Virtual Training: Preparing Future Naval Officers for 21st Century Warfare

By Joseph Bunyard


“[We must] embrace the urgency of the moment: our maritime supremacy is being challenged.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

The fundamental character of war is changing.1 Distributed networks, next generation threats, and artificial intelligence will change “the face of conflict” by compressing and accelerating the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop, streamlining the closure of kill chains.2 American security depends on the Navy’s ability to control the seas and project power ashore.3 Preparing future naval officers for 21st century warfare must begin at the US Naval Academy (USNA), where Virtual Training Environments (VTEs) could provide education and training opportunities once exclusive to the Fleet.4

21st century warfare requires data producers and smart data consumers. Although the Department of Defense recognizes the need for an “AI ready force,” the 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that professional military education “has stagnated at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.”5 To address this charge, the Navy’s 2020 Education for Seapower Strategy calls for the creation of a “continuum of learning” through the Naval University System.6 While the Naval Postgraduate School conducts innovative technical research—and the Naval War College endows senior leaders with a strategic outlook on the future of warfare—the US Naval Academy does not feature AI, unmanned systems, tactics, or strategy in its core curriculum.7

Figure 1 – Aviation Officer Career Progression. Above: aviation officers require 2.5 years of training before deployment. 8

New technology often means new qualification requirements for junior officers. Added training extends the length of time before an officer is ready to deploy, a worrying trend at which Type Commanders are taking aim (see Figure 1).9 VTEs could offer Midshipmen exposure to the naval applications of disruptive technologies, the chance to accomplish existing Fleet training prior to commissioning, and Artificial Intelligence (AI)/ Machine Learning (ML) tools that they could take to the Fleet. To realize these objectives, the Naval Academy must leverage three types of VTEs—low-cost, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS), and Fleet-integrated—to expand training opportunities and reinforce its core curriculum.

E-learning in the COVID-19 era provides the Naval Academy a chance to update its operating system (OS). Instead of using new media, such as Zoom, to present the same PowerPoints Midshipmen would receive in-person, USNA should update its curriculum to take advantage of VTEs with proven training and educational outcomes. Incorporating new media into existing curricula requires an OS update that expands USNA’s “leadership laboratory” into a 21st century warfare laboratory, where smart data producers and consumers are forged. 10

Integrating Low-Cost Virtual Training Environments (VTEs)

“To maintain naval power in an era of great power competition and technological change, the Navy and Marine Corps need to strengthen and expand their educational efforts.”—Education for Seapower Strategy 2020

The Navy and Marine Corps increasingly rely on VTEs to “expand watch team proficiency and combat readiness” across the Fleet.11 Unlike traditional simulators, virtual reality trainers are highly mobile and often rely on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. The Chief of Naval Air Training’s Project Avenger simulator, for example, uses gaming computers and virtual reality headsets to qualify students for solo flights in half of the traditional number of flight hours.12 The Marine Corps’ tactical decision kits use similar technology to train infantry battalions on weapon systems and tactics.13 Mixed reality glasses, which overlay a user’s vision with digital information, help crews across the Fleet complete complex maintenance.14

Expanding access to existing virtual reality trainers at the Naval Academy could enable Midshipmen to complete portions of Naval Introductory Flight Evaluation (NIFE), The Basic School (TBS), and Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) syllabi prior to commissioning. “Future multi-domain combat will be so complex and long-ranged that the military will rely heavily on simulations to train for it.”15 More access to VTE trainers means more familiarization with the technology and interfaces that junior officers are increasingly likely to encounter in the Fleet.

Figure 2 – A Project Avenger Simulator. U.S. Navy photo. 16

Accessing the Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE)

“Winning in contested seas also means fielding and equipping teams that are masters of all-domain fleet operations.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

VTEs allow users to conceptualize next generation threats. While the Naval Academy provides Midshipmen the technical foundation to understand Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2/AD) bubbles and contested communications zones, it offers few means for Midshipmen to visualize these abstract threats in an operational context.17 NAVAIR’s Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) and INDOPACCOM’s Pacific Multi-Domain Training and Experimentation Capability simulate next generation threats for operations analysis and platform research design testing and evaluation (RDT&E).18 The Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE) enables cross-platform integration of these platforms, and many more, which allows warfighters around the world to take part in scalable multi-domain battle problems.19

Figure 3 – NAVAIR’s JSE 20

To meet the Fleet’s growing need for diversified data, the Navy should leverage the informed and available, yet inexperienced, potential of the Academy’s more than 4,000 Midshipmen. Providing the Naval Academy with NCTE access could generate data for the Fleet and the operational context of classroom lessons for Midshipmen. Data is the new oil; improving predictive AI/ML models, concepts of operation, and training interfaces requires mass amounts of quality data from a range of problem-solving approaches.21 Installing an NCTE node in Hopper Hall’s new Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) would not only allow Midshipmen to observe Fleet training events but also to perform their own operations analysis on platforms, capabilities, and strategies developed during their capstone research.22

