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Virtual Holding Pattern: Simulation and Training in a Budget-constrained Environment

The U.S. military is confronting a serious readiness problem. Decreasing defense spending and the automatic budget cuts resulting from sequestration have decimated funding for acquisition, training, and maintenance.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 7, 2013, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told senators, “This is the lowest readiness level I’ve seen within our Army since I’ve been serving, for the last 37 years.”

He was joined in that assessment by the other three service chiefs.

Virtual training, once viewed primarily as an adjunct to live training, has stepped in to fill some of the void. Now employed for primary, advanced, and mission/qualification training across a range of platforms, simulators have grown significantly in capability and acceptance by the U.S. military.

Given funding constraints already in place and the prospect of further sequestration, the nation’s armed forces are in danger of falling short of enough trained soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to meet readiness requirements and are anxiously seeking alternatives.

Virtual training, once viewed primarily as an adjunct to live training, has stepped in to fill some of the void. Now employed for primary, advanced, and mission/qualification training across a range of platforms, simulators have grown significantly in capability and acceptance by the U.S. military.

Globally, the market for simulation is forecast to increase in coming years, but under current circumstances America’s armed forces and defense industry simulator makers say their ability to capitalize on the efficiencies of virtual training is on hold.

KC-46 Simulator

Airmen and civilians got to test out the Air Force’s newest refueling tanker, the KC-46, outside the Pentagon during a visit from Boeing’s simulator team Sept. 4, 2013. Visitors had the opportunity to fly the simulator and operate the refueling boom. U.S. Air Force photo

To gauge the potential for virtual training going forward, we examined the use of simulation in flight training – far and away the largest segment of the simulator market. Input from the services’ aviation training commands and their training device suppliers paints a picture of a military more interested in simulation than ever, but also keen to protect live flying hours, and an industry pushing forward with development while it awaits the return of military spending.

 

The Simulation Situation: AETC, CNATRA, and Flight School XXI

Air Education and Training Command (AETC), Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA), and Flight School XXI (FS XXI) conduct undergraduate aviation training for the Air Force, Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard, and Army respectively. Each has made increasing use of simulation in flight training over the last decade.

The U.S. Army’s FS XXI has been perhaps the leading exponent of simulation, with the long-term objective of combining several months of 60 percent simulation and 40 percent live training in its Initial Entry Rotary Wing Course (IERW). According to Col. Stephen S. Seitz, director of simulations at the Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence (USAACE), Fort Rucker, Ala., the current mix for its core or primary phase of IERW is 35 percent simulation, 65 percent live flight.

In the advanced phase of IERW, FS XXI students get a head start, flying aircraft that will become their primary operational platform upon graduation, including different models of the UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook, OH-58D Kiowa, and AH-64 Apache. The simulation/live flight mix during this phase varies by aircraft type, but averages 39 percent simulation, 61 percent live training today.

Though the service’s long-term training objective for simulation hasn’t been realized yet, Seitz said the use of virtual training is likely to increase in the near term, provided that the quality of aviators USAACE produces is not compromised.

“With the increased capability of our simulations, and a probable decrease in budget with a possible decrease in student throughput, we’re exploring the increased use of simulation where it makes sense,” he said. “If projected resourcing constraints happen, then you can expect more reliance on virtual, constructive, and gaming tools to enhance scheduled live events.”

The picture at CNATRA is similar. According to CNATRA’s Simulator Requirements Officer Wilfred Merkel, pilots headed for the USN, USMC, and USAF strike pipelines currently average a ratio of 35 percent simulation/65 percent live flight across the primary (T-34C, T-6B) platforms they utilize. USN and USMC pilots experience the same ratio in advanced (T-45) training. Once the T-34C is phased out in early 2015, virtual training will increase overall slightly with expanded use of the more advanced, high-fidelity-visual T-6 simulators.

Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard pilots entering the maritime/multi-engine, E-2 and C-2 pipelines spend 38 percent of their time in simulators in their primary phase, with the average dropping in the advanced phase to 32.8 percent in the T-44 and 28.3 percent in the TC-12. Once the TC-12 is replaced by the T-44C, the use of simulation is expected to increase to 41.4 percent in advanced training.

