From butterfly gardens to photorealistic avatars and mixed-reality fitness, Facebook’s rebranding announcement was followed by an hour-long exploration of the tools and experiences that may evolve in the company’s vision for the metaverse. Unsurprisingly, this drove a significant uptick in interest, with search results skyrocketing for the term on Google. Meta-inspired metaverse hype seems to be at an all-time high.
In the past year, and particularly since Meta’s announcement, a plethora of other players — to include our own company — have announced their intention to build the tools that will facilitate the emergence of a metaverse — from gaming companies to enterprise software giants and, of course, social media behemoths. The defense industry has not been immune to this sudden bow wave of enthusiasm, with the metaverse becoming one of the newest buzzwords to hit the Beltway. Defense companies and outlets offer a steady drip of articles and the metaverse is already slated to be one of the core themes of numerous defense conferences.
Like any newfangled term that captures the febrile imagination of the national security community, identifying what the metaverse means for defense isn’t always an easy task. For many, a defense metaverse appears to be merely the latest faddish concept in a dense constellation of defense jargon — a superficially explored term that draws excitement and ridicule in equal measure. And when the metaverse is discussed in a more substantive way in defense circles, it is often solely — and somewhat reductively — equated with training. In reality, however, should a metaverse or the metaverse actually materialize, it will elicit broader implications for defense — something that therefore warrants far deeper analysis. Indeed, a defense metaverse could emerge simultaneously as a key tool to enhance battlefield effectiveness and as a forum for intra-military communication and exchanges.
What Is the Metaverse?
Despite its increasingly ubiquitous presence across popular culture and the media, the term “metaverse” still generates an understandable amount of confusion. If one were to provide a workable definition, it would be the following: A metaverse is a series of interconnected and immersive virtual worlds that afford their users a sense of presence via agency and influence. The term was in fact coined over 30 years ago by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopian sci-fi thriller Snow Crash. Stephenson’s metaverse is a virtual-reality successor to the internet, a world of escapism from a bleak and abject reality. Close to two decades later, Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One (later immortalized by Steven Spielberg on the big screen) brought to life a future where individuals could traverse multiple virtual worlds in one universe dubbed “the OASIS,” which shares much with popular visions for the metaverse today.
Part of the opacity surrounding “a metaverse” can be tied to how the term is used colloquially. It is often employed interchangeably with “the metaverse.” In reality, these are two different things. A metaverse is a single virtual world. Theoretically, any corporation or group of programmers can create a metaverse, much like any individual or entity can create their own network. This is how most “metaverses” seem to be emerging — a series of virtual worlds where corporations maintain the servers, dictate user conduct, and determine the ways in which each space can be employed. The metaverse, however, is a single shared world based around an open architecture, whereby different entities and interoperable servers interconnect via a shared set of agreed-upon standards and interfaces, much like how the world wide web allows a diverse range of resources — from documents to weather forecasts and cat memes — to be accessed on the internet through a common protocol. While the metaverse remains the aspiration for many programmers and gamers, coordination challenges across the differing stakeholder communities exist. Developing a common protocol or standard is an organizational problem, and as a result in the near term it is far more likely that we will see the emergence of various balkanized metaverses.
Compounding the definitional obscurity of “a metaverse” or “the metaverse” are popular media portrayals of what it seems to be — the terms are often used synonymously with virtual reality and augmented reality tools. A focus, however, solely on visualization or the interfaces — like a headset — by which a person may access the metaverse gives short shrift to the technologies that will likely drive user engagement. Incredible graphics, a headset, and haptic gloves seem sexy, but a tedious meeting that lacks user agency, even with those tools, will remain a time-sink with little immediate utility. To create the types of immersive experiences that can drive presence, the metaverse will be undergirded by a range of technologies: hardware like headsets, mobile devices, and sensors; networking technologies; compute; virtual platforms, like 3D simulations; and tools that facilitate connectivity between virtual worlds. It will also incorporate payment mechanisms like digital currencies, along with a diversity of content and services like games, television shows, or banking that motivate work and play. The technologies that support each of these categories present their own wicked technical challenges, which is why opinions vary on when various “metaverses” or “the (open) metaverse” may emerge — some gamers believe that it will take less than a year, while others speculate that it could take a decade or longer.
Even if the metaverse or multiple metaverses are more than ten years out, it is in the Pentagon’s interest to start taking these technological developments seriously and begin brainstorming how a metaverse may serve defense — particularly given traditional acquisition and fielding timelines.
