Not long ago, Gen. Richard E. Hawley declared to a pub- lic gathering, “I am perhaps the Air Force’s most out spoken proponent [of] Distributed Mission Training.” Hawley, the commander of Air Combat Command at the time, then went further, saying that the concept had “a tremendous future” in the combat forces.
What exactly is it
In a typical distributed training episode, a flight of four F-15C fighters from Eglin AFB, Fla., would join a flight of F-16s from Shaw AFB, S.C. At the same time, controllers aboard an E-3 AWACS from Tinker AFB, Okla., would choreograph an attack against an enemy target while an adversary force from Nellis AFB, Nev., would be hostile fighters. As they near the objective, Air Force pilots would see not only their wingmen but also the land battle, enemy interceptors, and bursts of anti-aircraft fire.
Here’s the news: None of the participants in these exercises would ever leave their home stations.
Thanks to a new generation of telecommunications and aircraft simulators with computer-generated visual effects, Air Force operators of the future are going to be able to experience virtually all conditions of combat at more or less the same time, despite being separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. They won’t face just a computer-simulated threat. They will interact with other friendly aircraft and with enemy airplanes. They will not only observe but also be part of the larger air-ground battle.
The Air Force took a major step toward this advanced training format this spring when it opened its first ground-based F-15C Mission Training Center at Eglin. Plans called for the start of training in July at another F-15C MTC, this one at Langley AFB, Va. The Air Force will follow up in 2001 with the AWACS center at Tinker and an F-16C site at Shaw. The adversary force at Nellis will come after those, as will a number of additional centers at other sites.
Distributed Mission Training, known as DMT, is being developed in a number of forms throughout the Air Force. In Air Combat Command, the focus is on aircrew training, or DMT-A. Another program, DMT-C2, will train operators of AWACS. The Air Force later will add bombers and other weapon systems.
When the whole program is up and running, the full array of battle elements will be linked in what officials term a “system of systems.” The result is what you might get if you crossed a video game, a wide movie screen, and theme-park adventure ride.
What it Does
Maj. Edward Maxwell, chief of ACC’s Distributed Mission Training Team, said the Air Force has moved beyond the basic procedural task trainers and has begun to use simulation to train pilots in advanced combat tactics and concepts.
“While we used to focus on predominantly task-oriented use of simulators, we are now focusing on training team and interteam skills,” said Maxwell. “Obviously, to do this you need a much more advanced simulator. We require high-fidelity systems with full-field-of-view visual systems to produce an accurate representation of what you would expect to encounter in actual flying and in combat.”
It’s not just that the new equipment will provide more realism than conventional simulators. DMT will also allow pilots in one location to interact with those in other, geographically separated locations as though they were in the same airspace.
The Eglin F-15C MTC, for example, will have four high-fidelity advanced simulators. Pilots can use them individually as they have used older simulators, but the four also will be linked together so that four pilots can “fly” in formation and practice unit combat tactics. And, as other training centers come on line, pilots at any center will be able to train with a variety of widely scattered units.
The potential of DMT is particularly appealing to the Air Force as it develops its new Air Expeditionary Forces, formed of scattered units and tailored to meet specific contingencies.
Physically assembling this variety of units for training on a regular basis would be prohibitively expensive and logistically challenging. Environmental concerns, safety factors, civilian competition for the airspace, and the problems caused by high optempo add to the problem.
“Think about the AEF,” said Hawley, who retired July 1. “This is a collection of units from across the Air Force that is a virtual organization made up of perhaps eight or 10 different squadrons. It’s made up of earmarked ground [forward air control] people, combat communications, and RED HORSE and Prime BEEF [construction and engineering teams], which are all the elements that it takes to deliver combat power to the [theater commander in chief].
“What’s better to prepare them for their task in the theater than to train together in a distributed crew training environment, without having to incur the further optempo of deploying someplace in order to work together?”
The possibility of linking these geographically separated units electronically and exposing them to realistic, albeit artificial, combat environments has thus spurred the Air Force’s interest in taking simulation to new levels.
Making it Feel Real
From the earliest days of flight, simulation has remained a game of make-believe. In theory, the closer the trainer can approximate the conditions of actual flight, the better pilots will be able to handle the real thing.
The new generation of simulators carries that philosophy a step further. An individual trainer can include mechanisms to shake the pilot’s seat and flight controls, imitating turbulence. The visual system can be jittered to give the illusion that the ship has been hit by a flak burst or missile. And, wraparound, computer-generated presentations can give the pilot the sense of flying through a real sky and over real terrain.
The technology for creating these make-believe environments has exploded in recent years, driven in no small degree by Hollywood’s special effects departments. Theater seats jolt moviegoers as they watch an earthquake, and stereophonic sound puts them in the midst of battles. Wide Imax screens give roller coasters a stomach-turning realism.
From Disney World to Caesar’s Palace, “rides” that are no more than visual effects send patrons on harrowing adventures. For those who can’t make it to a theme park, computer software brings into the home computer anything from a World War I dogfight to a stealth fighter mission.
The services have drawn on the advances of both the aviation and entertainment industries to add reality to their simulators. The question, at times, has been which technology to exploit.
The Army, for example, has been exploring the virtual reality approach, which uses helmet-mounted visuals and strap-on sensors to give the wearer the illusion of being in the action. The Air Force has not ruled out that technology as a future possibility, but, at the moment, it is concentrating on using actual cockpit hardware and creating a virtual world around it with artificial, full-field-of-vision presentations.
Either way, the object is the same-to immerse the pilot in his environment so that he comes out, as Hawley said, “smiling and sweating.”
