US Army Major General Maria Gervais, Director of the US Army Futures Command Synthetic Training Environment Cross Functional Team, was interviewed by Group Editor Marty Kauchak.

MS&T: US Army leadership is committed to modernization with the recent establishment of Army Futures Command and other forward-leaning initiatives. How will training support the Army’s vision for modernization?     

MG Gervais: The importance of training in modernization cannot be understated. Training is what makes the biggest difference. It prepares our soldiers and our units for their wartime mission. Training builds readiness. It instills confidence, cohesion and trust in the equipment they are provided, in themselves and their leaders.

MS&T: And you are leading the effort to improve the overarching training environment through the Synthetic Training Environment (STE).

MG Gervais: Yes. What we are doing with STE will allow for better replication of the operational environment. It will allow us to replicate a near-peer threat, with capabilities such as EW, cyber, integrated air defense, integrated fires, complex space competencies and megacities with dense urban terrain – the challenges our soldiers and units will encounter on the battlefield. STE will also allow us to start preparing for, and be able to complete, multi-domain operations. In the end, training helps increase the “reps and sets,” improves the ability to train at home station, with our soldiers and units entering into live scenarios at National Training Center, Joint Readiness Training Center and other such sites with a higher level of proficiency. From these standpoints, training is an integral part of modernization.

MS&T: Let’s look at the command enterprise level, and tell us the importance of training, and certainly the STE Cross Functional Team (CFT), to Army Futures Command’s charter and vision.  

MG Gervais: Army Futures Command is the largest reorganization we have gone through since 1973. We really needed to focus on what we are seeing from our near – and peer threats – not only what they are doing today, but potentially, what would they will be able to do in the future. We had to take a look at what are those things we had to modernize, how quickly and then take advantage of, so we can ensure we are prepared for today’s battlefield and the future battlefield – of 2028 and beyond. We first stood up eight CFTs with STE being one. And then Army Futures Command was established in 2018. The command is focused on all of the Army’s modernization priorities and the capabilities that have to be brought in, so we are prepared to meet the threat – and training is an integral part of that. Our CFT is focused on the training piece of that and this is a paradigm shift. We are thinking concurrently about how to train for the future battlefield of 2028, where we will have to conduct multi-domain operations. We have to think right now about how to train to some of the capabilities that are emerging – especially those that you really can’t train to on an installation because of limitations in one space or range facility, or even the sophistication of the weapon. The STE is going to be an integral part of training on these systems that are coming in – cyber, long-range precision missiles and others. That is how the STE CFT fits in and why it is important to achieving the vision of Army Futures Command.

A soldier at Fort Carson, Colorado, gets his headgear adjusted for testing the Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer-Air, or RVCT-A. Image credit: US Army.

MS&T: STE has quickly evolved from when you introduced the Army’s embrace of this capability as a program of record several years ago.          

MG Gervais: Yes, the date was June 2016 when I first stood up at TSIS [NTSA’s Training & Simulation Industry Symposium] to address this with an audience. And I quickly figured out we had to start the dialogue, begin engaging industry and academia, both inside the Army and outside – to start talking about what we were trying to achieve with STE – not so much what it is and its different components, but what we were trying to achieve. We worked very hard on trying to get through a common understanding through videos, discussions and industry engagements. But the other thing that really brought this to light, and I have to applaud them, is our industry partners – in virtual gaming and what you are seeing in other technological advances, in telecommunications, for example. The technology is allowing us to do something that couldn’t be achieved before. We’re showing and demonstrating that the concept of what we are saying with STE is achievable. That goes a long way. That is where our industry partners were so beneficial in this entire process.

MS&T: And it is apparent that some of STE’s deliverables are informing decisions of other command CFTs.

MG Gervais: You are exactly right, and that is one of the benefits of the cross functional teams. Being designated as one of the Army’s modernization priorities also comes with Army senior leadership’s commitment in terms of priority and resourcing. STE is also codified in the Army’s Vision – for deeper distribution of simulations down to the company level, because the leaders [former Army Secretary Mike Esper, now SecDef, and former Chief-of-Staff General Mike Milley, now Joint Chiefs Chair] wanted to increase the reps and sets necessary. When you look at the CFTs, we have all the experts necessary to help support us and help streamline the process. We all have access to our senior leaders, so we can ask for the guidance and decisions quickly, and move through with the documentation piece quickly.

