Pandemics and the Future of Military Training


The images from Europe are eerie. Venice, a city that has in the past run the risk of almost sinking under the weight of tourists, is empty. St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican is all but abandoned, save for a few furtive locals. Paris has shuttered once crowded cafés and bistros, where the din of conversation and clinking of glasses has for centuries provided a continuous soundtrack. The coronavirus has torn its way across the globe, leaving ghost towns — from Asia to Europe — in its wake, with sweeping cityscapes reminiscent of the opening scenes of 28 Days Later. Meanwhile, medical personnel and government authorities in the United States are bracing for a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases and, like their counterparts on either side of the Atlantic and Pacific, Americans are opting — or being instructed — to stay home. For many, the workplace for the foreseeable future is the home.

While some ambitious academics have attempted to reassure themselves of this workday change by caustically highlighting Isaac Newton’s productivity in quarantine during the plague — he famously used the opportunity to develop theories of gravity, optics, and even early calculus — the reality of the situation is that a lot of people are going to hunker down in front of their TV, laptop, or a gaming system. Indeed, if other countries’ experience with pandemic-driven isolation is at all instructive, online gaming is set to explode. Military personnel, like many others, will be part of that trend — passing the quarantine or social distancing blues playing Flying Tigers, World of Warships, or MisBits, among many other video games.



In an attempt to curb the coronavirus’ spread, the Pentagon has shuttered recruitment centers, restricted travel, and  canceled or significantly scaled back training events, from drills to large-scale exercises, like Exercise Defender- Europe 2020. This has led some to question what may be the long-term implications of the crisis on future military readiness. Indeed, as training and military professionalism are increasingly highlighted as key factors in overall battlefield effectiveness, how can the military maintain its training regime in the midst of a global pandemic?

One simple remedy may be to double down on what the troops already know, love, and likely will be doing anyway during the pandemic — video gaming. Indeed, the military has a long history of leveraging the gaming proclivities of warfighters to its advantage. From the Marine Corps’ 1996 modification of Doom, to the Army’s creation of first-person shooter game America’s Army, and more recent use of an Army esports competition team, video games have emerged as a key avenue for military recruitment, community engagement, and training. As the coronavirus deepens its global reach, the military can deploy training virtually at the point-of-need to help maintain troop readiness.

Parsing the Pandemic Training Challenge

It is no surprise that the military has elected to cancel or cut back many live training exercises. During an epidemic, training events, like basic training, can disseminate the virus, potentially on a massive scale. Large exercises require the movement of people — via planes, trains, and automobiles — to a set location, raising the specter of viral spread. Participation in exercises, like the U.S. Air Force’s premier exercise, Red Flag, is global, rendering any attempt to contain a virus obsolete. Naturally, this will present readiness dilemmas — from dulled skills to a potential contraction in allied engagements and interoperability. The challenge, however, may be even more significant than initially realized. Decreased training is not solely a function of a reduction in live training exercises. Indeed, many of those tasked with provisioning training at mission training centers are no longer physically clocking into the office.

In response to the pandemic, President Donald Trump announced a national emergency, setting the stage for the Office of Management and Budget to issue guidance to “maximize telework flexibility” in the federal workforce. Last week, the Department of Defense reduced its on-site federal workforce by 50 percent. The defense industrial base — as a critical infrastructure workforce — has, likewise, adapted to promote increased remote work. Many defense personnel are now working from home, along with a large number of defense contractors charged with furnishing training.

Mission training centers are often operated by military contractors, who are typically tasked with setting up, planning, operating, and running a training scenario. Modifications to training simulators or the software within a training center are handled by those same individuals, placing any training changes or customization in civilian hands. The dependence on civilian contractors has been highlighted as a challenge in the past. Indeed, as one soldier noted: “if there was a problem and [the simulators] broke down, we couldn’t do anything because they were civilian-run. We’re stuck just sitting there wasting training time, which is very precious.” New soldier-centric design training programs, like those run by Army Futures Command, are seeking to rectify this problem. However, they haven’t yet been implemented at scale. In the interim, absent contractor support, mission training centers may very well be slowing down or in certain circumstances grinding to a halt.

Point-of-Need Virtual Training

Distributed virtual training is a natural solution to the challenges posed by the current pandemic. It can be deployed at the point-of-need, allowing warfighters in disparate locations — from the comfort of their living room couch, to a military base or a deployment — to train for individual and collective skills. Indeed, many virtual training solutions already exist or are under development.

