May 1, 2011  

The next training revolution

Explosive changes in information availability will profoundly affect how training is delivered

The Defense Department faces a sea change in the next 20 years with regard to training. A rising flood will fundamentally alter all training and operational processes within DoD, across government and around the world. That flood is composed of the explosive growth of information coupled with lightning-quick changes in technology. This will have a profound impact on how we train.

As the Office of Training Readiness and Strategy in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness, we exercise a unique role in that we look holistically across the department to analyze trends and prepare policy and strategy to improve training methodologies. While we are a resource sponsor for all joint training, we are mostly unencumbered by distractions of the moment, keeping the longer view. We evaluate varieties of themes regarding training and jointness and how best to evaluate the expenditure of limited joint training dollars. In the context of joint training and training in general, we note that the combatant commands and services have refined their methodologies regarding irregular warfare in the context of the fights in which the U.S. is engaged.

Priorities and lessons established by the early mistakes in Iraq have been reviewed; these lessons have been integrated and improved tactics introduced in the newly intensified effort in Afghanistan. Trainers accomplishing mission rehearsal exercises and predeployment work-ups have a high degree of practice regarding what works and what does not with these types of conflicts. While there are certainly areas in need of improvement, such as continuing to push joint training conducted at the tactical level, there is nevertheless an understanding that much of what we need to know to prepare for the crucibles that are Afghanistan and the like are already on the table. We cannot and will not lose the joint capability we have fought so hard to secure.

We also note that the services, especially the Army and Marine Corps, are striving to remake themselves to address the concepts inherent in full-spectrum operations. There is success to still be had in both these areas, but the lens of the future is a cloudy one for decision-makers regarding resource allocation.

What is clear is that the departure from Iraq at the end of 2011 and the subsequent planned departure from Afghanistan in 2015 will leave the Defense Department with higher levels of uncertainty, both in mission and budget, than has been the case in the recent past. This uncertainty felt across DoD mirrors that which is alive and roaming through American society today. We live in a time of great unease, perhaps more so than any time in our history.

The flood of information that began as a trickle with the printed word and grew to a wave with the rise of the machine age is now an overwhelming ocean pouring over us and challenging our ability to control or apprehend. Far-flung conflicts, like Libya, in parts of the world that would not have affected us for weeks in an earlier era are now reflected in price increases at the gas pump within hours. Rapid changes driven by the availability and speed of information flow across the globe and its ripple effects are felt throughout our society. Systemic revisions inherent to the formerly narrow driver that is Moore’s Law (the idea that describes a long-term trend in computing hardware that the quantity of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years) now apply across multispectra of machines and processes. These forces foreshadow a wholesale reinvention of our society and ourselves. Like it or not, we face an uncertain cybernetic future.

Historically, humans have often scorned, banned or burned the “new,” along with the discoverer or inventor who came up with it. Keeping eyes always on the nearest hazard or the “five meter target” is a recipe for short-term success, but long-term failure. Often, due to logical pressures of the moment, DoD has behaved in just this fashion. As the training policy office, we recognize that a technological change of immense effect is upon us and that it is critical we establish a training vision of the future that the department can build toward. So in planning to the future, what timeline should we use? Five years is too short, it’s already in the Defense Plan. Thirty years, perhaps too ambitious, we could all be in the singularity by then. The number we propose is 20. How do we train to 2031? What will our soldiers look like in that year?

Altering the course and behavior of DoD training and by necessity, operations, in response to these changes is no easy task. Historically, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has had excellent plans for future development, but often, without sharp focus, persistence and buy-in from resource sponsors among the services and combatant commands, these were dead on arrival. That said, there have been successful ventures, such as the Global Positioning System, that were at first rejected by the powers that be within the department only later to be regarded as unqualified successes. In the case of GPS, it was only through a combination of persistence that the constellation ended up becoming the vital platform it is today. In other words, someone had to lead and not take no for an answer.

The training readiness office has relatively constrained resources that we are able to devote to leading change in the system. We establish strategic policy and invest in bright new areas of promise, but with limited funds. As such, we are able at best to facilitate change, not buy it. If, for want of a better metaphor, you consider that we are seed planting, then the farmers of those seeds must be the services, combatant commands and other users within and outside the government. The consumers of the grain are the individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians who fight our wars as well as others who share our common interest.

