No matter what is done, no matter what method is used, one should always remember that our wartime recruits are sent into squadrons as into battalion with hasty, incomplete training, and if you give them lances most of them will just have sticks in their hands, whereas a straight sword at the end of a strong arm is both simple and terrible. —Charles Jean Jacques Joseph Ardant du Picq, Battle Studies
As the Army embraces multi-domain operations (MDO), Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) must adjust training methods and aids to account for the ever-increasing volumes of information required to maintain increasingly sophisticated weapon systems. Current Army weapon systems already highlight this need. For example, the most recent operator-level technical manual for the M1A2 Abrams Tank consists of four volumes numbering 4,674 pages. Carl Von Clausewitz’s timeless treatise On War comprises just one-seventh that number. If the past is any guide, future weapon systems will only become more sophisticated and challenging to maintain with less time to train individual Soldiers.
The individual Soldier’s heightened intellectual aptitude has become the hallmark of the all-volunteer force, which leveraged further advancement in technology and adaptation of a training and professionalization culture analogous to licensed practical nurses, licensed industrial technicians, and other skilled tradesmen. This achievement also became the Army’s Achilles heel, since organizations cannot train and certify such specialists overnight. If large-scale combat operations (LSCO) result from the current competitive policies of Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea, the Army will need to already have in place a supportive cognitive environment for training replacements on sophisticated equipment. If TRADOC and the Army Combined Arms Support Command (CASCOM) do not develop a system for rapid transfer of cognitive information, the newly-accessed Soldiers will embody Ardant du Picq’s warning about the value of untrained personnel: “…if you give them lances most of them will just have sticks in their hands...”
As part of the existing synthetic training environment, TRADOC’s Program Executive Office Soldier began incorporating augmented reality as part of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, known as IVAS, and plans to field it in 2021. The IVAS uses augmented reality to show weapon optics, Soldier location, friendly and enemy location, night vision capability, and possibly facial recognition and text translation. However, the new IVAS focuses only on battlefield capabilities; it misses the platform’s critical application to a disbursed maintenance environment and cross-training requirements for low-density and high-demand technical skill sets.
Two facts should convince CASCOM and TRADOC to accelerate the application and improvement of maintenance training through augmented reality. Augmented reality improves point-of-need training by generating remembered hands-on experiences for Soldiers, a personalized curriculum based on skill level and aptitude, and an accelerated knowledge transfer rate compared to legacy training methods. Second, augmented reality improves training efficiency by increasing Soldiers’ motivation to learn, unit training programs’ effectiveness, and the acquisition of the technical skills required to repair sophisticated weapon systems.
The Army requires its professionals to possess specialized knowledge. James Kitfield, in his 1997 book Prodigal Soldiers, articulated that the U.S. Army was able to draft individuals from 1940 to 1973, but it could not draft experience, a lesson the U.S. Army will relearn in future wars. As the synthetic training environment continues to develop, CASCOM and TRADOC must consider augmented reality as a tool to bridge inexperience and sophisticated weapon system maintenance requirements through point-of-need training and improved training efficiencies.
Training Delivered to the Point-of-Need
U.S. Army institutional schools often trail the operational force in training new warfighting technologies. To address this concern, the 2013 TRADOC commander Gen. Robert W. Cone, in his article, “Building the New Culture of Training,” published in Military Review, January-February 2013, suggested using emerging technologies to deliver training at the point-of-need, thereby mitigating the lag between institutional schools and the operational force. Augmented reality emerged as one of the most recent technologies that can minimize the knowledge gap between equipment fielding and institutional schools. Augmented reality generates remembered hands-on training for Soldiers, personalizes training based on skill level and aptitude, and accelerates the knowledge transfer rate of technical information compared to legacy training methods, thereby delivering practical point-of-need training.
NCOs currently provide hands-on training to mitigate the lag in institutional training; however, the current systems reduce training quality for new Soldiers. New Soldiers often miss point-of-need training since operator new equipment training (OPNET) and field-level maintenance new equipment training (FLMNET) typically do not align with personnel manning cycles. Even when civilian trainers certify an NCO as a trainer, that NCO rarely remains in place for more than three years. New Soldiers arrive monthly, yet no matter how dedicated, contractor-certified NCO trainers seldom provide the same level of hands-on training provided by the OPNET or FLMNET teams. Augmented reality, combined with NCO trainers, provides new Soldiers with ongoing hands-on training and instruction instead of manuals or slide presentations left behind by the OPNET or FLMNET team.
