An F-22 Raptor moves into position for midair refueling during Red Flag 14-3 in July. The newest generation of aircraft, such as F-22s and F-35s, cannot practice all of their capabilities at Red Flag, says Gen. Mike Hostage, the outgoing head of Air Combat Command. (Airman 1st Class Thomas Spangler / US Air Force)
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As fifth-generation fighters outgrow the US Air Force’s premiere combat training exercise, the service should look to virtual training for pilots to test the limits of the F-22 and F-35, the outgoing head of Air Combat Command said.
Red Flag exercises, held four times a year at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, train more than 27,000 people who fly or support air operations of 1,200 aircraft and 20,000 sorties each year, according to the base. But Gen. Mike Hostage said a shift from live combat training to virtual training would expose pilots to real-life scenarios that can’t be practiced in the Nevada skies.
“The fifth generation brought us capabilities and lethalities that are straining my abilities at Red Flag to produce that same realistic combat environment,” Hostage said last month at an Air Force Association speech in Arlington, Virginia. “I can’t turn on every bell and whistle on my new fifth-generation platforms because, A, they’re too destructive, and B, I don’t want the bad guys to know what I’m able to do.”
Red Flag began in 1975 after it became clear in Vietnam that Air Force pilots were not trained well enough in aerial combat. A pilot was least likely to survive his first 10 missions, but after that the likelihood of survival increased with each mission, Hostage said. Red Flag was created to give a pilot that experience before facing real combat.
However, the newest generation of aircraft, such as F-22s and F-35s, cannot practice all of their capabilities at Red Flag, Hostage said.
Air Force officials who work with the advancement of simulation have seen broad support for an evolution to more virtual training as the service looks to cut costs.
“There are challenges to our standard money process,” said Col. Franz Plescha, the head of the Air Force’s Agency for Modeling and Simulation, in a December interview. “But when it comes down to whether or not it [virtual training]will happen, or guidance that we need from [generals], that part is easy. That support is definitely out there.”
The gaming and virtual reality industries “are rapidly approaching the point where you can’t tell whether you’re in the simulated environment or a real environment.” Plescha said.
However, they aren’t there yet. Virtual reality still cannot replicate the “kinesthetic environment” or the sensory inputs that are felt in real combat. Until simulators can realistically emulate combat flight, the service should hold on to its large-scale training exercises, Hostage said.
“The last thing you want to do is put someone in a [virtual] world and they get negative training,” said Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, said at the C4ISR & Networks annual conference in May. “It has to be realistic training, and having seen some [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.”
There will be other challenges, Hostage said, such as protecting networks from outside hackers.
Another limitation of Red Flag is that it is just training. Pilots can’t fire live missiles, and no one blows up in the skies over Nevada.
“That fundamentally changes the dynamics of the fight,” Hostage said. “You go into real life when people really blow up, it looks different and you react differently. You can’t really get that in the Nellis fight but you can see that in the virtual constructive arena.”
Red Flag wouldn’t go away if virtual reality training becomes a reality, but its focus would change.
“I will still do Red Flags, I will still do live training in live platforms,” Hostage said. “But the place where I will be able to take the gloves off, the place where I can turn on all the bells and whistles and get full capability is going to be in the virtual constructive arena.”
Combat support and career fields such as maintenance and medical have seen large growth in the use of simulators in the past several years, said Mick Golson, a senior fellow at research firm ICF International.
New simulators are providing training for medical officers with the Air Force Medical Modeling and Simulation Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. Joint terminal attack controllers have a virtual training unit for their schoolhouse, featuring 270-degree views of a digital battlefield and the ability to practice calling in airstrikes. At Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, maintainers use virtual reality to practice maintenance on the fifth-generation F-35 before stepping foot on the flightline.
“It costs a lot of money to build a prototype just to do training, but now you can get ahead of the training curve by putting that stuff out in a simulator well ahead of the actual development or the actual fielded weapons system,” Golson said.
However, virtual training can only go so far, he said.
“At some point in the training cycle, you have to get in the seat of that F-22 and fly it. At some point you have to work on that F-22,” Golson said. “But how much of that training do you need to do before you actually touch it?”