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Jon Wilcox


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Targeted training


Technology correspondent, Jon Wilcox looks at how the Forces are using elearning and virtual training to prepare for real-world missions.

Nicknamed the ‘Senior Service’, the Royal Navy is the oldest of the UK’s armed forces, and formed an integral part of Britain’s growth over the centuries. Once the largest navy in the world, the Royal Navy (like the British Army and Royal Air Force) now takes part in multinational operations across the world, working alongside NATO forces, the United States, and the United Nations. A keen procurer and developer of technology, how does elearning fit into the Royal Navy’s training strategy? 

"With military equipment there are things you must not do, you’ll either break them or risk lives.  In the virtual environment, you can do what you like." spoke with Commander Richard Clarke, who works in the Flag Office Sea Training (FOST) training division at Naval Command Headquarters, based in Portsmouth. He revealed to me how elearning is increasingly vital within the service – and how some facets are on a very grand scale.  “The Navy, like the RAF, is a heavy investor in the use of technology...Going back to the 80s, we worked very much at the forefront of elearning development in order to maximise our investment in training people on some very complicated bits of kit.”

He continues: “The military was one of the first users of synthetic training and simulations... [At] HMS Collingwood, which does both warfare engineering training and warfare training, we have some very large operation room simulators that can handle up to 20 to 40 people at a time.”

The thought of these large training rooms, modular in design to enable the recreation of different ships, handling nearly four dozen trainees is obviously a far cry from the approach taken by most companies.  Despite this, the commander makes it clear the Navy implements an almost corporate approach to training, “It’s basically about ‘analyse’, ‘design’, ‘deliver’, and ‘evaluate’,” he confirms. Clarke outlines the three options available to implement training and elearning within the Navy:  “In our methods and media analysis there are various ways of doing the training, from ‘chalk and talk’ in a classroom environment, to commercial off-the-shelf options (ie can we buy material and then simulate or synthesise equipment?) and then sometimes we use the actual live equipment – which is obviously not ideal.”

During the conversation, the mention of cost appears time and time again. The interview is actually pretty timely, taking place during the same week a think-tank recommends a reduction in the defence budget of up to £24bn, so it’s understandable why costs are mentioned time and again:  “The focus is on getting the maximum value for money out of training... squeeze the maximum investment out of your training pound, because you want to spend more of the money on the operational side of our capability. At the same time, you don’t want to send people to the front line or the work place who aren’t properly trained. There’s a balance.”

He adds: “These are men and women putting their lives at risk on our live kits, and we want to make sure they’re confident in using their equipment when they get their military task from the government, and do their jobs.”  It’s the exposure to high costs, relative inefficiencies and practicalities, and the risk to personnel associated with live equipment training that has allowed elearning to become an increasingly implemented solution within the Navy.  Of course, the Royal Navy is far from the sole military establishment to turn towards elearning:

“Military organisations across the world are very, very interested indeed in virtual learning environments.  These have the potential to be an enormous benefit to military organisations – and many other organisations – in [enabling] the creation of a spatial reality, and therefore you’re able to do individual procedural training; you’re able to go into massive multiplayer modes where teams can go into the scenarios.” 

The commander continues with his explanation, offering a further reason why elearning provides an attractive alternative:  “Obviously with military equipment there are things you must not do, you’ll either break them or risk lives.  In the virtual environment, you can do what you like... One of the great advantages for us is that ability to investigate the learning and training value of allowing trainees to do something that they’d never be permitted to do in a live environment.”

Cost efficiencies and safety and two very understandable reasons for why the Navy – like the other UK armed forces – finds itself attracted to elearning solutions. Clarke also revealed a further explanation however, which perhaps isn’t the most obvious: 

“The Navy has been a keen advocate of elearning for many, many reasons. We have obviously a recruiting requirement, and it’s fair to say links between the populace and the military aren’t as natural as they were 50 years ago... After the '50s and '60s, the relationship became less straightforward.  We have to make ourselves an attractive employer... our sailors and marines expect to trained in what they recognise to be a high-tech environment that very heavily invests in technology, including elearning, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

In fact, the investigation and rollout of elearning systems is something of a trend not only for the Royal Navy, but for its allies around the world.  It’s something Clarke expands upon later in the conversation: “The trend across the Royal Navy, the NATO navies, and the US Navy, is [towards] a massive investment about to go into virtual learning environments... The cost of producing a virtual environment to high-fidelity of the inside of a ship or an aircraft cockpit is dropping by a factor of 10.”

He continues: “That kind of commercial off-the-shelf backdrop to what you can get for your money is extremely attractive, and you can begin to sense why more and more of these options are being chosen. The technical capability is in there, and it’s now any sensible organisation, we are looking at how to use secure internet connectivity to train and prepare with our allies.”

This summer sees the launch of the Maritime Composite Training System (MCTS) phase 1, co-developed by the Royal Navy and British Aerospace.  Work began on the facility, based at HMS Collingwood, back in 2006, and it , like its predecessor, “replicates a number of the operations rooms of a number of our ships.”  The difference is that MCTS is PC-based, emulating the functionality of real-world systems onto touch-screens.  The modular design of the MCTS also means it can be reworked in the look of another operations room within 24 hours. 

"The trend across the Royal Navy, the NATO navies, and the US Navy, is [towards] a massive investment about to go into virtual learning environments."

In today’s world, the Royal Navy operates more and more with the two other arms of the UK military, together with other international forces.  So how does it cope with issues of inter-operability and the lack of a common platform?

The investigation into so-called ‘common synthetic training environments’ is something the Royal Navy is conducting with the other branches of the UK armed forces. “At sea, [ships] operate with other ships, with aircraft, and with submarines.  So one of the capabilities we’re investigating and deploying is how to share our simulations with the Royal Air Force and the Army... We build those [common synthetic training environments] up so our teams can train with air force teams, and can train with land teams.” Clarke added, “You get high-level team training from that.”

The goal of implementing a tri-forces elearning and training platform is a goal the armed forces is working to achieve at the moment, and is perhaps something that future iterations of the MCTS will allow.   “We would like to have common there’s a tremendous amount of work going on in terms of how to comply and connect and share in the best way possible,” says Clarke.  “In other words, what do you need to do within your own naval environment, and does that align with the technologies and techniques the air force might be doing in their environment?”

Furthermore, the high percentage of joint operations between the UK armed forces and its allies – Clarke explains the figure is about 90% - means that standardisation amongst learning and training is key to realising its full potential: “It’s sensible to work up to your full capability and train together, so you know your systems are the same; your language is the same; your procedures are the same.”

Clarke concludes: “Elearning and virtual learning environments are therefore very cost-effective way to push that co-operation away from the frontline.”

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Jon Wilcox

Technology Correspondent

Read more from Jon Wilcox

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