The ADF, in partnership with the US and Singapore, is looking to significantly upgrade Australia’s military training ranges and approaches to answer the needs presented by a true 5th generation military.
At ADM’s Northern Australia Defence Summit last October, Brigadier Mark Brewer, Director-General US Force Posture Initiative, asked a pointed question.
“I think we need to ask ourselves whether our traditional approach of heading out into the bush or flying over it and training on areas that have fixed and field firing ranges with a few containers stacked on each other is actually now fit for purpose,” BRIG Brewer said. “Surely there is more to it.”
Well, there is, and Lieutenant Colonel Dan Harrison of the Enhanced Target Systems and Ranges team is the man charged with delivering the ‘more’ BRIG Brewer is looking for. Alongside CASG and DST Group, LTCOL Harrison’s team is drawing on technologies and methods pioneered by Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) to revolutionise the way Army prepares its soldiers for combat.
“SOCOMD came up with a new training methodology because they were having high failure rates on one of their more difficult courses,” LTCOL Harrison told ADM. “What they found is that by adopting these new training techniques and combining those with enhanced targets and ranges, they were able not only to reduce the time it took to get people to the required standard, but they also significantly reduced their failure rates.
“Big Army started to have a look at this and said we’d like to see more. So we ran a risk reduction activity out at Majura. We had DST Group do some analysis of lethality and self-reported combat efficacy – how well-prepared soldiers feel for combat – and what we found is that a five-day course caused a 350 per cent increase in lethality.
“Then we looked at feedback. Soldiers consistently said they learnt more in five days training than in the last five years, which is extraordinary.”
The key to this success is mimicking a battlefield as closely as possible using a combination of robotic targets, new training rounds, munitions, blended reality, and much more. Instead of lying on a concrete pad, breathing steadily and aiming at a bit of plywood a few hundred metres down a clear grass strip, soldiers are now moving behind cover amongst controlled explosions, noise and smoke, aiming at intelligent robotic targets that react to bullets and soldiers as a human would.
“There’s a lot of science behind it, and all of it is trying to achieve a particular purpose,” LTCOL Harrison told ADM. “That purpose is the realistic replication of the operational environment. That is a significant engineering challenge.
“There’s no point in having a target if there’s no feedback, if the thing doesn’t fall over. There’s no closed learning loop.”
One particular challenge is sourcing ammunition that is as close to live rounds as possible but won’t destroy expensive targets and robots.
“In particular, we’re looking at the Close Target Round, which is a new innovation that’s come from industry,” LTCOL Harrison said. “It’s a frangible training round. It’s hard to adopt, because there’s a lot that goes into bringing into service a new munition, but what it’s done is effectively allowed us to design our ranges so they’re not having to withstand operational rounds.”
Whilst the overall approach is largely quantitative – measuring soldiers’ lethality as a product of accuracy and speed, for example – the program is also seeking qualitative results.
“We need to get recruits to what we call a ‘pre-combat veteran’ before we put them in harm’s way,” LTCOL Harrison said. “That’s a combatant whose experiential learning is indistinguishable from combat.
“Combat places the ultimate demand on the human mind, and the more a combatant can rely on experience and familiarity, that increases their ability to deal with the unexpected.”
A quantitative approach, however, may only go so far. Soldiers that perform well in training can often behave very differently in the moment that survival instincts override years of training – when the first round cracks the air overhead. So how can a training range simulate that sense of danger?
“Danger has to be introduced at the right time and when they’re ready for it,” LTCOL Harrison said. “When I say ‘pre-combat veteran’, there’s a few checks and balances to put in place before we start putting people in harm’s way.”
One answer may lie in virtual reality. Army has teamed with the University of Newcastle to conduct a world-first trial of stress analysis based on biomarkers measured during free-roam virtual reality simulations.
“We’re working with the University of Newcastle on free-roam virtual reality based on a combat resilience project through the Defence Innovation Hub,” LTCOL Harrison said. “That is trying to better understand the biomarkers associated with combat stress and starting to build the bell curve of what combat resilience looks like.”
Another challenge is crafting ranges that can accurately simulate combat against different enemies, either asymmetric or a near-peer competitor.
“It comes down to delivering a technology solution that has three main elements – flexibility, variety and realism,” LTCOL Harrison said. A good example of how we do this is through the Marathon robots. They don’t have to be combatants – we dress them up in civilian clothes, there’s weapons on them, so in the mind of a combatant they are an asymmetric threat.”
LTCOL Harrison was keen to emphasise the critical role Australian industry is playing in solving the vastly complex problem his team is tackling.
“We’re not the ones solving these engineering programs ourselves. The engineers who started Marathon Robotics were once PhD students, and now they export to Europe, to the Asia-Pacific, they’re even exporting to the US Marine Corps,” LTCOL Harrison said.
“You can imagine how sensitive that might be for an Australian company to be exporting into the US market something that is so fundamental to what we do.”
Army’s efforts have certainly not gone unnoticed overseas, particularly as the Australian-Singapore Military Training Initiative gets underway across the north.
“I’ve done some engagement with the Singaporeans and they’ve been extremely forward-leaning in understanding these methodologies, so I’m very hopeful that will have a good outcome,” LTCOL Harrison said.
All this, of course, is part of much larger picture. If the goal of the Enhanced Target Systems and Ranges team is to better prepare troops for the reality of combat – the noise, the confusion, the bloody trauma – then the ultimate result may be a positive effect on the long-term mental health of soldiers.
“Imagine how complex that problem is,” LTCOL Harrison said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. But ultimately we’re trying to get everyone home physically, mentally and emotionally.”