In the integrated information era, we posit there are two major focus areas that will drive the training narrative. These are technological improvement and cognitive enhancement. Before diving into each, it is worth noting that there is distinct convergence between the two. As we become better at integrating technology and expand our knowledge of how the brain works, we will become better at augmenting and enhancing cognition. That convergence will drive training and operational iterations over the years to come, and they will naturally compound each other.

On the technological front, there is much work being done in weaponry, systems, power and uniforms. All these are peripheral to the primary task of training, so they will not be a central focus of our effort, but suffice it to say that the training community will be a strong net beneficiary of many of these advances. Our primary task is knowledge transfer and application. How do we do this better on a joint and common scale?

There is broad agreement that training for large groups could be better facilitated if the individual needs of the learner were addressed; in other words, tailored learning. This is a challenging task to perform in a classroom setting as there is only so much time the individual instructor is able to devote to a student. Efforts are underway across the government to improve the lot of the learner, but so far they have met with mixed success. Nevertheless, the currents are aligning in the direction of intelligent tutoring systems with broad application both in training and education.


Looking at the horizon, we propose that training technology is on the threshold of a breakthrough change in capability to support learning ecosystems. Our office, along with partners in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, universities, industry and civilian entities, is investing in a strategic partnership whose aim is to produce a personal intelligent tutoring system for broad use in DoD and beyond. By a systematic approach, the effort aims to bind disparate threads of profile monitoring, artificial intelligence, logical and emotional intelligence assessment and new human-centered interfaces into a holistic system of augmented learning.

The personal intelligent tutor will enhance time in the classroom with the target of a better learning experience. It will be a system that profiles how the learner uptakes knowledge and one that transfers seamlessly from one medium to the next; for example, from the personal home system to a handheld to a classroom interface. Each time the individual is logged into the network, the artificial intelligence “nervous system” will recognize the presence of that person and adjust. The learner’s unique strengths, learning styles and weaknesses will all be on record.

As a learner progresses through a learning experience, the tutoring program will adapt its style to integrate knowledge being transferred by the human instructor, knowledge in its data centers, learner physiological and psychological response and other factors to build an individualized understanding of that learner. Is his strength visual versus the spoken or written word? Then the system will adjust and present more of one and less of the other. Essential jointness of this system will be inherent and the applications will be common.


Another area of work is that of virtual worlds. Our office, working with industry partners, is designing a Virtual World Framework. This framework will establish a set of ontological parameters that allows users to establish interconnected virtual world systems operating in a common frame of reference. Once the framework is complete, new virtual worlds will be built from a core machine-to-machine agreement and operational stance. Unlike earlier methodologies, there will be some backward compatibility with legacy systems, but not all these systems will make it over the digital divide.

The digital tutor and the virtual-world framework are but two aspects of the larger Defense Training Environment, or DTE. The DTE is training writ large. It is inclusive of all live, virtual and constructive venues. It extends the parameters of how each of those is defined. The DTE integrates simulations, mixed-reality, live training, constructive systems and all recombinant variants therein. Each activity is viewed as a node, or island, in the DTE continuum and is temporally malleable to a great extent. More importantly, the concept of the DTE is one that points to the binding of the seams between training and operations.

In the coming years, as our forces approach digital saturation, information will become almost as a utility in nature. You will plug into the information stream as you plug into the wall for electricity. It will be in all aspects of the world around. In this environment, users (defense forces for this discussion) will transition from viewing training and operations as having separate and distinct natures. Boundaries between conflict preparation and actual conflict will blur as the definitions of warfare and security force assistance continue to evolve. Our use of sophisticated tracking and recording for wartime events will be integrated seamlessly back into training, either as lessons learned, recreations of good or bad outcomes, or analysis of enemy designs.

Within the DTE, simulation systems will be linked to live training as never before. As an example, using the interleaving of the virtual world and the real world, ground forces at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, Calif., will conduct a live-fire exercise at the same time they are receiving virtual close-air support from a pilot in a simulator. This is already taking place today in some venues, but the key difference is that, in the future, these players will see each other in a “live” way. The squad on the ground will look up and see the aircraft “flying” overhead and the pilot will see them on the ground from the simulator.

