Augmented Reality and Operational Situational Awareness

Within the next year we may have access to commercial augmented reality devices.  As Microsoft introduces HoloLens and other commercial vendors, such as Apple, consider launching their own augmented reality (AR) devices, the military is beginning to evaluate viable tactical AR devices.

Tactical AR devices are proving to be valuable systems. The Marine Corps just announced that an AR system, developed by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), was used in a live fire exercise at Quantico, VA. The Army, through CERDEC, has also been working to bring AR type capabilities to its next generation night vision devices.

In previous posts we tried to convince our readers that AR’s time has come. We have also considered various use cases for AR in the military that are feasible. In these prior essays we considered how AR is being used currently for navigation, situational awareness, guided maintenance, engineering, training, etc. Beyond these sensory/perceptual aids, AR has far more potential.

The use of AR as a cognitive prosthetic has the potential to change thinking beyond simple directive tasks. In this essay we will explore one of these use cases – how AR systems may enhance operational situational awareness.

Augmented Reality and Operational Situational Awareness

In the military, AR has the potential to benefit operational leaders seeking to gain an advantage in generating and exploiting SA to make better judgments. Operational leaders increase their SA by learning about and then maintaining an understanding of their operating environment.[1] They seek to understand and monitor the Operational Factors of Space, Time, and Force and how they affect their forces and their adversary’s forces.

Once these Operational Factors are understood – leaders then consider the Operational Functions (i.e. C2, Movement and Maneuver, Fires, Intel, Protection, and Sustainment) of their forces and their adversary’s forces in an effort to understand their relative strengths and weaknesses. The analysis of Operational Factors and Functions as they relate to one’s objective enables operational leaders to begin to understand the nature of the problem they face and the means at their disposal.

Maintaining situational awareness of tactical combat units in large scale operations is incredibly challenging. AR can enable operational leaders to better visualize and understand the nature of the operational problem they face by projecting AR rendered virtual enemy and friendly forces. AR allows users to see virtual representations of friendly forces, with indicators of combat readiness, damage assessments, and other measures of combat potential. AR systems such as the ARL’s virtual sand table exist. Plotting forces in real-time and then incorporating that data into a worn headset is technically possible.

AR can also increase SA by providing real-time updates and alerts relevant to a commander’s critical intelligence requirements through its connections to NCW sensors and intelligence information-systems. The continuous access to information about the availability, readiness, capability, and capacities of operational forces combined with running estimates of an enemy situation, will dramatically increase operational leaders’ SA. This SA allows operational leaders to more quickly respond to evolving combat scenarios.

In addition, AR systems can be designed to capture information provided to its users in real-time to determine if any relevant, enhancing information may be available. Just as television programming for professional sports are starting to project detailed information about a player’s performance as he or she appears during a particular play – so too will AR be able to identify when certain key terms, objects, or people are registered so that it can then offer up additional information about them. One can imagine a future battle update brief in which an intelligence analyst refers to a particular tribe and shortly thereafter an AR device worn by a commander displays details about key leaders of the tribe, its historical lands, and other pertinent details. The access to enhancing information AR provides will increase SA and decrease learning times.

As beneficial as it is for AR users to gain access to better information and continuous SA updates, the ability of AR systems to adapt by learning its users’ information processing preferences will prove even more significant. The relative level of experience and the particular learning style of individuals affects how they seek out new knowledge. However, typically people begin by looking for sources of expertise (i.e. a subject matter expert, relevant books or publications, or online search).[2] They then link from these sources to other recommended sources of information.[3] Along the way they will make value judgements concerning how useful it is while also trying to verify its veracity and validity.[4] As AR systems learn the information search and processing preferences of their users they will begin to modify how they guide their users to information. They will modify what information they search for and how they present it. They will be programmed to vary the aperture of their search based on the information a user is seeking or based on the time a user has available. Therefore, in the future, AR users will have access to better information tailored to their needs and decision cycle timeline.