Augmented reality software uses image recognition to place technical manual instructions on the heads-up display while generating digital overlays on actual equipment. The overlay of information and instructions reduces the cognitive overload by providing learning through interaction with the real environment instead of being a spectator of an instructor. In 2009, researchers used augmented reality to train Marines inside of a LAV-25 armored personnel carrier. The researchers found that the Marines were 37% faster with maintenance tasks when using augmented reality as opposed to a computer screen or tablet. Like training with an instructor, augmented reality provides an interactive experience at the point-of-need through multiple sensory devices, thereby improving task proficiency.
Personalized training is important since the Sustainable Readiness Model and the new Regionally Aligned Readiness and Modernization Model do not account for individual Soldiers who enter a training cycle at different times with different skill sets and training. Making matters worse, the complexity of new technologies requires so many niche instructors that the Army must rely on the commercial sector for training assistance, which results in broad standardized training and fails to address personal expertise and skill level. Augmented reality fixes this with interactive, personalized, learner-centric training, and feedback, based on individual skill level and aptitude. Learner-centered training enhances intrinsic motivation and allows Soldiers to progress at their own pace. With augmented reality, trainers increase their ability to track a Soldier’s progress, and Soldiers can customize training to their current skill level.
Augmented reality also provides Soldiers the ability to experiment in a virtual maintenance environment and test their technical skill level. Soldiers interact with augmented reality to practice maintenance requirements on a virtual model of the equipment before making the actual repair. Using a virtual model allows the Soldier to manipulate the object in ways that make sense to them individually. The Soldier can change the virtual object’s position, size, shape, or even take it apart virtually and reassemble it. This experimentation provides feedback to the Soldier before making a costly mistake and helps the Soldier personalize an approach to the repair.
Additionally, augmented reality accelerates the knowledge transfer rate of technical information, compared to legacy training models. Cognitive psychology measures the transfer of learning by how fast the learning of one task facilitates learning a second task. When related to technical skill training, knowledge transfer measures how much technical training a Soldier applies to the job and how the transfer impacts later job performance. Various studies have measured knowledge transfer through augmented reality with promising results and suggest increased technical skill effectiveness.
Both inexperienced and experienced technicians can improve their cognitive processing skills and knowledge transfer of technical information with augmented reality. In a 2018 study, researchers focused on technicians who maintained a Boeing 737 engine bleed air system. Compared to printed technical manuals, technicians who used augmented reality were 17% faster at assembling the bleed air system and improved 24% in quality by reducing errors. With faster knowledge transfer, Soldiers will complete maintenance requirements faster, reduce errors, and mitigate risk during individual and collective training.
Whether at peace or in conflict, the operational force cannot rely on the generating force to send expert maintenance technicians to the point-of-need. On-the-job training remains a critical component of learning technical skills, which must occur in a future large-scale combat operations environment. Augmented reality provides on-the-job training at the point-of-need while mitigating some realistic training gaps between the generating force and the operational force’s maintenance requirements.
Individual and collective training requirements increasingly constrain today’s training environment. In 2015, the Department of the Army G-3/5/7 staff framed the problem by showing there were only 220 days available to generate readiness, but over 366 training days required. Even this attempt to frame the problem showed gross inaccuracy by allocating only 34 days of command maintenance per year. In reality, a single Stryker battalion requires more than eighty days per year for semi-annual and annual services, not including unscheduled maintenance, commodity weapon services, and communication system services. The required balance of maintenance and mission-essential training highlights the need for methods and aids that cross-train Soldiers on low-density and high-demand technical skill sets.
Although industrial-age training methods work, it is not as effective as information-age methods and tools. Industrial-age training is problematic since it seldom engages or retains the attention of “digital native” Soldiers. The use of printed instruction, diagrams, and other printed schemes lengthens training time requirements and only allows for passive knowledge transfer of technical information. The use of these static materials explains why industrial-age training paradigms historically use extrinsic motivation such as grades, failing a course, or repeating a course to force engagement on the trainee. Information-age training models seek more intrinsic motivation than industrial-age models. If Soldiers enjoy using augmented reality as an aid, they are more likely to self-initiate action. Self-motivation remains critical for Soldiers in a fast-paced environment where direct supervision does not always exist.
In addition to motivation playing an essential role in maintenance effectiveness, augmented reality improves effectiveness by reducing repair time and errors. Reduced errors save the Army money, and faster repair times equates to more collective training. In 2013, General Cone in his article, “Building the New Culture of Training,” published in Military Review, January-February 2013, declared it a foundational imperative for the Army of 2020 to harness technology that enabled faster and more efficient training. Cone believed that TRADOC owed commanders tools to help them train more efficiently in almost any environment while moving beyond the industrial-age paradigms like field tables or 100-slide presentations. Not even a full decade later, the Army has the potential to implement the type of technology that Cone envisioned. Augmented Reality software upgrades to IVAS hardware reduces printed technical manuals and repair time.
