Angel Thunder, the largest personnel recovery exercise in the military, will rely heavily on simulated entities in addition to live aircraft. (Air Force)
For the first time, the largest combat search and rescue exercise in the world will incorporate hefty amounts of simulation.
Run out of Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base but spanning from coastal California all the way to New Mexico, exercise Angel Thunder, currently underway, involves around 2,000 participants — nearly 75 percent of whom will be involved with simulations. This will include all of the air crews and ground commanders directing the four major personnel-recovery exercises, which include air-sea battle, contested degraded operations and two irregular warfare scenarios.
Controllers at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada will use constructive simulations to populate the battlefield with friendly and opposition forces in the sky. The distributed nature of the operations is also something new for Angel Thunder, according to Michael Wilkins of the Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation. Almost all of the ground forces will also be constructive simulations, with actual players only in the terminal area of the rescue scenarios.
“One of the biggest reasons why we need modeling and simulations is due to budget cuts and sequestration,” said Lt. Col. Scott Meakin, an Air Force combat systems officer and the overall military planner for Angel Thunder. “The DoD doesn’t want to pay for people to come out to this exercise, because all TDYs have to be mission essential, and this is an exercise. By incorporating models and simulation, we add an aspect of realism that would not otherwise take place.”
Using constructive simulation replaces the friendly planes that are not able to participate due to funding or other engagements, but are also vital for providing “red” air forces, Wilkins said. Each day, approximately 50 total simulated aircraft will fly, roughly three times the number of actual aircraft. These friendly virtual forces will only engage with simulated targets when directed to do so, meaning commanders need to go through proper procedures to eliminate the enemy.
The sims mesh with live players, but all the aircraft can be dynamically flown.
“Everybody in their cockpit, no matter what airplane you fly, will see the same symbology on their display — and they will not know whether it is a real aircraft or a fictional aircraft,” Meakin said.
The virtual assets will also appear in displays for the ships off the California coast that will participate in the exercise. And despite only one ship each from the Navy and Coast Guard participating, there will be up to 20 simulated ships in the water. Planners will also pipe in simulated ISR feeds such as video links.
Angel Thunder draws participants from all branches of the military, special operations forces, emergency agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross, and local organizations such as police departments and hospitals. The State Department will also be setting up a simulated embassy.
“We had the DEA; we had the FBI. They dropped out due to sequestration, so we decided not to simulate those guys because we just don’t have the expertise to simulate what they wanted,” Meakin said.
Organizers noted that this Angel Thunder is equivalent to the “walk phase” of training, and expect that there will be more distributed simulation harnessing different hardware.
“We’d like to get the distributed operations so we could have people flying the F-16 in the simulator,” Meakin said, noting that pilots in the simulators would also get training in the process without putting an actual aircraft in the skies. “That is our goal for Angel Thunder 14.”
This year’s Angel Thunder runs April 7-20 and marks a change from a tactical air exercise to a dual operational and tactical exercise.