Since the 1990s the military has increasingly adopted EFS (Electronic Firearms Simulators) to not only augment the use of the traditional firing range but also to provide training that was previously unavailable to many troops. In the beginning, the electronic firing range used weapons that fired electronic bullets at a movie screen showing a target range, or any number of realistic combat situations. The screen had an invisible detection system to register where the electronic bullets hit and the computer control system recorded who fired at what video image and with what degree of accuracy. While crude by current standards, these early firing range systems were revolutionary because they made it much cheaper to provide a lot more firearms training. This made it easier for troops whose main job was ground combat to become more deadly with their firearms. For support troops, the spread of EFS was a lifesaver because in the Middle East and Afghanistan these support troops had to quickly become effective with their firearms. In the past, these support troops would fire these weapons once or twice a year to remain “qualified” to use them. In reality, this “qualification” training barely kept support troops familiar with how to load, fire and maintain these weapons. That, it turned out, was not sufficient to keep them alive in combat zones encountered after 2001.
Another reason the U.S. military quickly and widely accepted EFS was that conscription had ended in the early 1970s and subsequently all the troops were volunteers serving much longer than conscripts. Thus it was possible for these troops to achieve higher skill levels. For firearms proficiency, this historically meant firing a lot of real bullets on expensive (to build and operate) firing ranges. EFS made it possible (economically and timewise) to train troops, especially combat troops, to levels of weapons proficiency previously only found in special operations units. In other words, while the troops had assault rifles that could fire on full automatic, they rarely used that feature. They were trained to fire so accurately that they were much more effective than an opponent using inaccurate “spray and pray” automatic fire. EFS ranges could be operated at all hours, and in emergency situations like before sending reservist combat troops overseas.
Meanwhile, the technology got better. By 2000 it was possible to add a pneumatic system to the EFS weapons that provided accurate recoil. That was very important because troops had to learn how to handle recoil, which required aim to be adjusted after each shot was fired. In addition to the recoil, there were realistic sound effects. A lot of rifles and machine-guns firing in a small area make a lot of noise and troops have to adapt to that as well.
In the United States it was the air force, which has a large force of security troops (in effect, light infantry) that guard bases worldwide, that first adopted EFS. These security forces have to be very accurate with their weapons because the bases they guard are full of unarmed friendlies (military personnel and civilians) who could easily get caught in the crossfire of a situation the security troops had to handle with firearms. There is also a lot of flammable stuff and very expensive aircraft around. This was very similar to the type of firearms training police require. The air force did the math on EFS and realized they could save millions of dollars a year and get better firearms training as well.
Then September 11, 2001, came along and everyone needed more EFS just as the technology was getting more effective, reliable and cheaper. The army and marines were already using some EFS but over the next decade, they spent a lot more on it. For example between 2006 and 2010, the U.S. Marine Corps saved over half a billion dollars by using indoor EFS ranges. They called their EFS systems IMST (Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer) and by 2010 had spent over $200 million on them. The savings in ammo, wear on weapons, and running outdoor ranges were much greater than the IMST cost. By 2010 nearly 200,000 marines have undergone marksmanship training using IMST. Unlike the similar U.S. Army EST system, IMST was wireless, something that soon became a standard feature of all EFS systems. A special magazine contained gas that provided a realistic recoil and a wireless radio device connects the weapon to the targets displayed on the screen to record how accurately the electronic rounds were fired.
Devices like IMST and EST worked. They boosted the shooting skills of troops while reducing costs. By the 1990s, before EFS, American riflemen were already known for their accurate fire and that was a big battlefield advantage. In most armies, the troops rarely fire their rifles in peacetime. Ammo is too expensive given the meager military budget. When there is combat, the troops are issued bullets, which they fire very inaccurately. Against a better-trained foe, this leads to a quick defeat. Happens all the time. But now cash strapped armies can use EFS to train their troops to be effective marksmen without spending a lot of money on traditional ranges.
The U.S. Army pioneered their use of EFS with the EST (Engagement Skills Trainer) 2000 system. Each of these consists of a movie theater size screen (but at ground level, not raised) with back projection target situations displayed as interactive movies. The troops use rifles, pistols and machine-guns that are actual weapons, but modified to fire "electronic bullets", and, via a thin cable, use a pneumatic system that provides recoil as well. There is a sound system to depict the sound of the weapons firing, as well as a computer controlled tracking of ammo fired, letting users know when they have to reload.
One thing all EFS simulators do is capture a precise record of exactly where the shooter's weapon is aimed, how well the shooter pulls the trigger, and how long it takes to find and fire at the next target. This enables instructors to much more rapidly detect problems troops are having, and correct them. Tests have shown that you can take people with no weapons experience, put them through four hours of simulator training, and take them to rifle ranges where they will be able to immediately fire accurately enough to exceed military requirements. Studies have also shown that troops trained with a simulator gain as much marksmanship skill as those using live ammo.
In addition, a simulator like this can be used for training troops in ways that are impractical using live ammo. For example, when used for "shoot/don't shoot" situations, the appropriate visuals (either an enemy soldier or a civilian) are shown on the video screen. Soldiers train in a group, positioned as they would be in a real situation. The scenario then plays out, allowing the troops to practice when they should shoot, and when they should not. Training can be for day or night scenarios, and for a wide variety of situations.
These systems are sometimes built into standard shipping containers, so they can be moved around to where they are needed. The more useful of these "sims in a box" are the "encounter" and "convoy" sims. The encounter sim puts troops in a container containing video screens on three sides that portray an encounter between troops and foreign civilians (as they would encounter on patrol or manning a checkpoint). The troops are then allowed to deal with typical problems encountered in situations like this. While not combat (although some gunfire can be introduced), it is extremely useful training for troops headed for the combat zone.
A nation like China can build EST like systems for less than $100,000. But the Chinese have traditionally spent more time training their infantry to move quietly and pay attention to camouflage. These are important combat skills, which most nations do not spend a lot of time on. But when it comes time to shoot someone, you have an edge if your troops are accurate. China has been building aircraft and vehicle simulators. Operating warplanes and tanks are very expensive, and simulators are a much cheaper way to give operators a useful experience.
In the West, there has been a lot more development of non-combat simulators since the 1990s. This has pushed total worldwide simulator sales to the point where they now make up one or two percent of all defense spending and that is increasing. Operators of electronic equipment are much more effective if they have lots of experience. But actually using their radars, sonars or complex missile systems is also very expensive. So simulators provide essential experience inexpensively.
Most nations can appreciate the need to train their pilots, ship crews and electronics operators to be better at their jobs. But ground combat troops are another matter. In most nations, the army exists mainly to protect the leadership from the population. The troops tend to get frequent training for riot control. Issuing them a lot of ammo is not considered wise, as soldiers in these countries are not considered particularly reliable. So even in military affairs, political expediency trumps everything else.
Meanwhile, weapons simulation tech has become smaller, cheaper and more effective. There are now small devices (the size of small flashlights now used under rifle and pistol barrels) that enable the user to have EFS capabilities with individual weapons. Warships and warplanes have simulator tech built into their electronics so that while at sea or in the air certain functions can be simulated for training. On warships or armored vehicles, the crew can train anytime, even when they are not moving.
All these simulation capabilities mean that a major problem with high-tech weapons has been solved and now it is possible to quickly train new personnel to a high level of competence. Before the simulator revolution, it was often noted that many nations would spend a lot of money on very capable and high tech weapons but not much on training crews. When the shooting started the high tech stuff operated by novices just became expensive targets for better-trained opponents operating inferior weapons.