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I/ITSEC 2021: Unintended consequences (Opinion)

24th November 2021 - 17:17 GMT | by Trevor Nash in Holsworthy

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The 49th Wing at Holloman AFB trains the USAF’s F-16 pilots and will be the prime user of the expanded Talon Military Operations Area. (Photo: US DoD)

The increasing complexity of emerging technologies is placing pressure on the optimisation of military training. In particular, air force training comes at a premium, so the right balance of tools and techniques is crucial for cost-effectiveness.

Over the years, training coverage in Shephard has reflected the debate frequently aired in the military and industry concerning the live-virtual balance. In other words, how much live training needs to be completed compared to time spent in the simulator? With air domain training accounting for around 65% of all spending on training and simulation, this conversation usually focuses on flight simulation.

At present, the consensus is that the balance should be 50% live and 50% virtual. It is unclear how this figure was arrived at, but its adoption by some of the world’s most established and mature air forces, including the USAF, RAF, RAAF, German Air Force and French Air Force, has provided an accepted accord that some others are now adopting.

The benefits of increased time spent in the virtual world presupposes that the synthetic training system in question is of sufficient fidelity to match accurately the characteristics of the real aircraft. If that is so, time spent in the simulator has many advantages. These include savings accrued by not paying more than $30,000 per hour to fly an F-35 and reducing the costs associated with wear and tear on a frontline airframe.

Other advantages associated with virtual training include the ability to network the device with other aircraft simulators to create a composite air operations exercise, as well as the ability to precisely repeat scenarios to extract teaching points to enable the pilot to understand fully the mission.

The benefits of offloading live training into the virtual world not only concern operational pilots. Through programmes such as the USN’s Project Avenger, the USAF’s Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.0 and the RAF’s trials of CAE’s Sprint Trainer, the use of low-cost virtual systems that allow student pilots to proceed at their own pace is growing. This is related to moves towards removing elementary and/or intermediate training aircraft from syllabi.

Another source of pressure to move more training into the virtual sphere comes from airspace restrictions, shortages and security. Closely related to this is the performance of modern aircraft and their weapons. Aircraft such as the F-22, F-35 and soon the B-21 have sensors and weapons that operate at extreme ranges. This sensitive data needs to be protected in secure virtual environments and not presented on live ranges where potential enemies can listen to and observe capabilities.

The Talon Military Operations Area was recently expanded by 93%. (Photo: US DoD)

Airspace shortages do not affect all countries. In the US, for example, a portion of the national airspace in southeast New Mexico, where the 49th Wing from Holloman AFB trains F-16 pilots, known as the Talon Military Operations Area, was recently expanded by 93%.

The USAF said that F-16 student pilots will be able to fly as high as 51,000ft when authorised by ATC and as low as 500ft over some unpopulated areas of the airspace. They will also see an increase in the variety of their missions and tactics, and an improvement in the techniques and procedures they can execute in the new airspace.

Despite the advantages of virtual training, Shephard has highlighted two shortcomings in the past: a lack of g-force, leading to the potential for negative training, and the lack of jeopardy in undertaking certain manoeuvres that can, again, lead to negative training.

In discussing the topic with Air Mshl (ret) Sir Stuart Atha, director of defence capability at BAE Systems, we came to add an additional shortcoming – asset erosion. This has occurred as an unintended consequence of pushing more flight training into the virtual environment.

With more virtual hours and fewer live, the true picture of what is required to mount real-world operations – maintenance staff, spares, supporting assets such as fighter controllers and ordnance – has been forgotten or, worse still, deliberately seized upon by governments as a legitimate source for cost savings.

Virtual learning is vastly beneficial, but it needs to be placed in context, both in training and in terms of its impact on operations.

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