A Metaverse for Defense?
It is possible to argue that the armed services have been employing various metaverses, albeit clunky and siloed ones, for years. The military has been stitching together virtual worlds for the purposes of training since the 1980s when it first created SIMNET (short for “simulator networking”), which was the first demonstration of an extensive simulator network for collective training and mission rehearsal. In the last two decades, standards like Distributed Interactive Simulation and High Level Architecture have facilitated the integration of disparate training simulations, allowing warfighters to experience the “fog and friction” of combat within one synthetic space. While this kind of training has been undeniably useful, the integration of differing types of synthetic training has long been imperfect — many of these applications have been designed as monoliths, with modularity or interoperability as an afterthought. However, even with current interoperability challenges, a significant portion of the synthetic training community still aspires to a distant future reminiscent of Enders’ Game, where warfighters can seamlessly train in a realistic immersive world. In some respects, this mirrors current conceptualizations of a metaverse, so it is no surprise that a natural leap has been made from synthetic training to the metaverse in defense. Training is a core constituent element of battlefield effectiveness, so a defense metaverse could be a key enabler of warfighter performance. However, such a metaverse could support far more than just training.
Professional military education is in the midst of a radical overhaul. Since the 2018 National Defense Strategy publicly pointed to what it termed a state of “stagnation,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have sought to fundamentally reshape the way the services prepare, train, and educate future leaders. Education opportunities are no longer meant to be episodic activities that unfold solely at brick-and-mortar professional military education institutions, but continuous and rich activities that take place throughout a warfighter’s career — they are “portable” and available at their point of need. In some ways this is the vision of the Department of Defense’s Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, which seeks to provide high-quality distributed and interconnected virtual learning opportunities that are tailored to a person’s ability, anywhere and at any time. A defense metaverse could build on this digital education ecosystem but it would be far more immersive, providing opportunities to draw on some of the mixed-reality advancements in education that are already taking place in the civilian and military worlds. Indeed, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, education institutions have sought to enhance distributed learning opportunities through simulations, wargames, and even, in the case of the Army’s National Simulation Center, the use of augmented-reality technologies that allow soldiers to better visualize a multi-domain battlespace. By integrating experiential tools, techniques, and personalized data and records into one environment, a defense metaverse may be able to provide comprehensive and continuous learning outcomes.
Since the advent of America’s Army — a popular U.S. Army-developed first-person shooter game — in 2002, the military has used video games alongside traditional tools, like enhanced bonuses or pay, to attract talent into the armed forces. ESports are a continuation of that trend, with each service now boasting their own team that competes in national and international video game competitions. For the Army in particular, eSports have emerged as a particularly effective recruitment avenue, allowing them to reach a portion of the American populace that otherwise would not likely be exposed to military service. The services have also been particularly adept at tailoring digital advertising to target demographics — advertising on streaming platforms over cable to appeal to a younger audience. The emergence of the metaverse — or various corporate metaverses — provides an impetus for the military to lean more deeply into these trends. As more social activities move onto the metaverse — from gaming to concerts and sports events — broader opportunities will emerge for the services to reach potential warfighters through eSports and advertising. The metaverse could even provide new recruitment incentives — beyond bonuses or the GI bill. As new forms of financial transactions and virtual goods emerge, like non-fungible tokens, the metaverse may offer new incentive options that appeal to warfighters who are used to operating, and socializing, in the digital domain.
Whether in the form of wargames, synthetic environments, or live exercises, experiments have long been an invaluable means to grapple with periods of pronounced uncertainty. In the absence of combat, experimentation allows warfighters and decision-makers to transcend their current realities and ideally imagine new concepts of operations or force structures. At present, however, many of the experiments that undergird ideas of what the future U.S. military should look like occur in a siloed fashion. Experiments tend to be one-off events and not integrated into what Peter Perla has labeled the “cycle of research” — seeking to understand problems and their solutions through iterative wargames, simulations, experiments, analysis, and other methods. This is a shame, as a rich experimentation ecosystem would allow findings from unstructured wargames to flow more easily into rigid wargames, modeling and simulation tools, and experiments — whether live or via a synthetic environment. While it is plausible to point to a variety of reasons why the “cycle of research” remains aspirational, two arguments are worth noting. The first is organizational: Experiments, whether in the form of wargames or other analytic tools, can be misused. The second is arguably technological: As countless professional wargamers have told us, many of the technology tools that are currently on offer are crude, cumbersome, and designed without analytic or experiential game goals in mind. Many technological tools are also geared towards a specific game type, such as matrix games, and interoperability with other game types or experiments are an afterthought. Potential technology advancements around wargame data capture, storage, and analysis tooling, when combined with new approaches to synthetic environments that ease simulation integration, may prove beneficial. However, a defense metaverse, if it is truly a series of seamlessly interconnected virtual worlds, could make the “cycle of research” a reality.