Augmented reality also increases assembly speeds. Numerous civilian researchers studied augmented reality, examining similar efficiencies that increased maintenance and assemblage requirements. In one study, participants assembled two-dimensional and three-dimensional puzzles with augmented reality and a different set of puzzles with a computer monitor instead of augmented reality. The trainees using augmented reality assembled the puzzles faster. Another study required seven engineering students to assemble twelve parts of an RV-10 aircraft, of which they had no prior experience. All of them showed a faster assembly time when assisted with augmented reality, compared to traditional manuals.
As the Army increases weapon system sophistication and “black box” technology, maintenance technicians will need to repair complex end items and components rapidly and correctly in a combat theater instead of waiting for a replacement to show up. Numerous studies have shown improved circuit board repair with the use of augmented reality. One study showed that aircraft motor mechanics were 17% faster and increased 24% in quality assurance. Another study used electrical motherboard assemblies and discovered that participants using augmented reality completed assembly 60% faster than other participants. Finally, another study showed 50% fewer assembly errors, and participants were 20% faster in electrical motherboard assembly. As “black box” technology becomes more pervasive in the Army, it will require faster and higher quality repair in an expeditionary environment.
As the Army Futures Command leaders continue to look at 2035 weapon systems, they must emphasize sustaining the technologies already developed. TRADOC and CASCOM must play a lead role in developing maintenance training and efficiencies in maintenance to support new warfighter technologies. Maintenance requirements in 2035 will likely consist of increased “black box” technology, circuit boards, robotics, and unmanned equipment that requires expeditionary repair forward. Units that cannot repair forward with organic Soldiers lack operational reach, culminate early, and increase risk to operational success, especially with contested supply chains.
Granted, Army leaders must treat new technologies, like augmented reality, with skepticism. As Gen. Donn A. Starry told leaders in 1979 at the Army Command and General Staff College, documented in, “Press On!: Selected Works of General Donn A. Starry,” published by Combat Studies Institute Press, 2009, technology alone will not win the next war and to say so is “pure unadulterated baloney.” However, modern war shows that fighting power provides the margin of victory, and today’s fighting power is a combination of the Soldier and technology. Senior leaders expect our NCOs to advance their expert knowledge and skills as lifelong learners and professionals. However, those same senior leaders acknowledge in Training Circular 7-22.7, The Noncommissioned Officer Guide, that “…the equipment the modern Soldier carries is more technologically advanced and requires knowledge, care, and skill to employ successfully.” Despite ever-increasing skill and knowledge requirements, senior leaders continue to place individual training responsibilities on the team leader, the most junior and inexperienced NCO. As TRADOC and CASCOM leaders focus on MDO, maximizing the human domain will be equally critical, if not more so, than modernization.
Although it may seem like a paradox, technology aids in maximizing the human domain. One reason stems from the rapid growth of technology and the emphasis on the knowledge required for survival on the battlefield in an information-age era. Civilian companies already capitalize on enhancing human capital through technology and leveraged augmented reality as a technological advantage. For example, leadership at Mercedes-Benz USA recently implemented augmented reality in training and technical support at 383 dealerships. Mercedes-Benz mechanics use augmented reality to complete maintenance tasks until they require additional help, at which point they integrate teleconsultation with a technical expert.
Future technologies remain unknown; however, an increase in maintenance training requirements is certain. Information-age technologies, such as augmented reality, allow the resilient scaling of training with emerging technologies such as the existing IVAS or other hardware versions. As leaders anticipate in TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, units will likely operate “…dispersed for an extended period without continuous [or contiguous] support from higher echelons.” Failing to focus on improved maintenance training methods and aids for new sophisticated weapons induces higher risks of failure during LSCO or during competitive incidents that require a rapid influx of inexperienced Soldiers. Inexperienced Soldiers, fighting without benefit of continuous maintenance support, must possess the technical skills required to maintain sophisticated weapon systems in the forward area. Without new forward maintenance training methods and aids, such as augmented reality, units risk proving du Picq correct once again.
Lt. Col. Michael Hefti currently serves as the Chief of Plans for the 3rd Infantry Division. He has a bachelor’s degree in Law Enforcement, a master’s degree in Criminal Justice, and a master’s degree in Military Studies. He is a graduate of the Armor Basic Officer Leader Course, Army Reconnaissance Course, Armor Maneuver Captain Career Course, Command and General Staff College, and is a School of Advanced Military Studies Graduate.
This article was published in the July-Sept 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.