Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Ethical Promise and Challenge of Simulation-based Military Training

Jason E. Summers


December 3, 2010
by Jason E. Summers

The normative role of the military requires its forces to be trained and ready to respond to acts of aggression that endanger life and property. However, deployment of forces on training missions can have significant economic, environmental, and human costs.

This tension prominently entered public discourse through a dispute over possible damage to marine mammals from sonar-training exercises that culminated in a 2008 hearing before the Supreme Court. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts observed that risk of harm to marine mammals is “plainly outweighed by the Navy’s need to conduct realistic training exercises to ensure that it is able to neutralize the threat posed by enemy submarines.”  While Roberts argued that the public interest lay with the Navy on the question of environmental versus military risk, calculating the full measure of potential costs and damages associated with force training is complex. For this reason, the military has actively pursued simulation-based training as a means of resolving the tension between its obligations to assure readiness and minimize impact.

In such virtual reality systems, participants engage in realistic training exercises, often using the same interfaces as real systems, while some or all of the environment with which they interact is simulated.  In principle, such systems can facilitate force readiness comparable to that achieved by field training while significantly reducing impact.  As an example, at the start of this fiscal year the Navy introduced simulation-based training for the sonar system that was the subject of the 2008 trial. This is commendable; simulation-based training is a responsible technology that enables government to better conform to the normative principles regulating military training.

However, simulation-based training brings new ethical difficulties. Its virtue—enabling realistic, minimal-risk simulation of high-risk scenarios—is a potential vice. When training is primarily simulation-based, formative experiences occur in interaction with a virtual world where there are no consequences for action. Regular training in the absence of real-world consequences may hinder the development of moral judgment.  In technologically mediated battle environments, such as antisubmarine warfare, the distinction between real and virtual further dissolves because the virtual world provides an essentially identical sensory experience. Moreover, simulation-based training can involve wartime acts against states that are not declared enemies. Because simulations must teach detailed technical skills, training may require modeling the specific ships and submarines of particular countries. However, this may encourage soldiers to view states whose capabilities are regularly trained against as enemies.  As a result, in stressful conditions, soldiers may misinterpret data according to the learned virtual scenario rather than the facts at hand (a phenomenon which may have contributed to the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes).

In light of these ethical concerns, the military must apply simulation-based training carefully to avoid adverse consequences. However, a Christian response to these questions must go beyond teleological ethics to consider how the simulations themselves express norms of human interaction both during and in preparation for war. As Paul J. Ford wrote, “virtual environments by nature are ideologies manifested.”

Developers of training systems have always considered questions of how system design impacts skill transfer. They should also consider ways in which simulators and training protocols can be designed to minimize morally adverse effects. Moreover, simulation systems and training protocols should emphasize the gravity of war and consistently reflect Just War Theory, motivating conflicts when needed and enforcing principles of jus in bello.

—Jason E. Summers is the Chief Scientist at Applied Research in Acoustics LLC.  Dr. Summers was the Technical Lead for Advanced Development on the Surface Anti-Submarine Warfare Synthetic Trainer (SAST) functional segment of the SQQ-89A(V) 15 sonar system.

(The views expressed here are those of the author alone and are based on public information. His views should not be construed to be those of his employer, the U.S. Federal Government, or any entities therein.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”