by Geoffrey Wong


Virtual Reality plays a major role in today's Military training exercises. These efforts continue today and have become a key element in the advancement of Virtaul Reality technology. In this article we shall explore some very interesting military combat and training applications of VR.

Closing Thoughts

Virtual Battlefield - Simulation of Reality

Tommorrow's wars are being fought on digital terrain, where computerised tanks and helicopters do battle. Simulation is so realistic that trainee tank crew and pilots stagger out of their fibre glass simulators, dripping sweat and still pumped up on adrenaline.
The military have been training in a virtual world for years. And now it's possible to link up hundreds of tank and aircraft simulators into a vast network, all fighting in the same battle against the same computer-controlled opposition. It's called SIMNET.[2]

There is an establishment at Fort Knox, Kentucky -called the Combined Arms and Tactical Training Centre (CATTC). The centre carefully maintains the illusion of battle: briefing are given in a replica of the real mission briefing room ( known as Field Command Post ) and tank crews wear full combat gear. It's only as they walk in their "tanks" that the virtualness of their reality becomes apparent.
SIMNET tanks are grey pods on the outside, inside they are the perfect replica of a M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks (above). Once the hatches are closed, the experience is astonishingly accurate.
TV displays show the "outside world" through tiny vision blocks of the viewports. Powerful speakers play the whine of the gas turbine engine and the squealing of the rotating turret. There is even a heavy thud as the 120mm cannon fires, except that ammunitions are not allowed in the simulators so the loader has to go through the motion with fake twenty kilograms shells.
The Abrams tank has four crews - Commander, gunner and loader are in the crew cabin, while the driver has a tiny separate compartment.

The enemy threat is controlled from a central computer by one man, whose job is to use the tactics of the opposition as closely as possible. He controls his units -symbolised in icons on his computer screen, using a mouse. [2]
SIMNET's image generators turn these icons into indiviual tanks for trainee tankers to spot through their viewports. Battles can be fought over terrain anywhere in the world. Previously, the US Army uses map-makers and programmers to translate their real-life training grounds in the California Mojave Desert to the computer, but new high-quality satellite imagery and digital mapping means tanks and helicopters crews can be training on any potential trouble spot in the world without leaving Kentucky.

For more information on the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank : Click here

SIMNET is the 80's technology. The next generation of traning simulators is DIS, or Distributed Interactive Simulation, will combine far more units into one giant Virtual Reality battle. All big US defence contractors are creating computer models of their equipement to integrate into the digital battle - F-16 fighter, Apache Gunship, A-10 "Tank-buster" and even Patriot missile batteries (left). It's big business. In America, more than $2.5 billion is spend on simulation. However, it can also meant the savings of tens of billions spent on real military exerises and damage to farms and countrysides. Eventually, the US Army, Navy and Air Force will soon be able to battle on the same Virtual terrain. They can not only train raw crews, but to re-run real battles again and again, trying out "what-ifs". The Gulf war operation Desert Storm has already been recreated. The Iraqi T-72 tanks can, for instance, be given infra-red gun sights they didn't have, and the encounter refought. [4]

Brave Warriors - Telepresence Missions

Two fairly obvious reasons have driven the military to explore and employ telepresence in their operations; to reduce exposure to hazards and to increase stealth. Many aspects of combat operations are very hazardous, and they become even more dangerous if the combatant seeks to improve his performance. Prime examples of this principle are firing weapons and performing reconnaissance. To perform either of these tasks takes time, and this is usually the time when the combatant is exposed to hostile fire. Smart weapons and remotely- piloted vehicles (RPVs) were developed to address this problem.

Some smart weapons are autonomous, while others are remotely controlled after they are launched. This allows the shooter and weapon controller to "Fire-and-Forget" and immediately seek cover, thus decreasing his exposure to return fire. In the case of RPVs, the person who controls the vehicle not only has the advantage of being in a safer place, but the RPV can be made smaller than a vehicle that would carry a man, thus making it more difficult for the enemy to detect.[1]

In the UK, a remote-controlled vehicle called Mardi (right) has been built. The RPV is controlled by a fibre optic cable which reals out for up to six kilometres behind the vehicle. It is fitted with reconnaissance sensors and a laser to mark targets. There are many modifications to the Mardi to carry out more specific tasks; for mine-clearing and as a rescue vehicle for wounded soldiers or downed pilots in a hostile area.