To your point, this has also allowed us to have better integration across all the CFTs. For example, we work closely with Next Generation Combat Vehicle and Future Vertical Lift, because those will be the future ground and air platforms. Our One World Terrain effort is already being used in the next generation combat vehicle – they are training their autonomous algorithms on synthetic terrain before they would ever go out and complete their robotic or autonomous ability in the actual environment. I also have a strong partnership with Soldier Lethality because we are working the Integrated Visual Augmentation System. This system started with a squad immersive virtual trainer which we were working in the STE. We quickly realized the trainer could be used not only in training, but to meet an operational requirement. I also partnered very closely with the Network CFT, because I am very dependent on the enterprise network that will deliver this capability to our posts, camps and stations, but also for any requirement that will be levied on tactical networks. This strategy allows the CFTs in the new structure, and Army Futures Command, to have an intense focus on these modernization priorities – lining up the resources from across the CFTs and across the Army, to ensure we have the expertise and we’re thinking through the different problem sets and solving them.

MS&T: Your STE CFT is also casting a wide net to bring AI, VR, Big Data and other enablers into your processes.

MG Gervais: When I started this, my premise was, ‘I want to tell you what we’re trying to achieve, and I want to know what is in the realm of the possible, not what we think it is right now.’ I looked at what was really exploding in the virtual gaming industry, artificial intelligence, machine learning, data management and storage, wearables in terms of live AR/VR and 3D terrain. I wanted to push the edge of the envelope and put together a schedule, to put these challenges out to industry and tell them these are our biggest challenges and we need your help solving them.

A soldier assesses prototypes of the One World Terrain, part of the STE's Information System which will portray a common scenario for all training participants, depicting all player actions and battlefield effects in real time using authoritative 3D terrain models. Image credit: US Army.

MS&T: Is there a specific challenge you can recall?

MG Gervais: Yes, the squad immersive environment. The Army had been trying to provide an immersive or semi-immersive capability to our dismounted soldiers – our infantry squads since 2006. The technology wasn’t there. Our original timeline said we couldn’t do this until 2025-26 because we didn’t think the market was going to be there – that’s what we thought. Following the priority of former Defense Secretary Mattis, former secretary Esper and former chief-of-staff General Milley to increase the lethality and survivability of the close-combat soldier, I wanted to field the capability sooner. We put the challenge out to our industry partners to see what we can do. We determined the technology was better than we thought. In 2021, you will not only see a squad immersive training capability, but a capability that will allow you to rehearse and fight – and will be known as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System. That was put together in two years working with our industry partners.

MS&T: That’s one training gap. Are there others the Army needs the help of industry and academia to help close?

MG Gervais: First, we’ve been asked to accelerate the live training environment – force-on-force, force-on-target. These are our engagement systems, like MILES. We need to find a replacement for our legacy laser-based engagement system. We have had similar type systems since the 1970s-80s. We need to improve that and better replicate between a live and virtual environment. And we need to replicate what a brigade combat team would have to use. That’s what getting into training ‘realism’ and what STE will provide – we’re trying to improve all aspects of that. So live is one. In the virtual domain, we have several things we’re trying to work hard to accomplish. One is working to overcome what is known as dynamic occlusion in a live/augmented reality/virtual reality-type environment – to get to weapon skill development and use our weapon systems as they were designed – not only to 100m [328ft] but to 300m [984ft] as they were designed. The other important piece, and this is consistent with what I have put out to industry, is beyond big data management and storage, but more important, what about the things we need to disseminate? What is that infrastructure we’ll need? This includes bandwidth. And latency is very important in a training environment, especially if you are in a live environment or in AR in a live environment. We need to solve that for the live, virtual and One World Terrain. This covers how do you compress information, how do you improve elasticity, and even do cloud- or edge-computing. These are the things I am talking to industry about.

MS&T: Judging from I/ITSEC and other events you have made progress with One World Terrain.

