Virtual LCS: In this still from a US Navy video, a bridge team practices sailing a littoral combat ship in a simulator at the LCS training facility in San Diego. Sailors assigned to one of the new LCS ships complete qualification training at the onshore facility before reporting to their ship, a relatively new concept for the Navy's surface force. (US Navy)
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ORLANDO, FLORIDA — The US Navy has long used simulators to train personnel — particularly aviators — but a recent explosion of technology is allowing sailors across the service to complete a startling range of preparation before their ship leaves the dock or aircraft goes aloft. Some of the Navy’s warfare communities are doing much, if not all, of their initial training and certification virtually; some units are even checking off pre-deployment qualifications ashore.
That is shifting decades-old thinking about the balance between live and virtual training, said Capt. Wes Naylor, the current executive officer and next commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division, based here. Instead of using simulation as an adjunct to training at sea and in the air, the Navy is starting to think in terms of limiting live training to those areas where simulation falls short.
“It’s not, from our perspective, about money savings — that we have to save X numbers of dollars in steaming time or flight hours and fuel,” Naylor said. It’s “what can we do to enhance the skill set before they’re there, so that the time spent at sea, the time spent in the air can be maximized for those things that you can only do in that environment.”
Technology has finally made possible the dream of high-fidelity virtual reality training, Naylor said.
“It is amazing where we are today, compared to where we were 10 or 15 years ago; it is a light-years jump. We’re realizing the promise that was made 10 years ago when leadership said it would be great if we could do more through simulation in trainers, but the technology just wasn’t there,” he said. “Today, it’s caught up to that vision through new and faster processors, better visual systems, new motion systems, through better modeling. Technology has truly caught up with the vision and it’s unlimited where we can go from here.”
And yet there are and will always be things better learned in the real world.
“These technologies, however real we can make them, are never going to be a 100-percent replacement for hands-on training,” Naylor said.
Determining that balance — what’s better taught in a simulation, and what needs to be learned hands-on — is one of the central challenges of the era.
Ships and Subs
Naylor’s center is an aviation command. That reflects the fact that most of the Navy’s seven decades of simulator experience has been in aviation — cockpit training for pilots and air crews.
Indeed, aviation training systems are still the majority of their work, but that is changing fast.
“It’s getting very close to a 50-50 aviation-to-non-aviation split now,” he said. “We were advertising 60-40 for a long time, but with the amount of surface, submarine and [foreign military sales] we’ve taken on, we’re re-crunching the numbers right now and it’s much closer to an even split.”
In fact, the submarine and surface communities are leading the way in using virtual trainers not just for training, but for certifications.
Sailors and crews aboard the new littoral combat ships, for example, are using simulators to qualify individuals and certify whole crews nearly completely ready to deploy.
Submariners can’t yet certify entire crews, but trainers have been used to certify some weapons and communications teams to deploy when repairs or tight budgets made underway time unavailable.
On the aviation side, Naylor said, whole-crew qualification appears to be a ways off.
But recent years have proved that much of the basics of flying and even some advanced skills can be taught through simulation. No one was more surprised than Naylor, a P-3 aviator who said he initially didn’t believe that anything beyond the most basic skills could be learned in a simulator. But now, he realizes the strengths of virtual reality are many.
Simulation and computer-aided training are very strong at teaching basic and routine tasks, he said. For example, there are the “micro skill sets” of “getting through a weapons engagement” — that is, learning the myriad of settings and controls needed to put a missile on target in combat.
“So that becomes second nature to you out of the aircraft, so when you step into the aircraft, you don’t have to spend your brain power on how to plow through those tiles to get the weapon off the rail,” Naylor said. “That’s already ingrained in you, and you can do that through muscle memory. That’s where the real benefit comes.”
Today’s high-fidelity trainers can build these skills so that precious flying and steaming hours can be used to build higher-level expertise that can only be learned underway or aloft.
Another strength of virtual reality, Naylor said, is re-creating situations you can’t fully simulate any other way.
When airframe fatigue cut flying time in the P-3 community, Naylor said he and his fellow aviators were forced to turn to simulation, and to push the boundaries of what was thought possible.
“Out of necessity, we started experimenting with doing the NATOPS [Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization] checks — doing the instrument checks — in the simulator as opposed to the aircraft, because we simply didn’t have the airframes,” he said. “What we found out is that in a lot of ways, we could stress the pilot better in the simulator — especially simulating things like emergency situations.”
For example, when P-3 instructors are teaching students how to land with just two engines operating, they don’t actually shut down half the engines. The same goes for training students how to handle many kinds of mechanical failures: At some point, they just have to imagine the emergency because it can’t be safely replicated in a real aircraft.
“You can do that in a simulator,” Naylor said. “You can really take it to the level and fully simulate what would happen in the aircraft, how it would respond — and how it would react to your corrective measures.”
And yet, a simulator will always lack a certain reality, Naylor said: There’s something to be said for being there, for feeling the G’s or the ship turning beneath you.
“There will never be a situation that I can envision where we can put all training into simulation and virtual reality,” he said. “It’s not realistic and it doesn’t get us to where we need to go. Our challenge is to find the right balance so that we give our folks the best virtual training possible, so when they are on the aircraft or underway, they can make the most of that opportunity.”
Naylor said all this is possible because the current generation of sailors are “tech natives,” having grown up with computers and other electronic devices in their hands. It’s actually the most effective way for them to train.
“We have folks at the PhD level whose entire life’s work is in how to transfer knowledge effectively to the next generation,” Naylor said. “That’s a lot of what led to the decisions to go into the worlds of virtualization ... The ‘tech native generation’ who grew up in virtual worlds, they grew up with gaming and that’s a lot of their experience, so not only is it how they do learn, it’s how they like to learn.” ■