The Synthetic Training Environment: Forging the new frontier

By Capt. William Gullion and Capt. William Lybrand, 1st Security Force Assistance BrigadeAugust 14, 2023

The Synthetic Training Environment enables digital simulation of terrain that can incorporate night vision imaging.
The Synthetic Training Environment enables digital simulation of terrain that can incorporate night vision imaging. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

"Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow." — William Pollard

FORT MOORE, Georgia — As the Army prepares for the potential of large-scale conflict with near-peer adversaries, it is rigorously examining the resources required to conduct realistic combat training and enable peak operational readiness.

Among the challenges of ensuring Soldier preparedness is the force’s ability to execute live fire training at scale, an undertaking that is often constrained by limitations on time, budget and availability of personnel, among other complicating factors.

The development of the Army’s Synthetic Training Environment, or STE, however, provides a unique and continuously evolving solution to several of the Army’s most pressing training needs, harnessing the versatility and transportability of virtual exercises to significantly bolster Soldier readiness.

“The STE is going to be a critical element for U.S. forces to maintain overmatch against its adversaries,” said Michael Enloe, chief technical officer for the Army Futures Command STE Cross-Functional Team, or CFT. “STE provides our Soldiers capability to collectively train and design mission plans immersed within a digital synthetic Earth, while much of the world is still training and planning on outdated 2D paper maps.”

In many ways, Soldiers of the current generation have created a symbiotic relationship with emerging technologies. By merging the STE with Soldiers’ natural skillsets and increasingly innovative technologies, the Army is enhancing its readiness to plan, prepare, fight and win the next war or lead the competition continuum.

Beyond strengthening training abilities, the STE allows for the development of tools that improve a unit’s expeditionary ability, enabling the leap from the virtual to the real world.

One such tool is the Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, STE Lite Kit, a prototype that supports SFAB analysis of digital terrain and the virtual battle space. The kit was developed by the Army Futures Command STE Cross, in coordination with the 1st SFAB, to enhance the brigade’s ability to train and advise foreign partner forces on ways to refine and improve processes that will increase interoperability — a capability that remains vital in joint conflicts.

“The virtual battle space software is a game changer for the military,” said Lt. Col. Brian Looney, commander of the 5th Battalion, 1st SFAB. “Units can mitigate risk and improve survivability by conducting virtual simulations before they set foot on the ground.”

The kit includes a drone digital terrain collection kit, a top-of-the-line computer that supports a virtual battle space, and a virtual reality headset for 3D terrain analysis and battlefield submersion for commanders.

The SFAB-STE Lite Kit is a potentially valuable asset because as SFAB units deploy across the globe, the return of key insights and data within the environment can be crucial to reduce future conflict or increase competition in an area of responsibility. The kit offers opportunities for increasing understanding of the terrain in which SFAB members might find themselves deployed, as well as for identifying and reducing force protection concerns by streamlining and visualizing the military decision making process. In addition, the kit can assist SFAB units with supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief courses of action.

The kit specifically enables users to capture terrain digitally and process data into a 2D/3D model rendering. The rendering can then be used to analyze terrain and build overlays for helicopter landing zone selection and area and route reconnaissance.

“This capability is a game changer and is a must for organizations preparing for employment,” said Col. William Shoemate, commander of the 188th Infantry Brigade and former 5th Battalion, 1st SFAB Commander. “Real-time digital terrain data enables a rapid understanding of an austere environment to enhance operational activities. It is an effective tool to integrate terrain management for identifying critical vulnerabilities. It provides value to a force that will fight and train with partner forces. The rapid transition of data is unmatched. Without question, if fielded, I would employ this tool across my brigade to enable real-world enhancements to training exercises.”

The kit’s virtual battle space software also allows units of action to conduct virtual mission planning that enables synchronization of warfighting functions. The simulations run and generate trends and visual imagery for commanders to make more informed decisions based on mission analysis conducted within the system. Users can also add desired geographical features — such as mountains, valleys, lakes and roads – to explore hypothetical situations within an area of responsibility; emplace units of action; attach aerial support flight plans; and issue fire missions, among other actions.

The diverse functionality of the SFAB STE-Lite Kit allows units to prepare and execute scenarios, carry out After Action Reviews and conduct command and control to refine plans as needed. After running scenarios, commanders and staff can receive feedback from the scenario on information such as casualties sustained and ammunition spent. The tools also allows users to replay scenarios from multiple perspectives to give everyone involved a detailed visual of the mission from across the battlespace.

The 1st SFAB recently executed initial testing of the SFAB-STE Lite Kit in the United States Southern Command area of responsibility, identifying opportunities for additional force protection requirements, medical support areas and evacuation routes. The 1st SFAB, with support of the STE CFT, plans to conduct additional testing in the coming months.

Preliminary results of the SFAB-STE Lite Kit’s performance showcased the system’s ability to enable mission planners and commanders to capture terrain and plan operations in near real-time against potential threats. Additionally, the kit shows promise for reducing the need for costly live fire training exercises and for maximizing a unit’s ability to synchronize efforts and improve courses of action through increased rehearsal of operational plans.

While STE capabilities will never replace the hard lessons learned on the battlefield, they can pave the way for operating more effectively in a resource-constrained environment and help the Army to reduce risks to Soldiers. These and other technological advances are pivotal to the force’s ability to forge new frontiers, ensuring enduring overmatch and a U.S. military that is prepared for conflict in any domain.