A View to A Kill - Information Enhancement

In a combat environment, it is imperative to supply the pilot or tank commander with as much of the necessary information as possible while at the same time eliminate the amount of distracting information. This goal led the US Air Force to develope the Head Up Display (HUD) (left) which optically combines critical information (altitude, airspeed, direction) with an unobstructed view through the forward windscreen. With the HUD, the pilot never has to look down at his instrument panel.
When the HUD is coupled with the aircraft's radar and other sensors, a synthetic image of an enemy aircraft or tank can be generated on the HUD to show the pilot where the enemy is, even though the pilot may not see the actual vehicle with his unaided eyes.

This combination of real and virtual views of the outside world can be extended to nighttime operations. Using the infrared camera mounted on the nose of the aircraft, an enhanced view of the terrain ahead can be projected on the HUD. The effect is for the pilot to have a daylight window through which he has both a real and an enhanced view of the nighttime terrain and sky. [1]

There is also a Head Mounted Display as used by the Apache Gunship Helicopter.(above) HMD is similar to the HUD except that the display is mounted on the helmet of the pilot. Sensors behind him pick up the direction and position of the helmet and moves the infrared cameras and targeting systems on the nose of the helicopter accordingly. The pilot's left eye sees the real world while the right eye look directly into a display coupled to the infrared camera. Therefore wherever he looks, he has both the real and enhanced image of the outside world. For the gunner the HMD is coupled to the 30mm chain-gun underneath him, so where he looks is where the bullets will hit!

There are now research on a Super Cockpit in which the pilot is completely immersed in the virtual information and totally excluded from the actual view. The pilot not only has a virtual view of the outside world but also the cockpit itself, where the pilot would select and manipulate virtual controls using hand gestures. Low intensity laser are projected directly into the pilot's retina to pick up reflectd images. Weapons can then be lock on to enemy aircrafts with the pilot's glance.

Hyper Weapons - VR as a Weapons Design Tool

Ultimately, virtual wars may be fought with weapons that don't exist yet. It's incredibly expensive to design military hardware -the average weapons' programme, fully funded and free of technical hitches, takes 12 years from the first contract bids to equipement on the field. Soon manufacturers will be able to design in the computer, create simulator models and allow the military to test them on the virtual battlefield. Success there may mean the right to built from plastic and metal, and to enter service in the real world. [3]

Closing Thoughts.....

So how effective is VR technology on a real battlefield ? As demonstrated in the Gulf War, the Allied were all equiped with the latest VR weapons systems the Iraqi didn't have, the result was a substantial loss of lives and armoured vehicles for the Iraqi and an almost insignificant loss to the Allied with respect to a war of this scale.
The Allies were able to hit primary targets such as radar & communication centres deep behind enemy defences with SMART or Telepresence weapons such as the cruise missiles without the risk of soldiers' life. Bombers and Tank-Busting aircrafts had sophisticated nightvision and targeting sensors which allowed them to carry out their operations at nighttime. The Iraqi defences were less equiped with this technology so the chance of a hit from their return fire is smaller. Most of the Iraqi ground units were destroyed before the Allied ground offensive even began. Here it can be justified to conclude that the use of VR technology for the Military is crucial.

The physical abilities of tanks and aircrafts have already been pushed to their limits. It is now the research of sophisticated weapons interfacing and remote- piloted weapons which are of interest. The depth of these explorations are almost endless.

by Geoffrey Wong


  1. Military applications of virtual reality
    by Jim Bauman
    Many good examples of military applications of VR; including Telepresence

  2. Virtual Reality and the Exploration of Cyberspace
    by Francis Hamit Publisher : SAMS Publishing
    p. 223 A very informative account of the US Army SIMNET tank simulator.

  3. The Application of VR Technology to Existing Battlefield Simulation
    by Roger Smith - Principal Engineer at Mystech Associates
    A very comprehensive article, many technical issues and some areas on military applications, especially on simulation

  4. Commercial Virtual Reality Applications
    by Kristy Ann Pike - Owner of Pike & Associates Communications
    Concentrates on the marketing of VR products to military application over the years. Only little area on the actual applications.