Individual Training

At present, the military utilizes desktop classroom training for a significant portion of its individual training needs in the early stages of instruction. Training for pre-deployment safety, equipment, and medical procedures is provided in both traditional and computer-based formats. Desktop training applications provide warfighters singular insight into the “switchology” of their system, from an AH-64 Apache helicopter to a P8-A Poseidon aircraft. Computer-based training games allow submariners to develop a mental map of the inside of the future assigned submarine. New programs, like the U.S. Air Force’s Pilot Training Next or the Army’s Aviator Training Next, combine emerging virtual reality and augmented reality technology with commercial off-the-shelf systems to develop low-fidelity simulators that can be utilized for training anywhere, at any time — from the dorm room to a classroom.

Collective Training

Likewise, virtual solutions also exist for collective training needs — from mission preparation to mission rehearsal. Virtual Battlespace 3 is a multiplayer battlefield virtual simulation system that allows users to train for individual, crew, team, platoon, and company collective warfighting tasks. Users enter a virtual and ever-changing world that can map to current or future operational environments. The Army’s Synthetic Training Environment is focused on developing plug-and-play peripheral devices, allowing soldiers stationed in different locations to connect into a common synthetic training environment with just a network plug-in. For instance, soldiers in separate locations could conduct crew operations of an M1 Abrams, with each of their warfighting stations virtually replicated. Similarly, linking low-fidelity simulators, like those provided by Pilot Training Next, allows pilots who may be worlds apart to feel as if they are right next to each other — whether they are practicing refueling or engaging in a dogfight. Networks, like the U.S. Air Force’s distributed mission operations network, support these connections, allowing simulated platforms, regardless of their physical location, to interconnect — including potentially with allies.

It is not just warfighters at the tip of the spear, however, who can benefit from these virtual solutions. Virtual training applications are available to those tasked with logistics, maintenance, medical support, intelligence, cyber, and many other areas.

What Can Be Done Now?

The truth, however, is that the military is not currently set up to deliver distributed virtual training at a large scale. If the coronavirus causes longer-term exercise cancellations and base closures, the military’s state of readiness could be severely impaired. Yet, there are some short-term solutions that could be implemented to deliver training now, at the point-of-need.

Many of the training applications previously mentioned require a warfighter to visit a designated training facility, but transferring training “off-base” is technically possible. Converting classroom-based instruction, such as pre-deployment medical or equipment training, to a web-based program, such as WebEx, is a simple solution. Unclassified game-based training programs could also be made available to warfighters remotely at their point-of-need, with web-based contractor support.

For instance, the U.S. Army Games for Training program provides suites of gaming-quality laptops, networking infrastructure, and first-person, multiplayer, game-based training applications within a classroom setting. Schoolhouse desktop training solutions, like the previously mentioned Virtual Battlespace 3, fit under the Games for Training rubric. Games for Training can meet some training needs in the short term, but a key limiting factor is the availability of requisite hardware for soldiers (i.e., whether they have a gaming-quality computer that is common access card-enabled and cyber security compliant) along with necessary training support for exercise setup and operation. To deploy Games for Training to a wider audience in the midst of the pandemic would require wading through some thorny — but ultimately solvable — acquisition/procurement issues.

Games for Training suites are currently fielded in limited quantities across military installations in a civilian-managed classroom setting and must be reserved in advance by soldiers. Increasing the availability and utility of Games for Training software and hardware to provide a more turnkey training solution directly to soldiers and their units would require a major contract modification or implementation of a more rapid nontraditional procurement instrument, like an Other Transaction Authority. While competitive procedures are still typically used to the maximum extent practicable when awarding funds under an Other Transaction Authority, in the event of exceptional circumstances, such as a national emergency, a senior procurement executive may choose to waive that condition. The Middle Tier of Acquisition pathway, likewise, could provide another avenue for fielding proven virtual training technologies. In line with such procurement strategies, other training solution sets, like the rapid acquisition of commercial training peripherals, such as plug-and-play low-fidelity vehicle simulators, could also take place.

Procuring a training solution, however, is only half the problem. The military would then have to deploy it, getting it into the hands of those warfighters who may be physically scattered because of social distancing. From a software standpoint, this isn’t challenging. Games for Training maintains the MilGaming web portal, which provides soldiers direct access to government and commercial software video game products, in addition to technical support and online instruction. With proper hardware, warfighters could simply log on and download what they need.