The key to this type of hyper-real simulation will be the personal interface. This office is working with a variety of companies to create lightweight, persistent, optically and physically accurate headgear that will overlay simulacra, complete with sound, onto the real world. Current challenges include weight, power, connectivity, accurate physics reproduction and user inertia, but these are all at the threshold of being solved with regard to practicality and cost.

We are by no means alone in pursuing this new method of interfacing with our computer and information systems. Projects of this type are moving out smartly in the commercial world as well. Again, the concept of convergence arises. DoD, as a mega-consumer, will do well to consider the partnerships that are essential to creating these types of systems. Each of these creations must be economically viable for companies, not only for their defense customer, but in civilian applications. Mixed reality will quickly cross pollinate in both worlds.

Resistance to change may initially be high, but user inertia will be most prevalent in the “digital immigrants” who were not born into the mixed reality world. Arnex, our digital warrior outlined above, will be born into a world of digital integration and will mature in one that blends the live and virtual worlds without seams. He will truly be a new pioneer in that, during his lifetime, the great gap between the machine and the human will at last be bridged.


As we lay the foundations and prepare to cross the cybernetic bridge, there are dangers that lie ahead. Our ability to supplant the human in the loop with machines in the context of war fighting and conflict will become easier and perhaps more prevalent. The human nature of conflict may evolve to a less binary state and evince a more blended machine/human on human/machine continuum. As the complexity of mechanical integration grows, individuals may find themselves pulled in two directions from a cognitive perspective.

The first is that they may be drawn toward regression. The ability to draw on deep seas of readily accessible knowledge augmented by artificially enhanced decision-making may blunt innate reasoning and complex decision-making in the human participant. We as trainers must be ever mindful of this potential for regression and institute mechanisms that assess the core skills of the individual, especially with regard to adaptation and complex decision-making. The individual must have the necessary skill and mental defenses in place to learn that surfing on the sea is not the same as sinking into it.

The second direction of pull may be toward inertness due to overwhelming choice. The human animal is not wired to process the endless streams of data and the concomitant blizzard of choices with which we are now presented. This is as true in the battle space as it is in The Home Depot. This trend will only grow worse with the passing of the years and the increase in data and system complexity. How can we as trainers devise a hedge against these forces?

One of the most promising fields is that of adaptivity and complex decision-making. Extensive work is being done across the services, DoD, government, industry and among nations. There is consensus that we must give our forces better foundational training in these areas in order for them to cope with the complexities they face every day.

Resilience and emotional intelligence are key aspects of this study area. For too long, we have tried to make the bloody mess that is war into a logic-only driven set piece. Often, we have failed to consider emotional intelligence and aspects of the person who is in conflict. Catch-up games we play with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention are indicative of how we fail to consider the holistic soldier.

If we can do a better job, through training and the integration of cognitive improvement principles, of preparing our forces, both logically and emotionally, for the difficult circumstance in which they will find themselves, then we will have laid the groundwork for a much healthier force upon which to build the warriors of the future. A recent example of how the principles of adaptivity are being applied in a macroscopic way for a broad population is the reorientation of the entire Australian military toward the adaptive stance. Another example is the commandant of the Marine Corps’ efforts in the area of small-unit decision-making.

Each of these efforts focuses on methodologies for training that will lead to better thinking and decision-making across the force. Our office has helped to align the finest minds in the fields of metacognition, resilience and adaptivity with service training representatives toward the common goal of better thinking, critical analysis and complex decision-making in our forces. Intriguing developments are surfacing that point to potential increases in brain matter density and physical brain resilience as a result of intentionally focused cognitive enhancement methodologies.

Our ability to harness the advantages of technology and long-term cognitive enhancement will seal out place in history. If we fail to recognize the forces of convergence and focus only on the fractious and disparate threads of the technological tapestry, we will have lost an opportunity to keep our edge. AFJ

Col. Benjamin C. Wash is an Air Force officer and chief of staff, training readiness and strategy, at the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Readiness).