Small Wars Journal

Soldier Learning 2050

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 12:40am

Soldier Learning 2050

Charles Heard

This article is the latest addition to the U.S. Army TRADOC G2 Mad Scientist Initiative’s Future of Warfare 2030-2050 project at Small Wars Journal.

“PFC Ramirez was nervous as he always was before training.  He masked it well, but it was there.  His squad performed exceptionally well during their last training operation, so he knew the Master Trainer would be adding some complexity to the environment this time.  You never really know how that might present itself and that was the source of his nerves.  It wasn’t made any better by the fact that most of these guys had hundreds, or even thousands, of hours in the gym and Ramirez had barely logged sixty in the weeks since graduating basic training.

The exercise started, as they always did, with a shower and an injection.  Once the injection happened the clock was ticking.  You only had around thirty minutes before the paralytic kicked in.  If you weren’t in the dark by then you could wind up flopping around on the floor when the photoreactives kicked in.  He wasn’t exactly sure what might happen after that, but he didn’t want to find out either.

He quickly threw on his training uniform and took a few deep breaths.  The older Soldiers called the training uniform “war pajamas”.  They were basically a mesh of fiber optic cables inside a formfitting fabric shell.  They were certainly more comfortable than combat kit – not that it would feel any different in a few minutes.

Stepping into the gym elicited the same sense of wonder that he felt the very first time.  The floor was a tight grid of pods in rows and columns of ten.  Each group stacked five high so that five hundred Soldiers at time could be trained at this gym alone.  Ramirez knew that the gyms were also all linked so that different units and branches could train together as well.  The room was kept at around 34 degrees Celsius – average skin temperature – so it was neither warm nor cool.  Banks of red LEDs provided the only illumination and even that would be extinguished once the exercise began.

He quickly made his way to his designated pod and climbed the ladder to the hatch.  He put on his visor and made sure everything was snugged up before climbing inside.  The inside of the pod was pretty tight, but it wouldn’t matter much in a few minutes anyway.  He could already feel the telltale heaviness in his limbs that let him know the paralytic was starting to take effect.  Just a few minutes later the lights gradually dimmed, and the dance began.

The dance is what they called in when the Master Trainer, the AI that ran the training operation, calibrated neural response via the optic cables in the war pajamas.  This, in turn, caused the nerve fibers coated with photoreactives to fire.  This usually started just as the paralytics kicked in, so some twitches and spasms were not uncommon.  Once the calibration was complete, Ramirez knew he’d get control of his muscles back – sort of.  He wouldn’t be able to move but he would think he was moving.  The outcome was basically the same.  You really came out no less exhausted than “real” exercises just without any risk of injury or harm. 

Finally, the lights gradually came up and he found himself in formation with his squad.  Like most of his peers, Ramirez grew up with virtual reality games, but the gym was at a whole other level.  The VR here was exceptional.  Virtually indistinguishable from the real world.  The Master Trainer could manipulate the environment and the mission parameters to achieve the desired training effect.  Ramirez could feel the sun on his skin and feel the weight of his gear.  He took a deep breath and could taste the sand and dust.  He started laying out his gear for pre-combat checks.  Everything had to be right before they moved out…this was going to be a tough one.”

Learning is generally defined in the context of the acquisition of knowledge.  In a high-stakes environment such as the military, it might further be qualified by the ability of the learner to appropriately apply this knowledge.  The proliferation of mobile technology and ubiquitous networking are likely to continue and will likely continue to be the primary venue for knowledge (both accurate and inaccurate) acquisition for learners moving forward.  The more salient question then, is how will the Army of the future maximize efficiency in learning environments to minimize the time it takes for learners to be able to apply and master newly acquired knowledge?

Virtual reality systems are the most likely, and most obvious, solution set for complex learning environments for Soldiers to practice newly acquired knowledge.  For example, Soldiers can visualize and better relate to the specific environmental considerations related to performing a task in a jungle environment without the additional expense or the associated risks of involved in jungle training.  Virtual environments can also be replicated precisely for multiple iterations and across formation to compare performance among cohorts.  VR technologies can support the production agile and adaptable leaders.  The use of virtual reality technologies means we can run Soldiers through multiple scenarios to test their decision-making skills and evaluate leadership competencies without the additional time and resources required for physical role-playing scenarios.  We can integrate the virtual, constructive training environment with real, physical based training exercises for potentially increased effect (Armitage, 2015).  Additionally, very precise minor changes can be introduced to stimulate a process called reconsolidation which may increase the speed at which kinesthetic and motor skills are retained (Wymbs, Bastian, & Celnik, 2016) even more than simple repetition.

There are, however, some significant and notable limitations to VR in achieving this.  The lack of a large environment to move around in is perhaps key in this.  A novel approach to training “muscle memory” might involve the use of optogenetics.  Optogenetics is a process by which light pulses can be used to stimulate neural activity (Deisseroth, 2010).  This might one day serve to replicate, at least neurologically, muscle movements.  This means that the brain can build neural pathways associated with performing physical tasks and these connections can become more efficient - just as they do with physical repetition. 

The use of virtual reality and other technologies can’t replace physical training entirely, but they may minimize the amount of physical training required to achieve mastery of tasks.  They can also provide safe environments in which Soldiers and leaders can develop proficiency while maintaining observable, quantifiable outcomes that can be explained and learned from.  Future learning systems must integrate appropriate technologies while leveraging neurobiology and physiology to provide Soldiers with the most adaptive and efficient learning environments possible.


Armitage, A. (2015, June 2). Effective Digital Learning Games Blend the Virtual and the Real. Retrieved from EdWeek:

Deisseroth, K. (2010, October 20). Optogenetics: Controlling the Brain with Light [Extended Version]. Retrieved from Scientific American:

Wymbs, N., Bastian, A., & Celnik, P. (2016). Motor Skills Are Strengthened through Reconsolidation. Current Biology, 26(3), 338-343.



Categories: Mad Scientist

About the Author(s)

Mr. Charles (Chuck) Heard is a retired Soldier currently employed as an IT Specialist for the US Army Chaplain Center and School, Ft. Jackson SC. He holds a B.S. in Information Systems, an M.S. in Adult Education, and is working toward his Ed.D. in Education Technology. His hobbies include anything related to computing and science, computer gaming, reading, watching mixed martial arts, and grilling.  He is married, the father of two adult sons, and a grandfather.