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How a video game engine will power Javelin anti-tank training


Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented the available options for Javelin training; There are multiple approaches. This version also clarifies the status of SAIC’s block I Basic Skills Trainer.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Aspiring tank-killers around the world could soon blast armor in an upgraded simulated environment powered by a graphics engine used for the video game Fortnite.

This reality is only awaiting an upgrade to defense contractor SAIC’s block I version of the Javelin missile’s Basic Skills Trainer. The upgrade will integrate Epic Games’ Unreal 4 engine into scenarios.

SAIC experts demonstrated the upgraded trainer to Army Times on Wednesday at an Association of the U.S. Army event, allowing a reporter to destroy a simulated T-72 tank, a platform that Russia operates.

A Javelin anti-tank missile Basic Skills Trainer is seen March 29, 2023, at an Association of the U.S. Army trade show in Huntsville, Ala. (Davis Winkie/Staff)

Updates can take significant time and effort, but the upgrade is expected to reach soldiers by 2025. The existing Javelin trainer was developed in 2001 and modeled on real-world training ranges.

Both U.S. and foreign purchasers of the Javelin receive an allotment of trainer devices, and approximately 900 are in operation around the world.

SAIC officials said the trainer is typically employed in a classroom setting, where troops become familiar with the device and its controls. While U.S. personnel sometimes progress to fire expensive, live missiles in their training, not all users around the world have that opportunity. That means the trainer could be their only experience with the Javelin platform until it’s time to face down an enemy vehicle.

A Javelin anti-tank missile Basic Skills Trainer device was on display at a defense conference in Huntsville, Ala., in March 2023. (Davis Winkie/Staff)

And the new Unreal Engine-powered version of the trainer will ensure a more realistic experience, SAIC experts said. After viewing the current software and comparing it to the forthcoming one, Army Times observed significant improvements in picture quality, terrain options and target realism.

The company is hopeful that bringing the program up to modern graphics standards can help “born-digital” Gen Z troops focus on training rather than graphical shortcomings.

A screenshot from the forthcoming update to the Javelin Basic Skills Trainer block I, which uses the Epic Games-developed Unreal Engine to power physics and render large outdoor environments. (Courtesy of SAIC)

Adopting an off-the-shelf physics and graphics engine will make maintaining the trainer and developing new scenarios — customized to each customer’s specifications — easier and cheaper, SAIC officials said. The Unreal Engine has a large user community across several industries, making it easier to solve problems, find talent and continue building additional capabilities into the new trainer.

The next-generation trainer’s expected 2025 release will come on the heels of an expansion of the anti-tank platform’s production line.

The Javelin is among several Western weapons that gained popularity over the last year, as Ukraine fights off its Russian invaders. In spite of the demand, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth pushed back on the narrative of a “Javelin crisis” at a March 15 event.

“We’re making 2,500 Javelins a year already,” the Army’s top official said. “And we’re going to be getting that up to 5,000 Javelins a year in the next year or two.”

Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master’s thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood’s WWII movies.

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