The byzantine acquisition process has long been a thorn in the side of defense policymakers and acquisition professionals alike. It is a daunting and labyrinthine problem, with no straightforward or simple solutions. Despite the enormity of the task, there has been some notable progress, particularly as the Department of Defense has embraced new methodologies and tools to accelerate acquisitions. One digital engineering approach in particular, model-based systems engineering, has helped the department to increase the speed of design and development of major weapons systems. For example, the Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent megaproject is employing model-based system engineering to rapidly evaluate billions of scenarios, helping acquisition professionals to determine the precise design and placement of munitions in nuclear silos as they work to replace the land-based leg of America’s nuclear triad.
The program offers a powerful success story for digital engineering and has now become the standard practice on all large Air Force programs. Yet, these digital versions of complex weapons systems stop short of interacting with each other. They also are rarely integrated into simulations that replicate the complexity of future competition and conflict. A defense metaverse offers the possibility of connecting virtual environments for acquisitions with those used for experimentation or training, allowing acquisitions professionals to quickly test or assess their designs in a virtual world that mimics the future operating environment — all while providing a modicum of operational security that the live environment may not afford. This should support further design and security improvements, while shortening iteration cycles of requirements development, architecture designs, and testing.
Personnel Placement and Promotion
Personnel management practices, rooted in the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, are in the midst of reform. Each service has singled out the “up or out” promotion system for change and is aspiring to provide servicemembers greater say in their next assignments. Personnel records that have been critiqued as inadequate — lacking information on the complexity and breadth of an individual’s skills and latent talents, from language or technical skills accrued outside traditional military training or education channels — are being updated to provide more holistic assessments of individual strengths and capabilities. More needs to be done, however, to ensure interoperability across disparate personnel records — from active-duty records to reserve and guard. A defense metaverse could build on these reforms, integrating and automatically updating personnel records with activities that occur elsewhere within the metaverse — from training to experimentation and education. A metaverse may also provide alternative pathways to identify future military leaders. Indeed, with the advent of massive multiplayer online role-playing games, corporations noticed that the gaming environment often produced leaders who possessed the types of skills that would be applicable in an enterprise environment — a comfort with risk, a willingness to accept failure, relationship skills, and a desire for iterative and agile improvement. It is possible that a defense metaverse may also provide an alternative pathway to identify future military leaders — or mavericks — who are uniquely suited to the future fight.
Focusing solely on battlefield effectiveness, however, as the basis of a military metaverse is not enough. The metaverse is fundamentally a social construction that is meant to provide new and potentially deeper opportunities for human interactions and exchange. This forces us to widen our aperture of analysis of what a metaverse means when it comes to defense — not just in terms of how these virtual worlds can enhance the performance of American servicemembers, but also in terms of how the U.S. military, as one of the world’s largest bureaucratic and social organizations, both provides for and supports its members.
Just like in Fortnite, where players have opportunities to hang out or make friends, there is an expectation that the metaverse will allow for a deeper and broader discourse, allowing people to forge new relationships and ideally enhance the social elements of their lives. The military is a lifestyle choice, dictating not only careers but also aspects of social life. As a result, just like military bases provide opportunities to socialize and build communities, one would expect a defense metaverse to tap into those same needs. Bases provide various social activities for servicemembers, whether they are single or part of a family — from morale, welfare, and recreation programs to healthcare and financial guidance. Many of these activities could be brought onto a metaverse in various forms, allowing servicemembers to take advantage of base benefits at their point of need, supplementing rather than replacing preexisting physical interactions. For instance, the Air Force Gaming community has already taken a first step towards connecting distributed airmen in a digital environment through video games, providing opportunities for leadership development, teamwork, morale building, and support for the mental health of servicemembers, particularly those in the 18 to 30 age range who grew up as avid gamers. A military metaverse could serve as an extension to this community, bringing in other non-gaming activities and connectivity.
