Our white Land Rover comes to a stop a few metres in front of the checkpoint, and a man approaches the window. He asks us what we are doing in the area, and we inform him that we’ve just had a meeting with the mayor of the town. To this he responds: “The mayor is a war criminal. You have to talk to Tony.” As we drive slowly away, we can hear him mutter: “There is no need for the UN here, we provide security.”

The lights come on in the training room, and the action on the screen is paused. “How do you think that went?” our instructor asks.

Military applications have long been at the vanguard of virtual reality (VR) technology, though the civilian commercial market is quickly catching up. While the prospect of fighting the enemy on a destroyer at sea or in a megacity skyscraper has consistently excited militaries and gamers alike, the use of VR to train soldiers in softer skills has flown under the radar.

But its importance shouldn’t be understated. These proficiencies are in serious demand today, as international military forces play an increasingly prominent role in crisis response and peace support operations the world over.

Whether deployed under the aegis of the UN, NATO, the EU or some other organisation, these forces are now routinely placed under civilian leadership in the field. They also have to be adept at interacting with their international civilian counterparts, as well as local populations in conflict zones.

Faced with the imperative to adapt to this new reality, the Swedish Armed Forces have taken a particularly innovative approach.

Check yourself

At its two-week training in Civil-Military Relations, the Swedish Armed Forces International Centre, SWEDINT, employs VR technology to teach military, police, and civilian trainees to work together.

The “mixed reality” session I attended began in SWEDINT’s VR exercise room, where trainees embarked on a joint assessment mission in a fictional conflict zone. As part of the exercise, the UN vehicle travelled to the headquarters of a local NGO named HELP.

After the team encountered the representative for the NGO virtually, they were guided to a separate training room where a live actor awaited them. As someone who researches humanitarian-military relations in international missions (which I’ve discussed here and here), I was especially curious to see how the trainees engage with this local NGO.