US soldiers training with virtual reality technology. Screenshot via YouTube
The US Army is thinking a lot about its future lately. It's facing sequestration budget cuts and pressure to scale back to its size before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. To become "more lethal" with less money and manpower, it's relying on technology—robots, drones, and virtual reality.
Army officials revealed the latest details about the ongoing high-tech makeover at the Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, Virginia last week. The Army is moving to the next phase of a plan intended to streamline its existing virtual training process, by building an expansive virtual battlefield. Think Second Life for soldiers. It's also speeding up the trend of automating the Army's battlefield operations, by planning to replace about 25 percent of troops with robots and unmanned vehicles.
The Defense Department has already fully embraced virtual reality training, for flight simulation, battlefield simulation, medical training, virtual boot camp, and others. But the various systems purchased over the years only operate separately, and each costs millions to build. To streamline the process, In 2012 the DoD announced a plan to integrate the training programs to create a more realistic, complex virtual environment to mimic real-world operations.
The goal is for every soldier to have a virtual avatar that can be customized to reflect their skills, ability, weaknesses—a true digital Doppelgänger to train with. With better networking between various scenarios, more data can flow into the immersive virtual world, making the environment more accurate. Moreover, troops anywhere in the world can train in the same system. This could prove serious savings.
"As we look to the future, we are going to transition ... into the future holistic training environment, live synthetic," explained Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, the federal technology publication FCW reported. "We want to get away from having multiple environments, virtual gaming and instruction, and go to one synthetic environment, get to a lower overhead and integrate the full operations process."
The Pentagon has always been careful to stress that virtual gaming exercises are only meant to supplement, not replace real-life training. But recently, the top brass seem to be getting much more comfortable with the idea of digitizing the mighty US military.
At last week's symposium Army officials talked about a "smaller, more lethal" force. The Army considering shrinking the number of combat soldiers per brigade from 4,000 to 3,000 and filling in the gaps with robots and unmanned soldiers. Within five years, the goal is to get the total number of ground soldiers down from 540,000 to 420,000.
“If we downsize a brigade, how can we keep the same types of brigades out there but be smaller?” Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell asked in an interview with the Army Times. “With technology, how can we do that? Robotics, how can that help us? Do we need a nine-person vehicle, or can we go to six-person? Do we use avatars?”
Indeed, one area of the DoD's budget that isn't stagnating is the money pouring into R&D. Technologists at DARPA are working on developing war robots and drones with better autonomy. With sights set on a more deadly force with less humans, killer autonomous machines maybe be the inevitable future of the military, despite the dystopian prophesies and efforts to slow down that terrifying train.
At the event, officials predicted that sometime in the future, a breakthrough in technology and science would completely change the nature of the Army's forces. Clearly, it’s already starting to.