While it is likely aspects of a defense metaverse will be walled off from “the metaverse,” or various corporate metaverses — much like how the Department of Defense has its own classified networks — to the extent that some interoperability exists, it may provide additional benefits. Servicemembers traditionally change duty locations every two to four years — placing pressure not only on the servicemember, but also their families. Spouses often have to find new employment opportunities and children must be enrolled and acclimated in unfamiliar school districts. Corporate or civilian metaverses may allow civilian spouses to maintain their employment, with little to no interruption in professional activities, as they change locations with their military partner. Interconnecting a defense metaverse with corporate metaverses could streamline that process, allowing the Defense Department to quickly provide resources and guidance to civilian professional organizations to ease any needed transition. The children of servicemembers may also be to maintain linkages with their former academic institutions through more-immersive hybrid learning opportunities, allowing them to slowly transition to a new location without having to sever former educational contacts or friendships.
A key component of the metaverse will involve financial exchanges and the marketing and selling of physical and virtual goods. There may be opportunities to bring financial exchanges into the defense metaverse, much like how products and services are available on base to personnel. A metaverse may be able to provide the secure exchange of goods to servicemembers beyond traditional physical institutions. Many federal employees and warfighters will also invest in cryptocurrencies, allowing them to immediately tap into virtual goods, services, and some of the unique benefits that are presently tied to cryptocurrencies, tokens, and exchanges. Given the potentially significant financial and security risks, personnel and security officers have a responsibility to provide guidance and training on cryptocurrencies and the metaverse in order to protect servicemembers.
The Benefits of Interconnection
While a defense metaverse could enable a range of discrete warfighting and social benefits, its true value should emerge through the interconnection of the various defense virtual worlds —provided interoperability is prioritized in the design of these virtual environments from the start. Integrating virtual activities across the Department of Defense should create an iterative feedback loop, with little human effort involved, thus ensuring that lessons learned from training, education, or recruitment can be exploited during test and experimentation and vice versa. As more individuals have access to information across a defense metaverse, potential exists for various activities, like experiments, to become increasingly democratized, making it easier to solicit ideas and feedback across the defense community. Even the social facets of a defense metaverse could yield battlefield improvements, by potentially aggregating information that can lend insight into factors, like morale, that could inform force design or training.
In some ways this mirrors the benefits that platforms — from Google to Amazon, YouTube, or Pinterest — provide. By facilitating the development of complementary products and services, platforms generate network effects. The more complementary elements within a platform, the more innovative and powerful the network becomes. In the case of corporations, this has facilitated enormous economic benefits, creating ecosystems in which tremendous amounts of value are created and exchanged. Conversely, in some cases platforms can have negative downstream effects — amplifying disinformation and facilitating harassment. A defense metaverse, if properly structured to foster interactions across the military, could reap immense warfighting rewards, but only if it protects its virtual users from some of the toxic behaviors that have plagued the military in the physical realm.
A defense metaverse — much like many platforms — should also facilitate technology reusability, helping to drive down costs associated with acquisitions. Platforms allow users to access a range of information, products, software tools, and services that can be shared across the platform ecosystem, much like how GitHub has become a repository for open-source software programs or how the Unreal engine has a marketplace. Similarly, technology applications that are procured to serve various facets of a defense metaverse could be reused across virtual environments. Force-on-force models that are used for training could theoretically be reused in applications for test, evaluation, experimentation, or even education. While this aspiration was articulated to these authors by U.S. Space Force guardians at the Catalyst Campus, current procurement practices stand in stark contrast to that vision. At present, each military service or defense agency acquires their own virtual solutions, and reusability, except in the case of government off-the-shelf technology, is an afterthought. Current acquisition challenges aside, the Space Force is charging ahead with their vision — and that vision, as they recently noted, may take the shape of a metaverse.
While it may be easy to skeptically disregard current discussions around the metaverse as breathless hype, roll one’s eyes at some baffling recent purchases by non-fungible token groups, or chuckle at the sheer absurdity of some recent portrayals of these developments, there is reason for the military to take these trends seriously — and without succumbing either to alarmism or heady futurism. As scholars in the field of security studies have shown, states that effectively wield emerging technologies —organizationally and operationally innovating around them — can command significant geopolitical advantage. In short, as the metaverse continues its journey from science fiction into our daily lives, it is time for the defense establishment to start taking the metaverse, and its many real-world implications, seriously.
Jennifer McArdle is the head of research at Improbable US Defense and National Security and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Caitlin Dohrman is the president and general manager of Improbable US Defense and National Security.