Getting the hardware — most notably low-fidelity peripherals, like a steering wheel — into the hands of those who need access is slightly trickier. However, the U.S. Army’s recruitment experience may provide an interesting model that could be deployed for distributed training with plug-and-play peripherals. Indeed, U.S. Army Recruiting Command brings portable simulated weapon systems that can be set up in less than 10 minutes to recruiting events, allowing potential recruits to explore multiple occupational specialties. This same model of portability could be applied to peripheral training devices. After rapidly acquiring gaming-quality computers and low-fidelity peripherals, the devices theoretically could be shipped or dropped off at warfighter locations. This is largely the vision for the U.S. Army’s new Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer prototype project, but on a much larger scale.

Scaffolding the Military’s Future Training Needs

More than simply challenging military readiness, however, the coronavirus can also act in many ways as a driver to better meet the military’s future training needs. Virtual training solutions and protocols put in place for the purposes of this crisis might pay warfighting dividends later. Indeed, while a rich debate is ongoing within the corridors of the Pentagon on the character of future competition and combat, there is a shared recognition that the future joint force must acquire the ability to fight across and through multiple domains. The goal is to inject greater fluidity into joint operations and improve overall combat effectiveness in a military environment marked by rapid cycles of disruptive technological change. However, such a goal is arguably aspirational without a realistic test, experimentation, and training environment, which the live environment will fail to provide.

From the employment of fifth-generation platforms in combat, to the tactical or operational integration of the cyber and space domains, and the increased use of artificial intelligence in military platforms and systems, the military will be increasingly pushed to experiment and train within a synthetic — virtual and constructive — environment. The increased use of a synthetic environment can be chalked up to cost savings, security, and the mitigation of safety risks. More importantly, however, the employment of a synthetic environment also provides a higher-fidelity and more immersive experimentation and training experience, allowing warfighters to fail, regroup, and adopt new innovations before the first shot is fired or the first sortie is deployed.

Moreover, the increased employment of a synthetic environment may have broader strategic warfighting benefits. Indeed, while exercises can serve multiple purposes in times of peace and war — such as demonstrating resolve, reducing tensions, or deterrence — they can also, in certain circumstances, alert an adversary to emerging innovative technologies, concepts of operations, or more tailored force structures. This could provide an adversary the needed intelligence to develop countermeasures or, potentially, emulate those innovations within its own force. Perhaps more problematically, revealing sources of strength within a live exercise may sacrifice future tactical, operational, or even strategic surprise. Indeed, history is replete with examples — from the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the unexpected Arab invasion of Israel in 1973 — of how surprise has provided an assailing force with a critical advantage, even if only temporarily. As former Naval War College professor Michael Handel notes,

From a military point of view, the advantages to be derived from achieving strategic surprise are invaluable. A successful unanticipated attack will facilitate the destruction of a sizable portion of the enemy’s forces at a lower cost to the attacker by throwing the … defense psychologically off balance, and hence temporarily reducing his resistance.

As near-peer competitors and adversaries — particularly Russia and China — undergo protracted periods of military modernization and reform, utilizing surprise to America’s advantage may become increasingly important. As a result, conducting mission preparation and mission rehearsal within a synthetic environment may be critical, as it would allow complex military preparations to be conducted more rapidly and seamlessly until just before combat. Indeed, a (cyber secure) synthetic environment may provide a modicum of operational security, in a way the live environment does not.

In 2001, the Defense Science Board noted that “training superiority is ours to lose and for others to gain.” This statement rings particularly true today. In the midst of the pandemic, maintaining readiness while also respecting strict social-distancing guidelines is paramount. Virtual training, with some effort, can meet today’s needs, while also creating the scaffolding of the military’s future synthetic training needs.



Jennifer McArdle is a non-resident fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a Ph.D. candidate in War Studies at King’s College London.

Thomas Kehr is a Ph.D. candidate in Modeling and Simulation at the University of Central Florida and the former government project manager for the U.S. Army Training and Readiness Accelerator.

Gene Colabatistto is a 30-year defense industry executive having previously served as a Marine infantry officer. He most recently served as CAE’s president of defense and security from 2012 to December 2019.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. Timothy Hamlin)