For undergraduate military flight officers (UMFOs) – naval flight officers (NFOs) and combat systems officers (CSO) and other Navy/Marine Corps fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircrew, training features more simulation. In the primary phase (T-6A), UMFOs and aircrew undergo 34.8 percent of their training in simulators, while UMFOs greatly increase the ratio in the advanced training with 60.6 percent of their (T-45C) syllabus taught via simulation.

Navy and Marine Corps rotary-wing and tilt-rotor pilots average 71 percent live flight training complemented by 29 percent of their training hours in simulators. V-22 pilots going through the advanced phase fly the TC-12, where simulated flights drop to 28.3 percent of the syllabus.

For undergraduate military flight officers (UMFOs) – naval flight officers (NFOs) and combat systems officers (CSO) and other Navy/Marine Corps fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircrew, training features more simulation. In the primary phase (T-6A), UMFOs and aircrew undergo 34.8 percent of their training in simulators, while UMFOs greatly increase the ratio in the advanced training with 60.6 percent of their (T-45C) syllabus taught via simulation.

The USAF mix of simulation for training new pilots and aircrew varies by pipeline from 35 percent to 65 percent. AETC breaks down the combination as follows:

  • Fighter/bomber pilot training: 31 percent simulation
  • Tanker/mobility pilot training: 38 percent simulation
  • Helicopter pilot training: 40 percent simulation
  • Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilot training: 64 percent simulation
  • Combat systems officer (CSO) training: 65 percent simulation

The command says the percentages above reflect primary (T-6) and advanced (T-1, T-38, or TH-1) training. The Air Force was the only service to provide a breakdown of simulation employed in graduate training. Here, advanced simulators are used for more complex mission and qualification/currency training for operational pilots and aircrew.

Not surprisingly, simulation features prominently in this realm, where the cost of live flight hours mounts more rapidly than in primary and advanced flight training. USAF graduate flight training utilizes simulation in 41 percent to 85 percent of training events. AETC provides the following figures:

  • Mobility pilot qualification training varies from 80.3 percent to 85 percent
  • Mobility load qualification training varies from 70 percent to 78 percent
  • Mobility boom operator qualification training is 41 percent
  • Mobility flight engineer qualification training is 79 percent
  • Fighter pilot qualification training varies from 44.5 percent to 55.3 percent
  • Special operations forces pilot qualification training varies from 51.5 percent to 80.6 percent

Tallying the numbers for each of the training commands reveals a fairly consistent ratio of simulation in undergraduate flight training across the services. Those requiring the most intensive pure aviation training – pilots – average just over a third (35 percent to 38 percent) of their training time in simulators. For weapons system/sensor operators and other aircrew (boom operators, loadmasters, flight engineers, gunners, etc), and RPA pilots, simulated training represents as much as 65 percent of their education.

AETC and CNATRA provided cost figures for aviator training across their pipelines. The two offered slightly different breakdowns, making direct comparison difficult, but the overall costs are likely similar.
AETC offered two examples of the total cost to train aviators (F-22 pilots, C-17 pilots) in fiscal years 2011 and 2013.

  • Fighter pilot, T-6 – F-22: FY 11 – $4.5 million; FY 13 – $4.8 million
  • Transport pilot, T-6 – C-17:  FY 11 – $590,000; FY 13 – $600,000

CNATRA went into greater detail, providing costs for primary and advanced training, but did not provide total cost, i.e., the cost to produce operationally ready strike, maritime, or fixed-wing aviators. The command’s breakdown is as follows:

  • Primary (T-34) costs roughly $140,000 per student and goes up to roughly $149,000 for those going through T-6. All students go through this phase.
  • A strike (fighter track) student costs an additional $1,154,000.
  • A rotary-wing student pilot costs $160,000 above the primary cost.
  • The typical multi-engine track adds about $202,000 to the primary cost.
  • NFO cost varies greatly depending on the track – anywhere from $102,000 (basic navigation) to $435,000 for the strike track.

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...