Learning Platform: This flight simulation software was created by Air Force researchers who leveraged existing commercial gaming software. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — If one thing has become clear under sequestration, it is this: Budget cuts beget training cuts, which in turn hurt readiness.
The US Air Force in particular has been impacted, with large swaths of its fleet grounded last year and unable to fly crucial training missions.
Under that budget reality, the service — and the rest of the Pentagon — is focusing on simulation as a low-cost training alternative, a move made possible by improved technology.
That mix is a “perfect storm” of new technologies, financial need and new capabilities coming online throughout the Pentagon, according to Air Force Col. Franz Plescha, commander of the Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation.
“There is a huge upswing,” he said. “We’ve kind of turned the corner. People have had this vision for years, and now it’s all coming together that this is definitely the future.”
Sequestration was “a straw on the camel’s back,” but Plescha said it is unfair to argue that budget cuts forced a move to more simulation. Doing so argues that “we can’t afford to do it a better way, therefore we’re going to do this. And that’s the wrong perception to have. It may have been one of the reasons that got us to turn the corner, but by no means is it the only reason.”
The movement of troops away from Iraq and Afghanistan is also a factor, according to Thomas Baptiste, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is now president and executive director of the National Center for Simulation in Orlando, Fla.
“The bulk of the forces are coming home. For the first time in a long time we’re going to have a lot of soldiers in garrison,” Baptiste said. “There are limits on the budgets and traveling to train is going to be a bridge too far — you need to do things more agilely and more efficiently, and there has to be capability to do things at home station.”
Baptiste said he sees the simulation business expanding in the coming years.
“The current budget environment is going to cause all of the services to relook at the balance of live and simulated training,” he said.” The amount you dedicate to each is going to start to move closer together.”
But is there a saturation point for the training market?
“I would say the only limitations we have is our own imagination,” Baptiste said. “There will never be zero requirement for training.”
The different services are all committed to simulation, but Baptiste highlighted distributed mission operations — networked simulators — as one area in which the Air Force is advanced.
Linking simulators for joint training operations has been going on for over a decade, according to Plescha. What has changed, he said, is the ability to integrate simulation and live training.
Eventually, large-scale training missions like Red Flag could be run with a mix of real planes and simulators all over the country, at a fraction of the current cost. That’s an exciting possibility for those in the industry.
“If you want to put 20 airplanes in the air you may only have to fly one. Through simulation and constructive training you can build a very dynamic scenario for training purposes,” said Larry Strube, Boeing’s business development director for Air Force Training Programs. “It’s another way to enhance the quality of the training but make it affordable and realistic. It’s a system that could work with the Army, Navy or Air Force.”
In addition to enhanced fidelity in simulators, Strube highlighted the learning potential of mobile devices, especially as a generation raised on video games, tablets and phones enters the service.
“Our training strategy has shifted from trainers to advanced learning that includes trainers. What technology works best for the millennials?” Strube said. “When you get those kinds of people and they learn that methodology early in life, to go back to a classroom environment that’s PowerPoint presentation? You’ll lose them on the third slide. So that’s probably our biggest shift.”
Mick Golson and Paul Cummings, a pair of senior fellows with services firm ICF International, have studied when new kinds of learning — not just advanced simulation, but the use of mobile devices for training — are appropriate for use in the Pentagon.
“Sometimes there is no need for simulation. It just isn’t the best way to do it,” Golson said. “We have to acknowledge that and really acknowledge that simulation is not a panacea. It is not going to make training better just because you have something that is being taught or delivered using that modality. It’s just not true. Everyone doesn’t acknowledge that in our industry.”
Simulation works best when realism is necessary, according to Cummings, who points to situations such as mechanical work or driving a large ship as appropriate. It’s also useful for training people on collaborative decision-making processes, such as squad training, that require audio or gestural queues during the training.
“If you’ve been in the industry long enough, you realize there is a lot you can do outside of simulation,” Cummings said.
“The thing that you need to think about when thinking of simulation is, ‘what kind of perceptual feedback are you getting when using a simulator?’ ” he said. “Sometimes it’s very important to have very realistic feedback when you’re making decisions.”
The military, of course, isn’t just platforms. New uses for simulation and mobile training are infiltrating everything from training security patrols and joint terminal attack controllers to finding new ways of helping post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers.
In some cases, the military can borrow heavily from the civilian side, including in the medical realm, where doctoral students are learning how to identify diseases and dissect patients without needing a cadaver.
It also creates new market potential for companies interested in this kind of training.
“Much of the Air Force focus you’ll find in medical,” Golson said. “Medical will explode, absolutely explode. There is a big push right now for all things medical simulation.”
“Still,” Plescha said, “too often when we speak about [simulation], people revert to simulators. Virtuals can be not just simulators. It can be the medical dummy that’s on a table. And I’d rather have a doctor practice on a dummy than me.” ■