NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. – The Large Scale Exercise 2021 taking place across the globe is meant to validate the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps’ new operating concepts — but it’ll also be the biggest test yet of a live, virtual and constructive (LVC) training framework that has never been asked to connect so many players around the planet in real time.

The LSE 21 exercise, which kicked off Aug. 3, includes 25,000 participants across 17 time zones — some at the tactical level on 25 ships at sea or at the pier, some at the headquarters level in Navy maritime operations centers or Marine Corps combat operations centers ashore and some in the middle at task groups and strike groups scattered around the world.

For the first time ever, these echelons are coming together in a single training event that, in real time, pushes the individual sailor in a combat information center just as hard as it pushes the four-star admiral trying to maneuver multiple battle groups. It’s enabled by the Navy Continuous Training Environment web of technologies.

The LVC exercise scenario originates from the Navy Center for Advanced Modeling and Simulation, located at the Navy Warfare Development Command headquarters here at Naval Station Norfolk. The participants will be linked together as the two-week exercise unfolds.

Though Navy leaders declined to discuss the details of the scenario, it will include a buildup of tensions into a crisis and the eruption of war, in such a way that forces in the Atlantic, Pacific and Europe all have to sense their environments, track potential threats and communicate to the four-star commander about how they are seeing the crisis unfold from their vantage points. The admirals can then use the assets in their theaters to conduct the war fight — the best sensors and the best shooters, under the distributed maritime operations concept — within the LVC setup.

The Navy has spent the last several years moving from an outdated and stovepiped simulator training construct that focused on single platforms — a flight simulator for just one type of airplane, or an Aegis Combat System trainer for one or two warfare areas on a surface combatant — to a comprehensive network of ships, simulators and laboratories that can play together in complex training scenarios.

For LVC to be successful and cost-effective, all the pieces must come together: 130 surface ships and 11 training ranges are now outfitted for LVC training as the live piece; more than 70 aircraft simulators allow real people in fake airplanes to play in the scenario as the virtual piece; and 14 simulation sites and battle labs can insert constructive, or computer-generated, forces into the scenario to add complexity.

Vice Adm. Jim Kilby, the deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, told reporters training events earlier in his career would rely on Learjets with pods that would make them appear as incoming missiles on a ship’s radar, for example. If a shipboard operator didn’t respond correctly, if the pod malfunctioned or if the jet needed to refuel, a whole day’s worth of training could be ruined. Multiply that by the 25 ships that are participating in LSE 21 globally, and it’s hard to imagine doing an exercise of this scale in a live-only manner.

With LVC, though, dozens or hundreds of incoming missiles can be simulated without the cost or logistics of flying the Learjets.

“That’s the technology piece that we’re building up that has been really limited, limited in my lifetime,” Kilby said. “Certainly in the last five years, it’s grown to allow us to stimulate those conditions that we think we need to because of what we think the adversary will do. That would be very expensive for us to do in a live manner, so to me, all this connectivity” is the only way the Navy can accurately rehearse distributed maritime operations.

Ron Keter, who serves as the technical director for Large Scale Exercise 2021, told reporters the Navy chose to create a single LVC training environment for tactical training — preparing ships and units to deploy — as well as operational-level exercises to train fleet headquarters staffs.

By having this single LVC environment, he said, participants at all levels can be put through their paces during LSE 21.

Headquarters staff training

Staff training exercises run the risk of being over-scripted at times: tabletop events often precede live exercises, with the staffs being tested and certified first and then the ships and planes conducting the live exercise somewhat separately.

In that way, Large Scale Exercise 2021 will put more pressure on the admirals than a typical exercise. Rather than following a script, they’ll have to adjust to what subordinate commands decide to do during the live drills and even to mistakes that individual sailors make.

A sailor on a cruiser who misreads a potential air target, leading to the ship shooting down a plane that poses no threat, for example, or not shooting down a target that goes on to take out a U.S. aircraft carrier, could change the trajectory of the whole event. The four-star admirals at U.S. Fleet Forces Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Europe, along with their staffs, will have to roll with the punches in this LVC exercise in a way they might not be used to.

Rear Adm. Doug Beal, the vice commander of Fleet Forces who is serving as the exercise director, said having 25,000 live players makes the exercise “tremendously complex” for the decision-makers at the top, who must make strategic decisions based on what’s being reported up the echelons by sailors in real time.

LSE 21 also includes a group of retired flag and general officers who will be playing the roles of combatant commanders and Pentagon leadership, Beal said, forcing the admirals to practice communicating with joint staff and civilian leadership in the heat of war.

Kilby said this type of training event is well matched to how he expects the Navy to fight in the future under distributed maritime operations.

Fleet commanders will have to control the carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups, surface action groups and others in their area of operations, leveraging sensors and weapons across these strike groups to be most effective. They’ll also have to be careful that the adversary can’t exploit seams between the numbered fleets, meaning the admirals will have to talk to each other, too, during this global event.

“This is complex. Integrated fires, which is what we’re talking about, in distributed maritime operations, which is where the adversary is going, requires varsity-level execution,” Kilby said.

Strike group training

The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group, which deployed on Aug. 2, is among the strike groups participating live in LSE 21. Strike group commander Rear Adm. Dan Martin told Defense News in a phone interview that strike groups used to conduct fleet battle problems, which were high-end events but left the strike group commander as the ultimate authority making decisions about the war fight.

“The fleet battle problem really focused on the strike group commander … so that he or she alone could employ their strike group as they saw fit,” Martin said. “Now what we have to do is demonstrate the fact that we have assured command-and-control because we need that to get after the real problem here, [which] is integrating all the sensors that we have across these brand-new ships and brand-new aircraft, and we can make them all sync up to get the best information possible and synchronize the war fight.”

“The way I look at it is that we have shifted focus from the individual carrier strike group to a larger fleet-centered approach. So we’re changing fleet commanders’ abilities to make decisions at a faster speed, better accuracy that outpaces our adversaries,” Martin continued. “It’s leveraging the integrated fighting power of multiple naval forces to share their sensors, their weapons, their platforms across all the domains in a contested environment.”

With the Vinson strike group conducting LSE 21 as its very first mission on deployment, Martin said he’s confident he has a well trained carrier strike group. The focus of their participation can be falling into the larger fleet construct that is new under distributed maritime operations, he said.

Deckplate training

At the ship level, participating in LSE 21 allows for “reps and sets” against sophisticated targets, said Capt. Chris Marvin, the commanding officer of cruiser San Jacinto.

With his cruiser tied to the pier and undergoing maintenance ahead of an upcoming deployment with the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, that’s not something his sailors would be receiving without LSE 21 and the LVC underpinnings.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly in the long run, it’s helping his sailors see the bigger picture in an environment where no one can get hurt. During operations at sea, a strike group commander could go to the cruiser and ask for information about a potential air threat. In the old construct, the cruiser can either identify the object with its sensors or it can’t; the determination affects the course of action the strike group commander takes.

But under distributed maritime operations, Marvin said, there may be a third option — that the ship crew thinks they understand what the object is, but they request the fleet commander give them access to additional information from a sensor on another ship in the theater or from a joint or national asset like a satellite.

“If I don’t know what those tools are, I can’t use them effectively,” he added. “This allows me to interface with those tools” and learn to consider them in a training environment.

If the goal is to cut through the fog of war and create more fog for the adversary, then LSE 21 will go a long way in helping individual ships learn what and how to communicate up the chain of command to create the clearest operating picture, Marvin said. This exercise and its fleet-level focus will help each ship learn what information is needed higher up, how to communicate it, and what to do if the adversary knocks out a preferred method of communication.

“The ability to do that seamlessly and quickly to keep the fog at bay is what wins the fight.”

Future LVC investments

Since 2012, the Navy has brought its Fleet Synthetic Training capability from a pierside-only tool to offering afloat training opportunities for ships on deployment or in pre-deployment workups. In this way, trainers ashore can send virtual and constructive threats to the ship’s combat systems via the Navy Enterprise Tactical Training Network, allowing them to face off against more complex threats than the Navy could field for a typical training event.

While naval aviation can play in the LVC training today in a limited manner — jets in the air can be made to resemble adversary planes on a ship’s radar or they can be augmented by constructive planes to create a bigger formation for a ship to contend with — there’s still work to do to fully incorporate them in the Navy Continuous Training Environment. Virtual and constructive actors can’t be piped into the cockpit today so while a Navy pilot can be a part of a more complex training scenario for the ship, that pilot isn’t receiving a more complex picture to respond to.

Keter said the ability to stimulate an aircraft’s sensors and pipe virtual and constructive forces into the cockpit’s displays will be the focus of investments in fiscal 2022 through 2027. Additionally, the Navy wants to integrate the information warfare domain into its LVC network through investments in this five-year period.

John Hefti, the director of fleet and joint training at Fleet Forces, told reporters one of the benefits of this exercise would be “taking a position fix on where we are with LVC because that’s going to inform our future investments. … So we are testing our training architecture while we’re doing this exercise.”

Previously, Hefti said, the Navy conducted LVC training events with forces stateside and in Europe, for example, or at home and in the Western Pacific. But this is the first time forces around the entire globe are being pulled into the same scenario in real time, in a test of the network’s bandwidth.

Keter also said LSE 21 pushes the limits of the Navy’s ability to support LVC training for ships in the open ocean, rather than in instrumented training ranges close to home. Lessons learned by straining the LVC training environment — as well as experimenting with a few cockpit technologies that could meet the Navy’s near-term needs — will inform investment plans in the next few budget cycles.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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