…with AR/VR tech to circumvent the need for physical training but still offer some realism in tactical maneuvers and war skills.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted countless business and social activities for a year now. But did you know that government activities such as military training have been affected as well?

All over the world, even first-class military forces have been forced to abandon in-person training and adopt augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) wherever possible.

Although it is unlikely to replace field exercises, AR/VR military training has become a temporary solution while the pandemic takes its natural course.

AR/VR: a gateway to war?

For some weeks now, the Philippines media has covered the diplomatic protests against China’s activities in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

One columnist in a leading broadsheet cited an April 2017 report in the South China Morning Post stating that China aimed to erect an outpost on Panatag Shoal, with the possible addition of an airstrip. The columnist had noted that missiles fired from that outpost could hit Manila as well as the Philippines’ Clark Field and Subic Bay.

Why should China fire missiles from there? A former Philippine ambassador cited an American professor who stated that war is not a good option for China with its economy greatly relying on global trade. On the other hand, President Xi Jinping’s first order at the start of the year was for his country’s armed forces to be “full-time combat-ready”.

When reports of China turning to VR in military training came to light, speculation became rife that this technology could boost war readiness without risking the loss of property or lives.

AR/VR tech in the military

The use of AR/VR technology by an army, navy, or emergency rescue team is nothing new, and it has in fact been happening as early as the twentieth century.

  • 1929 – Hungarian physicist Kalman Tihanyi created an infrared-sensitive electronic camera that was the earliest form of night vision equipment. The modern Night Vision device was able to amplify light by 50,000 times.
  • 1960 – The US Army developed the ‘starlight scope’ which magnified available light, such as light coming from the moon, to produce a more visible scene.
  • 1961 – The first Heads-Up Display (HUD) was used by the British Royal Navy. Even up until 1989, variations of these HUDS would remain clunky and not soldier-friendly.
  • 2007 – Enhanced communications systems, incorporating thermal sensors and cameras, had become lighter from 86 pounds in 1999 to around 40 pounds.
  • 2014 – The US Army introduced ARC4, which allowed a soldier’s helmet to receive maps and navigation information to be used in a battlefield environment.
  • 2016 – The Israeli Army reportedly purchased Hololens devices, which gave the wearer a 360-degree view inside a vehicle, such as a tank.
  • 2018 – VR training incorporated physical objects and locations in what is known as the Automated Serious Game Scenario Generator for Mixed Reality Training (AUGGMED), a program which has its origins in Europe. Also created that year was a wearable, augmented reality display mounted inside a standard firefighter’s mask called C-Thru. It worked via a thermal camera attached to the fireman’s mask to capture the surroundings. Then the C-Thru’s computer processor added green lines that highlighted walls, door frames, or even a body lying on the floor.
  • 2021 – Microsoft is granted a US Army contract to produce some 120,000 devices based on its HoloLens augmented reality headset. 

Is military AR/VR here to stay?

The pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of large-scale training exercises such as Exercise Wallaby in Australia and Exercise Forging Sabre in the United States.

According to Samuel Chan, author and senior lecturer at the University of South Wales, Canberra, AR training is being done this year in Singapore but it is not likely to replace field exercises, according to the fact that vast training areas are still being developed in Singapore and Australia.

In India, the raging infection rate has also seen its army and navy engage in virtual training. Amid threats from its neighbor, South Korea has also incorporated AR/VR training for its soldiers.

Since AR/VR military training reduces the loss of lives and collateral, it seems like a good idea to make it a fixture for some aspects combat-preparedness training despite the potential lack of realism. Only time will tell.