DAHLGREN, Va. — Encouraged by the improvements in ship handling and combat systems operations after the U.S. Navy fielded virtual trainers, the surface community is hoping to further improve its readiness with a virtual maintenance trainer for the Aegis Combat System.

The Aegis VMT is in development at the newly renamed Surface Combat Systems Training Command (SCSTC, pronounced Sea-Stick), previously known as the Center for Surface Combat Systems, with the trainer set to open in the spring to new sailors seeking to become combat systems maintainers.

“Five and 10 years ago, ship handling trainers were available if you wanted to go use them, and our use of them has grown over time to where now you shall go use and spend X amount of time in various trainers to develop and maintain a level of proficiency,” SCSTC Commanding Officer Capt. Dave Stoner told Defense News during a Nov. 8 visit. “We think we’re going to find this here” with the maintenance trainer, too, where using a virtual trainer will become the normal way of gaining and maintaining proficiency in routine maintenance and troubleshooting.

Sailors coming into combat system maintenance billets will still go through classroom training. But their hands-on lab experience will get a major upgrade this spring. Instead of training on actual ship sets of equipment — where the fidelity is high in that they are working on the real gear, but low in that only a limited number of faults can be introduced for diagnosis and repair — the Aegis Virtual Maintenance Trainer will provide almost limitless options for students to find everything from loose wires to failed computer chips to faulty software code that needs reprogramming.

Stoner said Aegis VMT will “really meet the fleet commanders’ desire for ships to be more self-sufficient, to stay on station longer and to be able to troubleshoot for themselves a whole lot more.”

Trends in virtual training

Though investments in a Surface Training Advanced Virtual Environment began in 2015, the 2017 Fitzgerald and John S. McCain destroyer collisions highlighted the need for young surface warfare offices to receive more ship handling training ahead of their first assignment and throughout their early careers. Virtual trainers were set up at the Surface Warfare Schools Command in Newport, R.I., as well as on the waterfront in California and Virginia. SWOs can master basic ship handling, seamanship and navigation skills in these trainers that mirror the real-world ports, straits and busy transitways young SWOs may see on deployment.

Next, the Navy began investing in trainers for the tactical side of surface warfare, helping watch teams on the bridge and in the combat information center train for air, surface and undersea threats. This allowed them more repetition without the cost of live at-sea training.

Now, after learning how to balance classroom, live and virtual training, the Navy is set to roll out its first combat system maintenance virtual trainer.

“When [the Aegis Training and Readiness Center] opened its doors in the late ‘80s, we really had a change in how we were doing training in the surface community,” Stoner said. “We said, ‘This is so technical and so complex, we’re going to bring everybody to a schoolhouse where we can put real shipboard equipment in and train them on that.’ And we’ve been following that model for decades now.”

“Now that we can, using virtual computing, use the real code that we use onboard the ships in training systems at a price point that makes it where we can have multiples, now we can take those from the schoolhouse and move them back to the waterfront areas,” he continued. “You don’t have to travel to go to the training, you can do the training for a day or an afternoon, it makes it available to shipboard sailors in a way that was never possible, and it allows commanding officers to develop a level of proficiency that just wasn’t possible before.”

Once the schoolhouse is set up in Dahlgren for new sailors training to serve in a handful of billets related to Aegis Combat System maintenance, the next step will be to establish Aegis VMT trainers in Hampton Roads, Va., and San Diego, SCSTC spokeswoman Kimberly Landsdale told Defense News. The Navy has also funded a pilot program that would put a single-computer training system — as opposed to the entire classroom of computers — onto a surface ship to see if it’s useful to connect sailors at sea with technical experts ashore for managing particularly tough problems.

The trainer will also expand to include the Ship Self-Defense System and the AN/SQQ-89A(V)15 anti-submarine warfare combat system, and future baselines of the Aegis Combat System will be added later.

Stoner said the technology is necessary to keep up with changes in the combat systems the Navy fields on current and upcoming ship classes.

“As a design strategy, we’re going more toward software design that is agnostic of the hardware it rides on,” he said. “In the past, a lot of our training has been very hardware centric: find the bad circuit card, find the bad voltage regulator or switch or component.”

“The ability to train on finding and fixing software faults doesn’t really lend itself to the way we were doing training — so it may not be that you have to replace the circuit card, but maybe you have to go in and you have to restart part of the program, or you have to reset something in the software,” Stoner added. “These systems are flexible enough to help us train to that level of detail.”

Aegis VMT

Though the Aegis VMT is still in final development, a handful of sailors are already wringing it out to provide feedback before the April rollout.

In a demonstration of the system for Defense News, Fire Controlman (Aegis) 1st Class Kirt Palmer walked through a training scenario with three petty officers third class.

In an assignment to diagnose and ultimately replace a broken room alert monitor, Fire Controlman (Aegis) 3rd Class Tyler George first went to the phone to report the pending maintenance work up the chain of command — part of helping the students practice not just the hands-on work but also the end-to-end procedures.

FCA3 Felice Hahn then took over after getting permission to do the work, setting up diagnostic equipment and checking inputs and outputs to determine which component is faulty. Once she found the right component, she went back to the phone to report that.

FCA3 Thomas Wyant took over replacing the room alert module itself — but in an error made for the purpose of the demonstration, he forgot to use an electrostatic discharge wrist strap the Navy manual requires. When he tried to unscrew the module without putting on the wrist strap first, the scenario stopped and Palmer, the instructor, was alerted about a safety violation.

Palmer said the system’s ability to flag not just wrong actions but also safety violations is important: the student might be able to fix the fault, but if they are doing it unsafely, there could be ramifications down the road. Stoner noted most technicians do their work solo, without the supervision of a department head or the ship commanding officer, and everyone is relying on the sailor to do the work correctly and without jeopardizing their own safety, that of those around them or that of the components and systems.

Palmer, who has been in the Navy for 14 years, said the Aegis VMT lets him train more students at a time and also lets him train them to more skills than the previous hands-on lab.

On capacity, he said the previous lab only let an instructor work with about three students at a time due to space limitations of everyone needing to crowd around the same hardware. With VMT, an instructor could teach a dozen or even two dozen students, or a single primary instructor at Dahlgren could be working with adjunct instructors at the waterfront schoolhouses, or the instructor could be coordinating with sailors on ships.

Palmer also said it lets him teach students things that would be too risky to do before — chiefly, to practice reconfiguring software. Previously, trying to reconfigure software on the actual ship set, if done wrong, could create a big maintenance bill and take down the equipment for days.

On the virtual trainer, Palmer said, students can try to rework the software code and he can monitor from the instructor view on his own computer, noting only after the fact where missing slashes or other mistyped software code could have led to a situation where “this command would have actually wiped the entire program.”

He added that students gain a lot of confidence knowing “I’ve already practiced this on a system that can’t break” before they go to perform the same task on a real combat system component.

Continuous learning

Brian Deters, the executive director at SCSTC, said during the visit that Aegis VMT represents the Navy acknowledging that, “with the growing complexity of the combat system, which is ever increasing, that we have to have more modern methods of delivering the training or we’re just going to get left behind.”

Larry Sharp, the director of technical support at the command, said past trainers have had something like 50 work items that can be practiced. With Aegis VMT virtualizing the combat system down to individual wires, he said instructors can pick from some 10,000 potential faults to introduce into training.

Deters said this can help students start to understand the cause and effect of one component being broken and affecting the output on a display elsewhere in the combat system.

In addition to proving a more thorough learning experience, Aegis VMT also produces data that can help instructors and SCSTC refine the curriculum as they go. If students are consistently struggling with a certain scenario, Palmer said, it would be apparent in the data and the instructors could emphasize that scenario during classroom training.

Stoner said the trainer and curriculum are also flexible enough to keep up with trends in the fleet.

“I could easily envision where we’ve learned something at sea — a ship had a particular casualty — we develop a new work procedure on how to fix that and maybe a procedure on how to detect it before it occurs, so now we know that,” the captain said. “How do we put that in the minds of the technicians on 100 Aegis platforms? When you can package that into a one- or two-hour training that can be given and then demonstrated in their homeport, now that’s real power to do training.”

Deters said this example gets to another benefit of the Aegis VMT: it can be applied in several ways, based on how many systems the Navy chooses to buy and how it wants to employ the technology.

The focus of the schoolhouse in Dahlgren and the future ones in fleet concentration areas is to teach apprentice-level sailors how to do maintenance and restore casualties on ships. The technology, though, could be used throughout a sailor’s career, teaching journeyman-level sailors how to supervise young technicians, for example.

“It’s really limited only by our imagination on where we want to take it,” Deters said.

The system could be used to teach the entire fleet new practices as they develop, as Stoner suggested. It could also be used for sustainment training at sea to keep sailors fresh or to practice less-common maintenance actions before they’re done on the ship itself.

Palmer said some actions on a ship might be conducted just once every three years. In those cases, perhaps no one on the ship was around the last time the maintenance action was done, and perhaps no one has been through that in a previous assignment. In that case, the sailors could practice it in the VMT a week or two ahead of the scheduled maintenance action before doing it on their ship.

Stoner said the trainer could even be used to help connect sailors at sea with technical experts ashore through the Navy’s Surface Training Advanced Virtual Environment (STAVE) network, something that’s being funded on one ship as a pilot program. In this case, sailors on a ship could describe the problems on the combat system, while the technical experts ashore could replicate it on their own VMT and then help the sailors at sea hunt for a solution.

“That was not something we were intending in the beginning, but we’re starting to explore” the idea now, he said.

The key to Aegis VMT, Stoner said, is its inherent flexibility.

“As the surface navy moves to a continuous development mindset for combat systems, you have to have a continuous training mindset to go along with that or we’ll quickly fall behind,” he said. “As they look at how to quickly bring new capabilities into the system, we have to be able to analyze that and say, does that change our maintenance training? Change our operator training? How do we bring that quickly into the classroom but also into the waterfront and even onto the ship?”

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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