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Training the Professional Soldier: Bridging inexperience and sophisticated warfighting technologies

Training the Professional Soldier: Bridging inexperience and sophisticated warfighting technologies 

By Lt. Col. Michael HeftiAugust 11, 2021

As part of the existing synthetic training environment, TRADOC’s Program Executive Office Soldier began incorporating augmented reality as part of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, known as IVAS, and plans to field it in 2021. The IVAS uses augmented reality to show weapon optics, Soldier location, friendly and enemy location, night vision capability, and possibly facial recognition and text translation. However, the new IVAS focuses only on battlefield capabilities; it misses the platform’s critical application to a disbursed maintenance environment and cross-training requirements for low-density and high-demand technical skill sets.

Two facts should convince CASCOM and TRADOC to accelerate the application and improvement of maintenance training through augmented reality. Augmented reality improves point-of-need training by generating remembered hands-on experiences for Soldiers, a personalized curriculum based on skill level and aptitude, and an accelerated knowledge transfer rate compared to legacy training methods. Second, augmented reality improves training efficiency by increasing Soldiers’ motivation to learn, unit training programs’ effectiveness, and the acquisition of the technical skills required to repair sophisticated weapon systems.

The Army requires its professionals to possess specialized knowledge. James Kitfield, in his 1997 book Prodigal Soldiers, articulated that the U.S. Army was able to draft individuals from 1940 to 1973, but it could not draft experience, a lesson the U.S. Army will relearn in future wars. As the synthetic training environment continues to develop, CASCOM and TRADOC must consider augmented reality as a tool to bridge inexperience and sophisticated weapon system maintenance requirements through point-of-need training and improved training efficiencies.

In addition to motivation playing an essential role in maintenance effectiveness, augmented reality improves effectiveness by reducing repair time and errors. Reduced errors save the Army money, and faster repair times equates to more collective training. In 2013, General Cone in his article, “Building the New Culture of Training,” published in Military Review, January-February 2013, declared it a foundational imperative for the Army of 2020 to harness technology that enabled faster and more efficient training. Cone believed that TRADOC owed commanders tools to help them train more efficiently in almost any environment while moving beyond the industrial-age paradigms like field tables or 100-slide presentations. Not even a full decade later, the Army has the potential to implement the type of technology that Cone envisioned. Augmented Reality software upgrades to IVAS hardware reduces printed technical manuals and repair time.

Augmented reality also increases assembly speeds. Numerous civilian researchers studied augmented reality, examining similar efficiencies that increased maintenance and assemblage requirements. In one study, participants assembled two-dimensional and three-dimensional puzzles with augmented reality and a different set of puzzles with a computer monitor instead of augmented reality. The trainees using augmented reality assembled the puzzles faster. Another study required seven engineering students to assemble twelve parts of an RV-10 aircraft, of which they had no prior experience. All of them showed a faster assembly time when assisted with augmented reality, compared to traditional manuals.

As the Army increases weapon system sophistication and “black box” technology, maintenance technicians will need to repair complex end items and components rapidly and correctly in a combat theater instead of waiting for a replacement to show up. Numerous studies have shown improved circuit board repair with the use of augmented reality. One study showed that aircraft motor mechanics were 17% faster and increased 24% in quality assurance. Another study used electrical motherboard assemblies and discovered that participants using augmented reality completed assembly 60% faster than other participants. Finally, another study showed 50% fewer assembly errors, and participants were 20% faster in electrical motherboard assembly. As “black box” technology becomes more pervasive in the Army, it will require faster and higher quality repair in an expeditionary environment.

Future technologies remain unknown; however, an increase in maintenance training requirements is certain. Information-age technologies, such as augmented reality, allow the resilient scaling of training with emerging technologies such as the existing IVAS or other hardware versions. As leaders anticipate in TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, units will likely operate “…dispersed for an extended period without continuous [or contiguous] support from higher echelons.” Failing to focus on improved maintenance training methods and aids for new sophisticated weapons induces higher risks of failure during LSCO or during competitive incidents that require a rapid influx of inexperienced Soldiers. Inexperienced Soldiers, fighting without benefit of continuous maintenance support, must possess the technical skills required to maintain sophisticated weapon systems in the forward area. Without new forward maintenance training methods and aids, such as augmented reality, units risk proving du Picq correct once again.