A turboprop plane simulates a close air support aircraft during joint terminal attack controller training provided by Tactical Linguist Concepts. (Tactical Linguist Concepts)
The drawdown of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus tightening budgets, are driving members of the aviation community toward new ways to develop and maintain perishable skills. That doesn’t just mean pilots; those who choreograph aircraft in the sky are also turning to simulators and contracted trainers.
Joint terminal attack controllers direct aircraft — from jets to UAVs — from a close range, positioning rapidly moving chess pieces that they often cannot see. Among the military organizations that have a qualified JTAC or two per platoon are the Navy’s Special Warfare units: Navy SEALs and their small-boat partners, special warfare combatant crewman known as SWCCs.
A look at their training regimen shines a light on how JTACs train today.
Their training starts with a week or two in a JTAC simulator at Southern California’s Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. In the dome trainer, future JTACs practice selecting targets, getting comfortable talking on the radio, and setting up the basic 9-lines — a list of information that includes an initial point of reference and information about the target. The course then moves to a one-month training course at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev.
During the first two weeks there, they learn the administrative aspects: terms, tactics, techniques and how to employ different air assets, according to Chief Petty Officer Ryan Burgan, a special warfare boat operator and the JTAC program manager assistant at Naval Special Warfare Command.
During the second half of their training at Fallon, SEALs and SWCCs command daily close air support exercises using real aircraft (usually F/A-18s) and artillery.
When they return to San Diego, they continue to train with military aircraft, whenever possible.
“It gets those guys comfortable, rather than just being on a simulator and looking at a three-dimensional video game,” Burgan said.
When the JTACs at Coronado head to the simulators, they run the Joint Fires product line in a three-part system: first on a laptop, then on a larger screen and finally in a dome. The system can use data to replicate different geographic locations, particularly ones where JTACs will be deployed. The information is frequently refreshed and the systems upgraded to keep realism high. Burgan described the simulators as fairly advanced and said their capabilities will only grow.
But they aren’t perfect. Any static sim, such as a dome, can’t capture the full extent of a JTAC’s mission, which can include anything from running and seeking cover to battling enemy combatants and staying aware of the surroundings. And it can be tough for those trying to start up a sim program to find a space large enough to handle the dome, which is 20 feet wide, 13 feet deep and 17 feet tall.
The system could also be more automated; most currently require someone at a computer to control the aircraft and drop the bomb for every call.
And the current generation of technology is just a stand-in that emerged from a project by the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation.
“It’s an interim solution before the Air Force comes out with what is supposed to be the standard, but it’s probably going to take them a few more years to do that,” said Frank Richard, modeling and simulation program manager for Naval Special Warfare Command.
Currently, simulators can only be used to officially requalify JTACs for laser calls, and the hope is that sims will someday be used for more of them. At the moment, Richard said, sims only help “a small amount” to keep a JTAC qualified.
“The more advanced [sims] get, the more likely that we will have more calls counted towards our qualification,” Burgan said. “It’s hard enough to keep a JTAC qualified as it is. But when you start losing money, losing air, it’s hard.”
Trainers also want the JTAC sims to network with more platforms, such as F-18 simulators. The capability exists, but not everyone has the right hardware and software to plug it all together.
“It’s just that we have to get it out to everybody,” Richard said.
The network piece may become more crucial if, as seems likely, more training moves from the live into the virtual realm.
“As we see the drawdown of aircraft actually being able to go out and fly, we are reverting a lot to the simulation piece, even though it doesn’t, as of right now, give us the full function of what a JTAC should receive,” Burgan said. “It’s a tool that we’re working on and trying to advance to actually get the simulators to seem more like you’re outside in the actual environment performing CAS.”
Whether that next generation requires a fully immersive solution, such as Cubic’s Joint Fires Integrated Training Environment, remains to be seen. The igloo-shaped trainer, proudly displayed at previous conferences and capable of integrating the Joint Fires Product Line, is not in active use by the military. However, Cubic representative Trisha Rule noted that the company was “talking with several groups about installations.”
Renting Flight Time
If there aren’t enough military planes around — or dollars to fly them for JTAC training — the military can also hire civilian companies to fly aircraft that JTACs order around.
“For the civilian side, we usually only get those guys if we cannot synchronize with an actual asset, i.e. an F-18 squadron or an A-10 squadron,” Burgan said. “We prefer the military piece because not only are we getting our training done, but they’re also getting theirs. In the event that we can’t sync up with a squadron, then we will revert to contract CAS, but most of the time it’s military. As much as we can get.”
A growing number of civilian companies offer planes for JTAC training. Some big firms offer aircraft that approach the performance of military jets, although the price tag can reach close to $10,000. And military jets can cost tens of thousands of dollars an hour to fly, depending on the type.
Others offer slower planes, such as prop versions of the Marchetti, which can fly for closer to $2,000. One such company is Tactical Linguist Concepts in Murietta, Calif. The company provides ISR services and training, including JTAC training and close-air-support aircraft for Navy SEALs and other military branches.
CEO Kip Keune is a former JTAC who focuses his pilots on creating the best possible learning for the JTAC on the ground. He says cheaper civilian aircraft can fill what he sees as a training gap between the simulators and fast-flying jets.
“We want to be a supplement. A kid can’t run until he walks,” Keune said. “It’s like a sim. The purpose of a sim is to slow things down for the individual and get him ready to run.”
Keune said that when JTACs practice with military planes that are performing their own training exercises, aircraft come in at a hectic pace. It’s realistic environment, but not necessarily the best teaching tool.
“We slow that process down,” he said.
Tactical Linguist Concepts also uses adaptive training, a type of teaching typically favored by simulator developers. Students are placed in tiers, and training ramps up as necessary, teaching them to coordinate and stack more layers of aerial assets.
As for the training itself, Keune said the planes fire off cheap, nonexplosive bomblets and rockets. They’re a simple combination of thin, biodegradable cases, chalk and a balloon, but they give off a signature similar to real munitions. The group is also working to develop a guided training weapon by August.
Civilian contractors such as Keune can execute the required live, laser and night calls-for-fire and can certify students as JTACs. If live flights of military planes decrease to a certain point and simulators aren’t ready to shoulder the burden, the military may find itself signing more contracts with civilian providers.
The number of slow-speed plane providers for JTAC training has been growing, according to Kyle Stanbro, president of Coastal Defense, which also provides tactical training for the military.
“With the cutbacks, we’ve seen a lot more people asking for the slower-speed, tactically relevant aircraft,” he said. “In the last couple of months, we have gotten a lot more calls, a lot more contracts to go fly.”
Burgan said the choice between replacing hours with contract CAS or with simulation all comes down to how much the military can afford.
“Contract air does cost a lot still,” he said. “Our budget cuts affect us on our traveling, so I think we’ll be looking at simulators a lot more. I think it’s a give and take. If we get more money, we might be able to get more guys out there doing more contract CAS. If not, we have to stick to simulation.” ■