Today and tomorrow: VR training for the military

18 Jul, 2016

Size of the military training industry: There are 27,309,630 people currently serving in the armed forces around the world. In May 2016, the British armed forces alone had 13,750 new recruits for training.

Training spend per annum: the global military training industry is worth $10.4 billion, predicted to grow to $15.8 billion by 2025.

Key training areas: flight simulators account for 60% of the market, with maritime and combat simulators making up the rest.

Training today

The military training sector is huge, varied and complex.

Consider the British armed forces. Every recruit in every service must complete two phases of training – basic and specialist – with additional phases of specialist or officer training on the cards for many. This training could take place at any of the Army’s fifteen sites; the Navy’s eight or the Air Force’s seven.

Any given site might play host to ten combat courses for infantry and officers, like the Infantry Battle School. It may provide a mixture of vocational training (in logistics, catering and administration) and specialist courses (intensive board-and-search, or mandatory damage control and first aid), as at HMS Raleigh. It may even encompass personal development in resilience and command management alongside basic training, as at RAF Halton.

Military personnel deliver much of the training: however, support from the private sector is extensive. For instance, SMi provides annual flight training, aimed at base and squadron commanders and also at training and support staff, ensuring that the personnel delivering training are up to speed on the latest developments in flight technology. Ascent Flight Training provides 59 instructors and 32 aircraft for cross-service training: their remit also covers simulator training for aircrew and maintainers.

Armed forces training takes place against a backdrop of cuts to the defence budget, rising expenses in maintenance and modernisation of equipment, and a significant issue of personnel retention. All three of the armed forces are currently running a net deficit in trained personnel – more people are leaving than are joining up, and most of them leave voluntarily, i.e. before serving their full time.

To address issues of expense, the armed forces are moving towards a cross-service model for common elements of training (like the helicopter flight training provided by Ascent to all three forces, rather than by specialists within each branch).

This means that the training program must be adaptable, presenting the same core skills in the context of land, sea and air operations. The program also has to be as realistic as possible – many of the skills being taught will have to be practised on deployment, often in combat situations, so training has to prepare the trainee for the stress of performance when mobilised. Finally, training has to be safe.

The military sector has always been quick to adopt new technologies and is arguably the most innovative industry in the developed world. The microwave oven was developed from aircraft radar technology from the Second World War; the internet is built using US military communications and satellite surveying hardware, and the armed forces have been using VR simulations in training since 2001. One of these simulation setups – The UK Combined Arms Tactical Trainer (CATT) – is a scalable VR environment which offers training at individual, squad or battlegroup level, training 100,000 serving personnel since its first issue.

CATT simulates a larger battlespace, with greater detail in after-action review, than physical training environments can provide. It allows up to 450 trainees to interact in VR combat scenarios, alongside or against computer-generated forces and civilians. It provides after-action feedback to all participants, enforces logistical and command level decision-making, and allows cross-training of personnel stationed in the UK and Germany. It is also cheaper, and less environmentally destructive, than live field exercises – a significant advantage in the face of current political and economic circumstances.

The future

Support for CATT is set to continue. The British Army has recently committed £11 million to acquiring new scenarios and content for the simulator.

Elsewhere, investment in VR technology is likely to expand in coming years.

As Samsung reports, simulation is now being used earlier in the training process, including for bomb disposal teams. Some units even use the technology for recruitment, to screen candidates before they can drop out of service. VR is increasingly useful in the later stages of a service career, too. Repeated, controlled VR exposure to the sources of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with careful monitoring of the user’s reactions, is used to reduce the trauma response through familiarity and provide carefully tailored treatment.

VR also has far wider future applications beyond training and post-career care. This may begin with modelling the prototype of a piece of machinery – the interior of an armoured vehicle for example. This model can be rendered in VR and tested on real users. Testing feedback can be used to iterate the VR model until the design of the vehicle is fit-for-purpose; all this before anything is built in reality.

Once a physical version of the vehicle is created, the same VR model can be used for training purposes, ranging from basic familiarisation through to scenarios where multiple VR users communicate and engage in roleplay from their VR vehicles. With the vehicle in the field, ground-level learnings can be fed back into the training process and scenarios adjusted to reflect real-life challenges.

These 3D models, scenarios and logic will be used more and more to power cross-service models across the armed forces. A VR Chinook helicopter has already been created to power both shared and service-specific training scenarios.

The ability to practice critical training in non-critical environments is essential from a safety perspective, but budget cuts and rising costs mean this must be achieved in cost-effective ways. VR offers a future-ready solution, not only through replacing costly physical simulators but also by enabling prototyping, cross-service development and more. All of which means LOI and cost-of-ownership will become increasingly easy to justify in coming years.


Military training requirements are under greater pressure than ever before. Equipment is becoming more complex, budgets more limited, and cross-service provision more essential.

VR training environments allow trainees to become familiar with equipment before they encounter it; they eliminate the cost of supplies and ammunition; and they allow specific scenarios to be created for each of the armed forces, or for combined arms training, with a minimum of logistical difficulty. It eliminates risk, and therefore reduces the concerning level of deaths from injury during training, allowing for greater realism in recruitment screening and ultimately improving retention.

In short: VR directly addresses all the major challenges faced when building training programmes for the modern military.

For more information on our VR services, and how they can provide workplace training for your industry, visit our website.



Strategic Defence Intelligence report, 2015
UK Service Personnel Report, May 2016
World Bank
MoD Ad Hoc Statistical Bulletin, March 2016