheeled and armored reconnaissance vehicles; and other ISTAR platforms across a range of echelons. The center’s simulators also can include ISTAR platforms from allies such as the United States and NATO nations.

A typical operational scenario displays simulated ISTAR imagery from a town in Afghanistan’s HelmandProvince. Wright says that over the course of a few hours, the scenario plays out developments that normally take several days in real time. The goal of the exercise is to collect intelligence about activities in a compound within the town. Another scenario focuses on relieving a forward operating base that is under attack. Wright asserts that the Royal Marines unit was so pleased with its pre-deployment training that it recommended its relief brigade undertake the same training.

Headquarters teams receive four days of training. One day is used as a debriefing or preparation day with three core days focusing on specific scenarios. Wright notes that the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Thales are discussing methods to provide specialized “niche” training to units during the late stages of operational buildup. Once teams have conducted comprehensive training or a full mission exercise in a live environment, they work through specific scenarios. He admits that some uncertainly remains whether synthetic training is best immediately before or after a major exercise.

An image of the screen is shown in the ISTAR Theater. A key part of the Thales Battlespace Transformation Center, the ISTAR Theater replicates the data and tactical information being fed into a battalion or battle group headquarters.
The Crawley-based facility can network with other Thales Battlespace Transformation Centers in the United Kingdom and abroad (SIGNAL, October 2004, page 55). Wright shares that Thales’ U.K. network also is connected to the MOD’s Dominion network, which coordinates U.K. and coalition force activities in Afghanistan. The company’s network can operate across unclassified, restricted and U.K. secret levels.

“We were specifically interested in bringing to life the operational and procedural training that personnel find very hard to get within normal live exercises. Data is typically used as the tap to control the pace of exercises. If an exercise is going well, commanders will receive less intelligence feed. If it’s going badly, they will receive more. But it [the exercise] doesn’t adequately practice the ISTAR team itself,” Wright says. He adds that through the battle lab, his company seeks to provide a detailed virtual reality environment where ISTAR collection assets can provide high-fidelity information within a counterinsurgency operation.

Participants can share live operational information during the simulation. For example, UAV operators can describe what they see on their display over a voice or chat network and relay this information to the operator of another tactical UAV in the same area. Wright says that this function allows headquarters and operational personnel to collaborate by visually identifying the same targets.

Wright contends that a key feature of the center’s training is its accurate representation of the Afghan terrain in which British forces operate. He contrasts this with the MOD’s current standard training simulation that uses a generic environment based on geographical representations of regions in Canada or England. The Thales system contains map overlays of HelmandProvince that accurately places buildings and roads and provide realistic details such as terrain features that may obscure sensors and communications. Wright says that these reality-based experiences allow troops to perform immediately when they are deployed instead of learning on the job. “It’s more of a feeling of déjà vu on the first day, [rather] than having to spend the first month getting up to speed whilst bullets are flying,” he maintains.

Based on feedback from several years of simulation training, Wright says that his company is making its new facilities more agile and adaptable so that they can be quickly reconfigured. He notes that historically, simulation facilities required substantial modifications to implement changes. The goal is to reduce the turnaround time to a few weeks for major changes or days or hours for minor modifications.

This adaptability is partially an effort to keep up with ISTAR personnel who learn a range of new lessons about enemy behavior while in the field. Training centers must then modify their simulations and equipment to reflect this new military knowledge. One example of these changes is the ability to section off parts of the facility quickly to provide remote cells to operate ISTAR assets and collaboration with a range of new coalition partners.

To maintain flexibility, the company is increasingly looking at interoperable and adaptable commercial technologies. Wright notes that this is a shift from the bespoke training systems that had been procured and developed in the past.

Thales also is considering a virtual forward air controller system, simulating a ground-based observer designating targets for air assets. The simulator would allow a soldier to interact with virtual U.K., U.S. or coalition aircraft. Because of the complex relationships between forward air controllers, troops on the ground and pilots, Wright notes that there are many parts in this process where miscommunication can lead to mission failure or disaster. He adds that a simulator would be a powerful tool in building the skills necessary prior to deployment. Flight simulators can be integrated into the system, allowing pilots to gain experience cooperating with ground controllers in an immersive environment.

The company also has examined the use of modeling and simulation systems for use by deployed forces. Wright says that Thales considered developing mobile trailers to allow personnel to train on new equipment rushed into an operational theater. But he notes that one of the challenges for such a system is the limited time deployed troops have for simulator training. Although it would be appreciated, Wright says that commanders do not know if troops in the field would have the time to properly use the training equipment. Another potential use for portable simulators would be for in-barracks training for a brigade in the United Kingdom prior to deployment.

Web Resources
Thales U.K.:
U.K. Ministry of Defence: