ORLANDO, Fla. — With live training alone unable to provide the complex scenarios meant to push the F-35 to its limits, the US Air Force is banking on a suite of cutting-edge technologies that will fuse virtual and constructive elements into live exercises.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is about halfway through the technology demonstration phase of the Secure Live, Virtual and Constructive Advanced Training Environment (SLATE) program, which will secure the technologies needed to give pilots as close of an experience as they can get to an actual battle. 

The program is set to begin demonstrating the system aboard F-15E Eagles and Navy F/A-18s in 2018, but the technology probably won't be ready for the F-35 and other fifth-generation aircraft until the mid 2020s, said Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry, AFRL commander.

"We've learned over the past that our training systems are not up to the task that we have," he said during a Nov. 29 keynote speech at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education (I/ITSEC) conference in Orlando. "The cost of bringing live training environments and exercise environments to the level of fidelity that we really need to simulate what we would expect to be a conflict environment is probably cost prohibitive."

Live, virtual and constructive (LVC) training has become a buzzword in the simulation industry over the past couple years, but SLATE is not about merely developing the capability for LVC assets to train together, said Dave "Moses" Noah, SLATE program manager at AFRL. A true LVC environment uses virtual and constructive elements to make live training as realistic as possible, enabling highly complex and advanced scenarios.

When the Air Force conducts live training today, there are elements of make believe that keep the pilot from having a truly immersive experience. For instance, an F-15E flying against an F-16 functioning as an aggressor aircraft will still see an F-16 on its radar shooting American weapons, he told Defense News.

But once SLATE is integrated into the fleet, that F-15E will be able to see the F-16 as a MiG-29, or any other adversary aircraft, on all of its sensors and displays. The idea is to more accurately replicate the conditions of battle, including simulating various environments, adversary weapons and other systems not in the US inventory.

"When we take off, go around the area and point at each other, I have the radar cross section signature of a MiG-29, I have all of the radar emissions of a MiG-29, so when I lock him up, he doesn't see on his radar warning receiver a symbol for an F-16. He sees a MiG-29," Noah said.

"The first time that he knows that I'm not a MIG-29 is finally, at let's say 2.1 miles, gets a visual on me," he said. "Up until then, he doesn't know."

Once SLATE is integrated, an F-15E in the training simulation will see the F-16 as a MiG-29, shown here, or other adversary aircraft, on all of its sensors and displays.

Photo Credit: powerline1/Getty Images

AFRL is overseeing the development of three key technologies for the program: a radio waveform that can manage the unprecedented throughput of data between the different LVC assets, high-level data encryption that keeps sensitive information like radar signatures from proliferating, and a multi-level security system that allows different data to be passed to US and international assets depending on the level of classification.

The waveform, called the Fifth Generation Advanced Training Waveform (5GATW) has been fully developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory and performed final flight tests in September, Noah said. During the tests, Lincoln Labs stressed the waveform by passing as much data as possible between ground stations and two aircraft, an L-29 and Dassault Falcon 20 owned by the labs.

Cubic is responsible for the rest of the system, including creating the encryption and security architecture as well as manufacturing a software-defined radio about the size of a smartphone capable of managing and processing the 5GATW, said Mike Knowles, vice president of air ranges. It’s also making the ground support system that will provide connectivity between the LVC elements.

Over the upcoming months, the company will integrate those technologies — along with an antenna, power amplifier and a processor — together into a pod that will be attached to fourth-generation aircraft.

"Inside our labs as systems integrator in San Diego, we’re already putting together the software-defined radio, the waveform we integrated, the multi-level secure architecture and the ground station," he said. "So in our lab now, we’re at the point where we can do simulated connectivity of the system, so we can test out and verify the communications. The encryption system is already under the NSA [National Security Administration] process for certification."

During I/ITSEC, the company showcased some of the systems that will be encapsulated into the pod, which will be about the size of an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. For fifth-gen jets like the F-35 and F-22, more engineering will be required to internally install the capability, preserving its low observability. That’s not a part of SLATE's technology demonstration phase and will be done later on when the service starts an acquisition program, but Cubic has proposed some ideas to AFRL on how the core systems could be integrated into the joint strike fighter (JSF).

"For JSF, it’s not going to be that hard. [For] a lot of the SLATE components, the hardware is designed to be able to be able to port into JSF in the future," said Tim Cockerham, a senior principal systems engineer for Cubic. For instance, some of the technologies used for SLATE could replace older processors or other subsystems that are larger in size.

The Air Force has committed $49 million for the technology development phase, and the Navy plans to add about $20 million of its own funds.

AFRL and Cubic are going to continue testing and developing SLATE over the next year. Three two-week demonstrations at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, which will include Navy participation, are planned in 2018, Noah said.

The first demo, planned for March, involves a couple F-15Es and F/A-18s interfacing with some virtual and constructive players

the ground control stations, passing data back and forth

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"We’re just making sure we have connectivity out on the range at Nellis," he said.

Another demonstration in May increases the number of actors and the influx of data being exchanged. The capstone event in October will take it up yet another notch: up to 16 live aircraft acting as blue forces, additional live aggressor forces, and then "a classified number" of virtual and constructive forces.

"But it’s going to be a lot because we want to show how much the system can handle," he said.

Future Acquisition

Once technology development ends, it will be up to the service to spin SLATE into a competitive program of record. That’s not exactly an easy thing to do in this fiscal environment for a capability that will cost billions, and possibly tens of billions, Noah said. However, the service’s Life Cycle Management Center, the acquisition arm of Air Force Materiel Command, has designated employees to help ensure a smooth transition.

"They come to work in our building just to be joined at the hip with what AFRL is doing with SLATE," he said.

AFRL is already engaged in regular meetings with Air Combat Command — which has been designated the lead command for LVC platforms — and with Lynda Rutledge, the program executive officer for the agile combat support directorate, who is in charge of acquiring simulators.

The acquisition strategy has not been finalized, but "this is going to be multiple programs of record because LVC is so huge," he said.