I/ITSEC 2020: RADM USN (Ret.) Robb Offers Insight into the Future of Warfighter Training

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I/ITSEC 2020

I/ITSEC 2020 is fast approaching and the team at Modern Integrated Warfare will be following along from start to finish to cover this year’s impressive line-up of content and news. While I/ITSEC 2020 has gone virtual like many other conferences this year, the event still boasts an incredible collection of attendees and insights.

Among the key areas of focus of this year’s show is the evolution in modeling and simulation technology that will empower the next generation of warfighter training. While any iteration of technology will always come with challenges in implementation, I/ITSEC 2020 will be the preeminent venue for discussing what solutions are available to the questions of today and tomorrow.

The Modern Integrated Warfare team had the chance to sit down (virtually) with Rear Admiral USN (Ret.) James Robb, President of the National Training and Simulation Association, and walk through what his thoughts are ahead of the event. Here’s what he had to share:

Modern Integrated Warfare (MIW) Editors: Tell me about some of the key themes vIITSEC attendees can expect to be discussed at this year’s show?

Rear Admiral James Robb: The theme for vIITSEC 2020 is “The Future is Now.” We think it is very relevant for several reasons. The first is that technology is advancing at a very impressive rate and it is difficult for the military services to assimilate what is available in the market today, much less attempt to build for the future.

The Department of Defense used to lead in the development of key technologies, but today many training related capabilities are being developed in the commercial sector. For example, companies like Facebook and Microsoft are spending billions developing augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) systems that are at the heart of future training platforms. The 7-year acquisition cycle that is typical for the military is not acceptable when technologies are becoming obsolete in 18 months, and we have worked hard to stress the need for speed in training. 

NTSA and I/ITSEC are designed to bring the best of the breed to the services today so that they can hopefully become part of the force tomorrow. You will see programs like “Pitch Day” for the Air Force where companies can present solutions as products, not ideas.

MIW Editors: What adjustments are needed in the approach to I/ITSEC 2020 to make it accessible and engaging virtually?

RADM Robb: We were forced to hold a virtual I/ITSEC this year due to COVID-19. While we would obviously rather meet in person, we are finding a few nuggets of better practices in the transition that may stay with us for some time. 

The first is that we potentially will reach more people this year that were not able to attend in the past due to travel budgets or competing priorities. Second, we are recording all the technical papers, tutorial sessions, and special events so they will be available indefinitely online. For the in-person show, we would run at least four tracks in parallel, so attendees had to pick one of four at any point in time. This year, all the virtual content will be available on-demand so attendees can see them all at their own pace. Excitingly, the virtual show will increase our outreach across the globe.

The principal challenge to a virtual event is replicating the networking and social interaction, which we are working diligently on addressing. Finally, we are seeing that many senior leaders are willing to participate virtually rather than take a day out of their schedule to attend in-person. We have two four-star military leaders committed to a senior leadership panel that has never had that level of participation.

We also have taken all of our STEM events virtual, which is very exciting.  We have been limited in the past by funding travel for our participants. This year we will increase our STEM participation ten-fold at very little cost. Scalability is everything when building the future workforce.

MIW Editors: How has the simulation and training arena, especially in defense, been impacted by COVID-19 this year? Has it hindered adoption or spurred it?

RADM Robb: The bottom line is that training continues but it is harder. Travel has been severely restricted so access to live ranges has been limited. The industry has found ways to operate effectively in a remote workplace and many have done very well with the high level of funding being provided by congress. However, there are many companies, especially the small ones, that have taken a beating. The opportunity in the COVID experience is the forced consideration of virtual options by leadership. In many cases, resistance to the viability of synthetic training is being overcome by circumstance. All the military services have ongoing programs to increase virtual training.

MIW Editors: What new lessons are being learned as we implement new training initiatives like One World Terrain and Project Convergence?

RADM Robb: The primary lesson being learned is that this work is very difficult. The vision for One World Terrain is ambitious for many reasons. The first is that there is an abundance of geo-references in use today by all the services. Secondly, many of the simulators and training systems have legacy geographical databases that are hardwired into their mainframes. The third is trying to get everyone to settle on one protocol. When we try to integrate these simulations, we get things like tanks driving under the ground which really hurts the credibility of the experience.

In the long run, we want a single cloud-based geographical database that is accessible by all and to the degree of fidelity required by the user. It will be managed by a single entity that will refresh it continuously. This is how you get your maps on your phone today.

The training and simulation community suffers from the ball and chain of legacy systems. Most were made with proprietary hardware and software. Most were built to operate in isolation and in a vision of training individuals, not warfare areas that depend on systems of systems. Most training systems were afterthoughts of large-scale platform programs that were in and of themselves, built-in isolation. Most were not built with a common backbone or IT or security and most were not built to be part of a larger joint training picture.  

We have a specific emphasis on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in this year’s I/ITSEC program. The Army Futures Command established Project Convergence to study ways that AI and ML can be integrated into warfighting and control systems to help us fight smarter. We are also working on the ethics side of having AI in the trigger pulling decision loop. Everyone is sensitive to the point that humans must make high-level decisions but also to the point that war in the cyber world is measured in milliseconds.

MIW Editors: What challenges do the warfighter currently do you see shaping training approaches in the future?

Security – special access programs are everywhere today. For programs like the F-35, you cannot fly the aircraft live to its maximum capacity due to the sensitivity of who might be watching. Training systems are moving into synthetic training environments to train for the next fight. For missions like ballistic missile defense, you must go to virtual worlds. Additionally, the desire to run multiple iterations of a training scenario in preparation for live events is being demanded by all the services.

Technology – Our opponents are stealing our technology through cyber techniques and replicating our systems in a third of the time it takes us to field them. They have access to commercial technology, imaging, and IT systems that will dramatically change the fight. All are seeking ways to manipulate our growing dependency on data systems and next-generation communications. So, building a smart force that is agile and alert to deception and manipulation is critical. Outthinking the enemy is a big part of winning in the future.