MG Gervais: We’ve made unbelievable progress in One World Terrain in a very short period of time. We have developed a very sustainable process that allows units to organically capture or collect their terrain, process it very quickly, put it in a commercial standard and language, and then put it in whatever platform they need it, be it a simulator, or mission command system. This was developed for training. The Marines and Army SOF are using it. Naval Special Warfare units and several Army divisions are using One World Terrain. We have seen as they use it for training, they have determined that it has tactical application. This great progress aside, we still have to take all that data from multiple data sources, and be able to quickly automate the process to line up everything we need and use it. We must do this, as for instance, there are many sensors that can provide data – we need to get all the data we need. We also have to be able to replicate jungle, subterranean megacities. That city can’t be a physical infrastructure, but it must have the ‘patterns of life’ – the people, cars, movements and everything else. And you must do this with the scale we need.


MS&T: Can you quantify the recent improvements you have obtained in One World Terrain?


MG Gervais: If we pulled out ‘X’ kilometers of terrain about 18 months ago, to process that took months. In 18 months we’ve driven down months to weeks, to days – to actually hours. We recently saw a unit at National Training Center collect and automate data, reducing the time for processing, and then use the data in their system within hours for the execution of a mission. We also need to make certain the accuracy, resolution and fidelity of that data is where we need it. As one example, the Real-Time Kinematics technology used in mining and agriculture has provided less than a 2cm-level of accuracy. It’s much better accuracy than we have had before. The applications for that are tremendous.  

MS&T: Highlight how the STE CFT is interacting with US allies and friends.

MG Gervais: I’ve engaged with several of our ally partners – the Republic of Korea is one. I have also met with the UK and several NATO partners. Several visitors have come to speak with me about STE. What we are doing is to ensure we are talking on a routine basis with our partners, and sharing what we are doing. My UK counterpart sat down with us in Orlando, and we showed him what we’re doing and how we are doing it in several different areas. The important thing to know is when you talk to the Army, the other US services and our allies are saying, ‘we can do live, virtual and constructive training, but it has so many limitations.’ The limitations are because the ‘back end’ is not right. They say, ‘we need common standards, common authoritative data, open architecture, and common terrain so we can improve our live-virtual-constructive training capability and ensure we are interoperable. That’s why I am excited about STE – the STE is not going to be ‘STE standard.’ With STE, we’re looking at an open architecture based on commercial standards or following what the commercial sector is doing. When the sector changes or technology evolves, I simply want to unplug what we have and plug the new technology in. And if we don’t get to the common data, common standards, common terrain and open architecture, we’ll be right back where we are today!

Soldiers use ATLAS, an AI-assisted targeting system, for a mission brief. Image credit: US Army.

MS&T: This is clearly not business as usual for the command and its CFTs; you’re developing new operational models.

MG Gervais: The Army Futures Command CFT’s charter was really to figure out how to ‘break the paradigm.’ Our acquisition cycles take too long. If we had a 15-year development cycle for some of the Synthetic Training Environment, those technologies would be old by the time we fielded them – similar to an iPhone1. With the CFTs and the flexibility to provide deliverables through the other transactional authorities [OTAs], it has really allowed us to leverage the industry partners that are out there. During the last 18 or so months that we have gotten STE off the ground, it has been our industry partners who we have worked with extensively who have really helped us. They told us technology was more mature than we thought. They also gave us better costing data.

MS&T: Your Service members have also provided significant feedback to the STE CFT, correct?

MG Gervais: Yes. Because soldiers have been involved in every step of the way as we have been doing these designs and prototypes, the soldier feedback that has been provided through this process has really helped us refine the requirements. For example, we had a very successful Other Transaction Authority User Assessment this April and May at Fort Carson, Colorado, where we tested the Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer-Air (RVCT-A). We had Apache, UH60 and CH47 crews. We also had maintainers and instructor pilots. They provided great feedback on what worked, what didn’t work and what needed to be improved. Then we went to Fort Riley, Kansas. The 1st Infantry Division along with a Stryker unit from Fort Carson, and other soldiers similarly assessed a prototype Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer-Ground (RVCT-G). They told us one of the approaches we were looking at was not ready, that there would be minimal value added if we pursued that path – and we refined the requirement. This May, we also brought 1st Infantry Division planners and staff to Orlando to look at the software, the “guts” of what makes everything work, and they gave us great feedback on it. We've had a lot of great successes in a short period of time. We're going to start to see that accelerate.