Challenges to Operational Leaders using AR Devices

Information Overload: There are some concerns that AR users will become overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them.[5] Information overload can occur when too much information is available to decision makers and is not well-organized.[6] As operational leaders seek more information they can begin to hesitate to act until the last piece of granular truth can be obtained.[7] AR users will face the daunting task of trying to make sense of continuous streams of distracting noise rather than enhancing information unless AR systems properly organize and filter information to drive their users toward better judgments and decision-making.

The fundamental purpose behind AR is to focus a user’s attention to relevant information. IT systems designed to consider what information people use to make decisions, and how people make those decisions, have been shown to improve their users’ performance significantly.[8] SA-oriented design of AR systems will ensure that measures to prevent distraction and information overload are in place. Additionally, through training, education, and increased user exposure to commercial AR systems, people will learn to maximize AR’s potential to focus and guide their attention to the information that matters most.

AR Dependence: Another concern in adopting AR systems is that decision makers will become overly dependent on this technology. People today would rather leave home without their wallets than without their smartphones.[9] The introduction of AR systems could produce a dangerous dependence on AR’s capabilities. Should operational leaders begin to lose their ability to make sound decisions without the aid of AR systems then an adversary that could disrupt, deny, or destroy these information systems would gain a distinct advantage.

Organizations should not avoid integrating revolutionary new technologies because they fear someday losing them. Instead, leaders must manage this risk by building in redundancy and alternative means for C2. Fire control officers still carry maps and grease pens to plot fires in case automated fire-control systems fail. Operational leaders should also maintain basic decision-making tools that do not rely on power or an internet connection.

Fears of Micromanagement: Introducing AR technologies across multiple echelons has the potential to heighten the fears of micromanagement. Some worry that higher-level authorities become more intrusive when they have greater tactical SA and the means to communicate down to the lowest level units.[10] The call for Mission Command and increased trust between higher headquarters and their subordinate units is meant to address a growing sense that the proliferation of robust C5ISR systems is providing leaders, at all levels, too much access and undue influence on the actions of their subordinate units.[11]

No single technology can remove someone’s fear or lack of trust which typically drives micromanagement. Micromanagement is a people problem – not a technology problem. AR is designed to increase its users’ access to more information with greater fidelity. This access occurs in both directions however. Operational leaders do not have to have all the answers. They can, and should rely on frontline expertise. AR can help enable this by flattening an organization’s information sharing so they can increase the speed of trust.


As more commercial AR devices and systems enter into everyday life more military users will seek to employ their capabilities. Tactical units within the Marines and Army are beginning to adopt AR devices in training – and it will not be long before they make their way to the field. What remains to be seen, is how operational leaders may leverage future AR systems to enhance their situational awareness and decision making. The opportunities are there.  Now, someone just needs to begin designing the software.


As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.


  1. JCS, Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations, (Washington D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2012).
  2. David Ellis, The Derivation of a Behavioural Model for Information Retrieval System Design, (Sheffield, U.K.: University of Sheffield, 1987).
  3. Thomas P.M. Barnett, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Network-Centric Warfare,” (Proceedings Magazine, 1999).
  4. Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice. (Govt Printing Office, 2009).
  5. Alan Zimm, “Human-Centric Warfare.” (Proceedings, 1999).
  6. Laura G. Militello, and Gary Klein, “Decision-Centered Design.” (In The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Engineering, by John D. Lee and Alex Kirlik, 261-271. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  7. Meena H. Duerson, We’re addicted to our phones: 84% worldwide say they couldn’t go a single day without their mobile device in their hand, (August 16. Accessed May 15, 2015., 2012)
  8. Robert Bolia, Michael Vidulich, Todd Nelson, and Malcolm Cook, “A history lesson on the use of technology to support military decision-making and command and control,” (In Decision-making in complex environments, by Malcolm Cook, Janet M Noyes and Yvonne (Eds.) Masakowski, 191-201. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).
  9. W. Singer, “Tactical Generals: Leaders, Technology, and the Perils of Battlefield Micromanagement,” (Air & Space Power Journal, 2009).

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