ORLANDO, Fla. — In a war against Russia or China, U.S. fighter pilots could have to contend against fifth-generation fighters, drone swarms and layers of integrated air defenses. How can the U.S. military train pilots to handle those highly advanced threats without breaking the bank?
After a series of demonstrations in 2018, the Air Force and Navy might be closer to a technical solution.
The Air Force Research Laboratory aimed to create a technology suite that would allow the service to blend simulators and virtual elements with live training under the Secure Live, Virtual and Constructive Advanced Training Environment (SLATE) program.
In August and September 2018, the Air Force and Navy validated that it could take an F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-15E Strike Eagle outfitted with that gear and run complex flight training scenarios where, for instance, an F-15E pilot flying with a wingman in a simulator could face off against live and virtual adversaries that emit the threat information of Chinese fighter jets or integrated air defenses.
“Over the course of three weeks [in August and September 2018], we flew multiple days, multiple exercises. We flew almost 100 sorties in support of the demonstration,” said Mike Knowles, the head of Cubic Global Defense, AFRL’s industry partner on the program. Knowles spoke with Defense News during the at the Interservice/Industry, Training, Simulation and Education Conference.
Now that SLATE’s technology demonstration phase has ended, the services are identifying their next steps, and Cubic is hoping for more work.
“Air Combat Command and the F-35 oint program office are working to fund our division’s proposed look at SLATE capabilities integration with the F-35,” Dave Noah, Maj. Thomas Adams and Maj. Jason Lingle, who work in AFRL’s Continuous Learning and Program Assessment division, wrote in the lab’s fall 2019 magazine.
The Navy, meanwhile, is interested in holding additional demonstrations with the SLATE technology at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, Knowles said.
“We’ll see some experiments with the Navy take place this summer and into the fall," he said. "A fifth-gen study on the application of LVC for the F-35, I suspect we’ll see that start this [coming] year also.”
AFRL was responsible for the development of three key technologies for the SLATE: the Fifth Generation Advanced Training Waveform (5GATW), which 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 multilevel security system that allows different data to be passed to U.S. and international assets, depending on the level of classification.
Cubic was 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.
The SLATE’s 5GATW waveform and security architecture were formulated with fifth-generation aircraft in mind, so the F-35 can use the SLATE pod without needing additional data safeguards. The challenge is integrating the technology with the F-35’s more advanced sensor fusion system, Knowles said.
“On the F-15 and F/A-18 — fourth-generation [jets] — Boeing helped in working the integration between the SLATE pod and the sensor fusion in the aircraft,” he said. “The F-35, given its capabilities are significantly more than a fourth-generation aircraft, the sensor fusion is significantly more complex.
“When you think about it from that perspective, it comes down to a complexity and processing question.”
Cubic’s work for the SLATE technology development phase has come to a close, but Knowles is hopeful the Navy and Air Force will put the company under contract to continue work on the technology over the next year.
“Training has long been that market where it’s usually the last to be funded and the first to be cut,” he said. “But I think service chiefs and commandeers are starting to realize the imperative of training now and what Live, Virtual Constructive could bring to it, which is why I think we could potentially could see an acceleration of the adoption of the technology moving forward.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.