Replaceable? US Air Force leaders wonder how far live-virtual-constructive training might go toward replacing largely live exercises like the service's Red Flag events. (Lorenz Crespo/US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — When sequestration caused the US Air Force to slash budgets, one of the first things to get hit was training. Flying hours and major exercises were curtailed, leaving jets grounded and forcing pilots to move as much training as possible toward the classroom.
While no one was happy with that situation, it did reveal the leaps in technology for simulators that had occurred in the last decade — and opened up the question of how to expand and improve the ways cost-saving virtual training methods can be expanded.
How does the service get there? Ask about the simulation focus for the US Air Force, and experts point to two pillars for the future: a movement toward open architectures and the potential for increased live, virtual and constructive, or LVC, simulations.
LVC — the integration of live, virtual and constructive assets for a training program — offers the Pentagon a tantalizing option for large-scale training simulations. That’s especially attractive to the Air Force, with its mix of tankers, cargo planes, fighters and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.
“Virtual-constructive has the added benefit of being able to practice with capabilities that you simply cannot do in today’s world for security reasons,” Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, commander of the Air Force ISR Agency, said in a May 6 speech at the C4ISR & Networks annual conference outside of Washington.
“So [the question is] how do you bring the live-virtual-constructive way that is value added for the people doing it? The last thing you want to do is put someone in an LVC world and they get negative training. It has to be realistic training, and having seen LVC virtual flag exercises in the past, we’ve come a long way, and to me that’s where we need to put some of our future investments.”
The Air Force is able to use a limited amount of LVC for training operations, but service officials hope to see it expanded in the future.
“I don’t think any of us here today would say that we’re where we need to be,” Maj. Gen. James Jones, Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, said in a Dec. 3 keynote at the I/ITSEC show in Orlando, Florida. “In order for us to truly achieve an impact on readiness, we must take the next steps toward a complete integration of live, virtual and constructive assets.”
Jones held up LVC as a cost-saving measure, noting that an F-16 Block 50 costs about $7,500 per flying hour, while an LVC training hour could cost around $900. But he also focused on how an LVC environment can provide training scenarios that a live-flying environment would struggle to replicate, be it changes in the weather, threats or emergency situations.
One of the largest challenges to the dream of in-depth LVC is getting different simulators to talk to each other.
Col. Peter Eide, chief for the US Air Force Materiel Command Simulators Division, acknowledges that it is easy for the layperson to look at what happens in gaming systems like the Xbox and wonder why a popular gaming device can have such connectivity for players around the world while the Air Force cannot. However, the task faced by the service is complicated by the fact it is drawing on dozens of simulator systems built decades apart, each with its own hardware and software.
“It seems like it ought to be all pretty straightforward, pretty easy,” Eide said. But the service “is coming up with a world where Xbox can play with [PlayStation 3] and it can also play with the old Sega Genesis and Atari. It’s very complicated, so what is conceptually easy is not always technically easy. We’re trying to take it one step at a time.”
An early step Eide is helping to lead is the move toward open architecture systems. Open architectures could simultaneously make it easier to make simulators work together and to save money in acquisition. But industry buy-in is a must.
“We need better cooperation among industry partners, and we need open system architectures that facilitate combative acquisition strategies down the road,” Eide said. “It would be within that competitive strategy that we look to get benefits of improved industry cooperation.”
But does industry seem interested in giving up the old system of designing proprietary hardware and software for simulators? Eide is hopeful.
“I’ve been told by folks I do business with, and I believe this to be true, that industry responds to whatever demand signals we the government issue forth,” he said. “In this case, if we say this is what we want and this is how we want you to play, and we grade their performance against the demand signal and we’re willing to pay a fair and reasonable price, then I expect that they will respond accordingly.”
Once the Air Force has its simulators linked up and speaking the same language, it opens up a world of possibilities – including bringing in service or international simulators for exercises.
“It’s easy to imagine forward a natural progression from connectivity within the Air Force, [to] connectivity to sister services, [to] connectivity to allies and beyond,” Eide said. “I see that as a natural progression myself.”
But that doesn’t mean anything is imminent.
“I have a hard time seeing that within the next couple of years,” Eide said. “Sometimes in this business we can find ourselves drowning in the enormity of a task, and so I think the approach is one step at a time, knock things out in executable chunks as opposed to trying to take the whole thing in at once.”
In the near-term, Shanahan said he is keeping an eye out for “new high-end training opportunities for the maximum amount of people,” which could possibly include the addition of a second major Red Flag with ISR training components each year.
Historically, exercises such as Red Flag have been seen as “bill payers” that can be cut when budgets get tight. That was certainly the case in 2013, when a number of global training exercises with partners were scaled back or cut outright. But Shanahan is confident Air Force leadership sees investing in such exercises as important.
“We have to make some hard investment decisions, and to me, part of that is figuring out what can be done live and what can be done virtually and constructive,” he said. “Not to replace flying hours, but to account for the fact that flying hours are going to be going away to some extent, so what do you do to make up the difference? Well virtual-constructive is one of the ways we do that.”
“What I hear from the leadership across our Air Force today is that’s not where they’re looking to make those cuts,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, they’re expensive but they’re not enormously expensive. The return on investment, to me, makes up for whatever you pay to put those exercises together.”
Eide agreed that the service has taken simulation seriously in its budget choices.
“We have strong support at the highest levels of the Air Force,” Eide said. “In turn that means we get good support in the budget request. It had to compete with other high priority activities but we’re certainly not bill payers, and unlike in years past, we got strong support.” ■