Synthetic Environments: Ensuring the U.S. and its Allies Maintain their Edge in an Evolving Battlespace

From navigating geopolitical tensions, to grey zone operations and high-end combat, the U.S. military must rethink and revamp how it trains, plans, and collaborates as a joint and coalition force.

Between rising geopolitical tensions with China and ongoing war in Ukraine, the U.S. is facing a drastically different threat environment that has grown more complex over the last decade. The emerging multidimensional aspects of warfare now extend far beyond the conventional hardware and headcount and into the complexity of the gray-zone, where disinformation, sanctions and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure all stand to jeopardize national security.

According to Caitlin Dohrman, president and general manager of Improbable U.S. Defense & National Security, an innovative, non-traditional defense technology company, a way to successfully combat these threats is for the Defense Department to devote sufficient time and resources to training and preparing warfighters for this new operational environment.

“Even a well-trained military force with modern equipment can be slowed and stopped by adversaries that fight in an unpredictable manner,” she says. “We have to develop capabilities that give us a clear understanding of the threat environment to be fast enough to train, plan, adapt, and make decisions in a way that outpaces today’s constantly evolving battlespace.”

To better prepare for the realities of today’s warfare, the armed forces must transform how they train, plan, and collaborate. Critical to this transformation, Dohrman states, is the ability to scope threats ahead of time and make joint tactical, operational, and strategic decisions.

Training with synthetic environments — virtual recreations that use real-world data to emulate the battlespace in real time or faster than real-time — is a solution that lets the DoD test ideas, strategies, concepts and equipment ahead of any actual conflict. It also allows the DoD to better prepare for non-kinetic warfare tactics and scenarios that are otherwise difficult or impossible to train for, such as electronic warfare, disinformation campaigns, and disruptions to critical national infrastructure.

Enhance Training, Planning, and Decision-Making

While traditional training exercises coordinated by the DoD and allies are beneficial and critical, they also have limitations. Because these exercises can be predictable and are conducted within a familiar environment with safety and OPSEC at the forefront, they don't always allow leadership or warfighters to truly understand how to traverse unfamiliar terrain or prepare for the uncertainty of battle.

Alternatively, synthetic environments provide an opportunity for training in locations and scenarios otherwise impossible to physically practice in, thus giving decision-makers the ability to explore the branching effects of wartime decisions. And perhaps most importantly, Dohrman notes, virtual training helps warfighters learn to navigate multidomain environments in many different conditions that reflect the complexity and scale of the real world.

“Training in a synthetic environment can run scenarios multiple times using different tactics and conditions, allowing commanders to vet dozens of possibilities and COAs using real data and scientifically-validated models  in conjunction with their subject matter expertise,” she explains, “With simulation-backed experimentation, they can improve situational awareness to make faster and more informed decisions that reduces risk to the mission and to the force.”

By utilizing tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning, synthetic environments simulate a wide range of battle scenarios, from large-scale combat operations with thousands of participants, to urban warfare scenarios with millions of cars, buildings, and a synthetic population based on real-world data inputs for any area in the world. Dohrman notes synthetic training also prepares warfighters for the gray zone, because it can imitate electronic and cyber warfare, as well as conduct misinformation operations

“Leveraging a synthetic environment to train against cyber or electronic warfare tactics, or for large-scale combat operations, is extremely beneficial because it helps warfighters learn how to respond in these new situations,” she says. “A synthetic environment is the only space where cyber warfighters can train alongside conventional warfighters for mission success.”

Adopt an Adaptable, Cost-Effective Solution

Despite their value, synthetic environments have long been siloed, cumbersome, and accessible to only highly trained, niche subject matter experts. Dohrman and her team at Improbable are working to change that with Skyral, their modular synthetic environment development platform.

“Skyral enables any organization in the DoD to build more advanced and adaptable synthetic environments to the scale and complexity they need,” she says, explaining that the software integrates with legacy systems, transforming disparate models and data sources into modern synthetic solutions.

The ease of implementation also opens it to a wider user base within the DoD, which is Dorham’s top priority. In the future, she hopes synthetic environments like Skyral become ubiquitous throughout the defense community. 

“We’re aiming to use synthetic environments to not just improve understanding of the operating environment, but also support functional areas where synthetic environments are not traditionally leveraged, such as operations planning, intelligence analysis, and logistics. And for those who don’t know where to start, we have people that can help there” she says.

Ultimately, Dohrman says synthetic environments enable training that prepares the armed forces for the hypercomplex threat environment it faces, helping them make real-time decisions with greater confidence, which is imperative to success on the battlefield, implementation of the U.S. National Defense Strategy, and ultimately, the protection of the nation.

Learn more about how to build a synthetic environment with Improbable’s Skyral.

This content is made possible by our sponsor. The editorial staff was not involved in its preparation.

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