Training for war in a virtual battlespace
Prague company has supplied many of the world's biggest militaries
By Daniel Bardsley
As a U.S. Army Humvee edges forward, a burst of gunfire erupts, slamming into the bulletproof glass of the passenger door. For an instant, the world becomes a dizzying mix of frantic steering wheel movements, depressed gas pedals and moving shadows.
The glass on the door shatters but nothing penetrates and in a surge of acceleration, the Humvee roars clear.
While slightly the worse for wear, the sand-colored four-wheel drive is able to continue across the desert.
The young man controlling the Humvee grins before taking his hands off the computer keyboard and getting up from his seat in the tranquil - and very safe - environment of an IT room.
While the action was realistic, it was virtual reality, based on military simulation software produced by Prague-based Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim).
There are few things less welcome in an unfamiliar foreign land than an attack by insurgents, but thanks to this type of "virtual battlespace" technology, before arriving in the field personnel can prepare for such malign events using a humble PC.
BISim has supplied software to many of the world's biggest militaries, including those from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Whether it is a firefight with insurgents, the dangers of roadside improvised explosive devices or an attack on helicopters by ground-based fighters, it can be simulated on computer.
The experience is "very similar" to playing a game on a home computer, according to Peter Morrison, BISim chief executive. Indeed, sister company Bohemia Interactive Studio, also based in Prague and which shares technology with BISim, produces such home entertainment games.
"It works really well, because all the soldiers play computer games at home," Morrison said of his company's main product, Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2). "We took a computer game and added layers of functionality [such as] an after-action review that replays everything that happened to someone."
"We also allow the military to create their own terrain. If they are going to Afghanistan, they can recreate Afghanistan in their computer game."
Virtual Battlespace, which first appeared in 2005 and has been updated many times, allows personnel to be placed in an almost unlimited variety of potentially dangerous scenarios anywhere in the world. Soldiers could be driving a tank in insurgent-ridden territory in Afghanistan, proceeding on foot through a dusty Iraqi town or engaging hostile fighters in Africa. The number and type of threats can be chosen in advance, with various specifications of insurgents, for example, to choose from.
"They can blow stuff up. They're not learning how to shoot a rifle but how to make decisions based on the situation presented to them," Morrison said.
BISim was founded in Australia in 2001 as a spin-off from Bohemia Interactive Studio and its Operation Flashpoint game.
As more training games have been developed and additional militaries have started to use the software, the company has expanded rapidly and now has around 140 staff, nearly half of them employed at the headquarters, which were moved to Prague several years ago. There are also offices in Australia, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Multiple companies offer simulation technology to the world's militaries, but Morrison said only a fraction focuses on software that can be played on a standard computer as opposed to a full-scale simulator. A license to use BISim's training platform may cost millions of dollars rather than the tens of millions that have to be invested in a simulator.
"It's an order of magnitude difference," Morrison said. "What was unique was that we formed a games company around this. Other games companies dabbled in it."
Many types of military training can be done well on a standard personal, according to Ian Kemp, editor of the Military Simulation and Training Handbook.
"If you're training a fighter pilot, it would be expected that there would be a bespoke purpose-built trainer where the pilot sits inside the cockpit, and they cannot tell the difference [between this and] a real aircraft," he said.
"[But] if you're looking at individually training the first-person shooter, what the military introduces is judgment training - should they shoot or shouldn't they. That's done just as easily with someone on a desktop or laptop."
It takes about half a day's training to learn to use VBS2, and a soldier might use it about once a month, increasing this frequency before they arrive in the field.
Multiple players can take part simultaneously using machines connected in a network and personnel from different militaries can practice alongside one another ahead of a joint mission.
Militaries can build their own terrain, using classified data to create a detailed three-dimensional representation of the area they operate in. This enables the simulation of, for example, the drive from the airport by a convoy at the start of a deployment.
Morrison, who spent eight years in the Australian Army before turning to military simulation, and ran his own company for two years, says one of the key assets of simulation platforms is that they are fun.
"I have seen soldiers arriving at the battle simulation center early. It's important to take it seriously but learning should be an enjoyable, entertaining experience. For a long time, the military used PowerPoint to train soldiers. It's so boring," he said.
Yet the close relationship between virtual battlespace technology and home computer games can lead to doubts about the effectiveness of the technology as a training tool.
"It takes a culture shift. Senior officers will see their children playing computer games at home, so games are associated with fun, and fun is not training," Morrison said.
He insists, however, it is "not just about playing games," citing Canadian research that indicated it was effective in improving the performance of personnel.
In a 2008 paper, Paul Roman of the Royal Military College of Canada and Doug Brown of the Directorate of Land Synthetic Environments wrote that game-based training was not enough to develop the "expert psycho-motor skills" needed to deploy weapons systems.
"However, once the team of experts in various weapons systems is created, [battlespace simulation] technology affords trainers the opportunity to turn them into an expert team capable of communication well with the cognitive skills they need to effectively operate as teams, " the authors wrote.
BISim has ambitious expansion plans, with private equity firm the Riverside Company having recently made "a substantial investment" into the company to become the majority shareholder.
"It's very exciting, because they are keen to grow us to become a bigger player," Morrison said.
It is perhaps unsurprising private equity firms are investing in military simulation, as Kemp says the sector has good prospects, having proved largely immune to the funding cuts that have hit other areas.
"In virtually any aspect [of defense procurement], if you're thinking of aircraft or armored vehicles, there's a reduction in the number of systems countries are buying, but virtually every country is spending more on simulation and training," Kemp said.
"As they look to achieve savings, one of the best ways is to increase the use of military training tools."
The Riverside Company's investment enabled BISim to earlier this year buy TerraSim, a company that specializes in technology used to develop terrains in computer games. BISim also aims to adapt its platform so it can be used in full-scale tank or flight simulators.
"For us, it's a whole new league. That's the direction the company is expanding into," Morrison said.
He says he hopes within five years all NATO countries could be using the company's technology, although the list of potential customers is not endless as the firm is "pretty careful" whom it sells to.
As expansion continues, one of the biggest challenges is likely to be recruiting suitable staff.
"We're actually looking for talented game developers. We try to get good people out of university … and keep them for as long as we can," Morrison said.