MS&T: You have also awarded other OTAs.

MG Gervais: We awarded four OTAs this June. One was for One World Terrain. A second was for training simulation software and the training management tool. The third was for our air and ground platforms. The fourth was for a weapons optimization effort that will support our Soldier Squad Virtual Trainer. With this last OTA, we’re asking industry to help us achieve greater effectiveness, reliability, maintainability and affordability of simulated military equipment.

MS&T: And perhaps your CFT’s industry outreach and engagement strategy will be boosted by your establishment in Orlando?

MG Gervais: Yes, the STE CFT began establishing itself earlier this year in Orlando’s Central Florida Research Park. On one side of the ground floor of our building will be a partnership with University of Central Florida, our S&T partners, and also Team Orlando. This will allow us to bring in a technology and look at it. And on the other side will be the STE integration facility. When we see promising technology, we want to quickly bring it over and get a quick assessment. If it can be used, we want to find a way to quickly adopt it in the STE. Our industry partners will find this very beneficial – now they can show us, and we can give them real-time feedback on site. That will give them the opportunity to be quickly integrated if we’re able to do so, or they’ll need to work on it some more.

I want to get that facility up and running. We have a great partnership with UCF and PEO STRI. UCF has been very kind with this partnership building and getting this renovation completed – working as quickly as they can. We will be fully up and operational this December-January. At I/ITSEC that will be one topic I discuss, and I want to talk about the Live domain – our senior leaders have said they want this accelerated.

MS&T: Thank you for taking time to update MS&T readers and the S&T community on these STE topics. Any final thoughts?

MG Gervais: This is one of the things I and many others are very passionate about. Because of the changes that were made, they have allowed us to seize on opportunities that have presented themselves. I appreciate this media engagement to have the opportunity to talk about what we’ve accomplished but, more importantly, where we need help. We’re not going to do this as a CFT without our industry, academic and other partners from across the Army, and the rest of DoD. 

Futures Command Up and Running

The new US Army Futures Command (AFC) declared full operational capability in July. In Pentagon-speak, the command’s mission is to lead a continuous transformation of Army modernization, focused like a laser on six major modernization priorities it has judged as necessary to win on the future battlefield of 2028 and beyond.

To enable the Army to win increasingly complex, multi-domain battles, eight cross-functional teams (CFTs) were established:

  • Long Range Precision Fires CFT;
  • Next Generation Combat Vehicles CFT;
  • Air and Missile Defense CFT;
  • Soldier Lethality CFT;
  • Synthetic Training Environment CFT;
  • Network Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence CFT;
  • Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing CFT; and
  • Future Vertical Lift CFT.

With headquarters in Austin, Texas, the new command is truly a massive organization encompassing 24,000 soldiers and civilians across 25 states and 15 countries. But don’t let the size fool you – at this point the new command does not appear to have the trappings of a large, legacy-era military bureaucracy.

For starters, the CFTs are charted to compress acquisition timelines. In one instance, a more liberal use of Other Transaction Authority (OTA) contracts is permitting the service to more effectively carry out certain prototype, research and production projects.

One significant OTA award supports the efforts to accelerate the Future Vertical Lift program. The Army awarded five industry contracts for the development of the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft through prototypes to: an AVX/L3 team; Bell; Boeing; Karem Aircraft; and Sikorsky.

Futures Command is quickly cultivating relationships with industry and academia. While the STE CFT, from its headquarters in Orlando, Florida, is collaborating with the S&T industry and academic community, AFC has similarly started building a robotics institute at the University of Texas.

And there is a command focus on outreach to small businesses, which it views as vital for bringing in new, innovative ideas that fall beyond what the major defense contractors typically do.

At this early point, the Army Futures Command appears to be genuinely focused on finding quicker solutions to remove impediments to modernizing training, education and other parts of the service’s portfolio.