Leveraging Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) VTEs

“Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have increased the importance of achieving decision superiority in combat.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

For the cost of a video game, the Naval Academy could use the same software as defense industry leaders to improve the decision-making ability of Midshipmen, reinforce classroom concepts, and introduce next generation threats and platforms. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) uses popular videogames like Command: Modern Operations ($79.99 on Steam) to search for “asymmetrical conditions” within “hyper-realistic theater-wide combat simulators” that could be exploited in real-world scenarios.23 Many titles offer open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow users to change the decision-making logic of AI opponents and load custom platforms and capabilities into the game, such as squadrons of future unmanned systems.24 Modern concepts of operation—like Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations and Joint All-Domain Command Control—often undergo “virtual sea trials” in such simulations.25

Figure 4 – Simulated Theater-Level Conflict in the South China Sea

The user-friendly, scalable, and unclassified nature of wargame simulators like Command: Modern Operations make them suitable for inter-academy use. Allies such as the United Kingdom already use commercial titles to host “Fight Clubs” among military and civilian personnel across all roles and ranks of their armed forces.26 By leveraging its cadre of foreign exchange officers and multilateral relationships, the Naval Academy could form an international “fight club” in the style of the growing “e-sports” industry. Competing with and against international Midshipmen and officers would allow Naval Academy Midshipmen to forge relationships with allies and learn from their approaches to tactics, strategies, and decision-making across a variety of simulated scenarios.

COTS Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Machine Learning (ML) VTEs

“Adopting AI capabilities at speed and scale is essential to maintain military advantage.”—2020 Department of Defense AI Education Strategy

Virtual machines provide users with access to advanced AI and ML tools, as well as the computing power necessary to use them at scale, anywhere there is an internet connection.27 Maintaining the Navy’s military advantage requires an “AI ready force” of smart data producers and consumers.28 Applying AI to operations and processes across the Fleet will likely make open-source ML software the Excel of the future, requiring both smart data producers and consumers. Not every officer is an Excel “wizard,” but most understand how it works, the problems it can solve, and the type of data it needs to function. In order to build an “AI ready force” across all roles and ranks, the Naval Academy should join the growing field of leading research universities incorporating introductory AI and ML courses in their core curricula.29

Just as seamanship and navigation are the cornerstone of maritime competence, AI-literacy will be the core of digital competence. Incorporating AI and ML into the Naval Academy’s core curriculum would create smart data producers and consumers, accelerating the Fleet’s exposure to AI through the bottom up approach envisioned in the Department of Defense AI Education Strategy.30 According to a 2019 study by IBM, “model interoperability,” understanding how a model arrives at a given decision is the single factor that most influences users’ trust in AI.31 Naval Academy graduates literate in AI and ML could better lead enlisted sailors as increasingly complex systems join the Fleet.

Towards a 21st Century Warfare Laboratory

“Transforming our learning model for the 21st century will enable us to adapt and achieve decisive advantage in complex, rapidly changing operating environments.” —2020 Triservice Maritime Strategy 32

The Naval Academy must return to the warfighting mentality of its past.33 In 2007, the Naval Academy not only removed its only tactics and strategy course from the Midshipmen core curriculum, it stopped offering it altogether.34 Until recently, this decision signaled the end of a rich history of wargaming at USNA, which included Academy-wide games held at varying levels of classification.35 VTEs offer the Naval Academy an opportunity to reprioritize warfighting by providing the “ready, relevant learning” future naval officers will need to conduct 21st century warfare.36

New concepts of operation require learning and experimentation that 21st century warfare-literate junior officers could accelerate. The Navy and Marine Corps continue to outline ambitious plans that leverage AI, unmanned platforms, and next generation networks in new concepts of operation. Consequently, the Navy aims to equip sailors with “a high degree of confidence and skill operating alongside” unmanned platforms and AI by “the end of this decade.”37 Creating a true “learning continuum” to prepare the Fleet for the future of warfare must start at the US Naval Academy, where the COVID-19 distance-learning environment offers an opportunity for the Naval Academy to update its operating system using VTEs.

Ensign Bunyard is a 2020 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Upon completing his Master’s in Information Technology Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, he will report to Pensacola for training as a student naval aviator.


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34. “Initial Report of the Dean’s Cyber Warfare Ad Hoc Committee.” The US Naval Academy. August 21, 2009., 76.
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37. Gilday, 11.

Feature photo: A U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman conducts a simulated T-6B Texan II flight on a newly installed virtual reality trainer device at the U.S. Naval Academy during Aviation Selection Night at Dahlgren Hall. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Rick Healey/Released)

One thought on “Virtual Training: Preparing Future Naval Officers for 21st Century Warfare”

  1. May I suggest that some old-fashioned seamanship training is a must; what psychologists call schematic. If you don’t live with the sea you don’t understand and aquire that extra intuative instiinct to interpret some reality.

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