It seems to be working. The Air Force Research Lab’s Warfighter Training Research Division at Mesa, Ariz., has a four-ship high-field-of-view F-16 simulator; USAF has been running some testing and training programs using actual aircrews. “Recently,” said Maxwell, “they had a pilot in there who was actually performing a g-straining maneuver, tightening the muscles that he would need during advanced combat maneuvering. Yet he was sitting in 1g, so the realism is there, and we have to assure it will be there to create a high-threat, high-immersive environment.”
That environment is likely to become even more convincing in the future. In current simulators, most of what the pilot sees is computer-generated, but the Air Force is exploring possibilities of adding photo-realistic imagery to it. This means overlaying even more convincing images on the artificial landscape to provide the randomness and subtle color variations that computer generation lacks.
Beyond that, there are still more imaginative possibilities. One, still little more than a concept, is laser-generated targeting. At least in theory, it could paint objects onto the imagery so realistically that the pilot would not just see a representation of his wingman’s airplane or of an oncoming enemy but have the sense that they actually were there.
One of the aims of the DMT approach is to take advantage of such improvements as they come along. “In the simulation world,” said Maxwell, “there is something called open architecture. We are trying to structure the development of these systems on that principle, which will allow much easier integration of other systems and other capabilities as they occur.”
Combat in a Hangar
If the only object were to give Air Force pilots a more realistic feel of flying, however, there would be no need for the Distributed Mission Training effort. Improved individual simulators would be enough.
The real object of DMT is to help train aircrews not only to fly but to fight-alone, in groups, and with the full array of supporting elements and opposing forces. This means expanding the one-pilot cockpit environment into something close to a real-time aerial view of a war and then making the pilot an interactive part of it.
In effect, a Mission Training Center can stage such an air or air-ground battle with all the elements, from friendly forces to enemy aircraft to ground units, both ours and theirs. More important, the pilot in one simulator can react to the actions of all these elements and, in turn, have impact on them by his own actions.
In short, DMT is designed to make the participants not just observers of some high-cost video game but active players.
ACC has used much the same approach for years in its Red Flag exercises at Nellis, where pilots train with other Air Force units and a variety of other combat elements. In fact, USAF is drawing heavily on the Red Flag experience in designing its DMT approach. Like Red Flag, for example, DMT will incorporate stand-ins for the opposition forces. Instead of flying aircraft disguised as the potential enemy, however, the “bad guys” will operate threat consoles linked to the simulators. In effect, they will fly against the trainees, both attacking and reacting to being attacked.
Only the opening scenarios of such battles will be scripted, officials say. Once the forces begin to interact, no training session will develop like any other.
“We can have them flying against real people, not just computers,” said Hawley. “I think that’s a very important part of the synthetic training environment-you’ve got to be able to fly against more than a computer-generated threat.”
Nor do all of the site’s simulators need to be occupied to stage a war. A DMT can as easily take a single pilot through a combat mission with just as much realism. In this case, console operators populate both sides of the fight, some flying the friendly aircraft and some the opposition.
In addition, the computer can generate anything from a civilian aircraft that must be avoided to an unknown that must be identified to a hostile that must be destroyed. It also can fill the ground environment with opposing forces, from tanks to individual troops to heavy artillery. Theoretically, it could recreate much of Operation Desert Storm in a training hangar.
The object is not to refight past air wars but to incorporate lessons from them. This also follows the tradition of Red Flag, which has drawn on the experience of Desert Storm and doubtless will do likewise with Operation Allied Force.
With the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve handling more and more of the total mission load, DMT plans also call for drawing Guard and Reserve personnel into the new environment. In fact, some individual reservists already have flown the new simulators.
For some reserve members, this could pose a problem. Most work short training schedules and have only limited time to meet their flight training requirements. Squeezing in the additional simulator time could be difficult. There may be a temptation to use the DMT time to substitute for actual flying hours, but USAF officials say many reservists already are close to the minimum number of sorties they need to stay proficient.
That could be a problem in the active force as well. But, while they are enthusiastic about DMT, officials are quick to say that they do not want simulation to become an excuse for further reducing the service’s number of flying hours.
“One thing that we have to make very clear,” said Maxwell, “is that simulators are just that. They are ground-based. When you crawl into one, you know you are going to walk away from that flight. The DMT-A effort is not a replacement for flying training. It is an enhancement to our flying training. It is a way to capture those types of events that we cannot capture or cannot completely train due to current constraints to training.”
Impressive as they are, simulators cannot duplicate all the sensations of flight. Officials concede, for example, they never are likely to reproduce the kinds of g-forces generated by high-performance aircraft. The Air Force produces g’s in centrifuges, but the prospect of wedding a centrifuge with a massive simulator is not now in the cards. Even if it is theoretically possible, doing it probably would be prohibitively expensive.
With any advance in simulation, the Air Force usually has had to fight off attempts to cut back on actual flying hours. The DMT project may have a similar result, but USAF officials hope to ward off that threat. They say they will make the case that, even though simulators may help pilots spend their flying hours more productively, there still is no substitute for air time.
The Distributed Mission Training concept meshes well with current Air Force efforts to speed modernization of the forces but hold down costs. Under conventional acquisition practices, it would take decades for the Air Force to develop such an extensive system, but the new program includes a contracting system as innovative as the hardware itself. The Air Force will not buy simulators but instead contract for simulator services.
So far, USAF has awarded contracts to Boeing for F-15C simulation services at Eglin AFB, Fla., and Plexsys Interface Products for the AWACS center at Tinker AFB, Okla. Other contracts are being negotiated. Under them, the Air Force will rent the services and not own the hardware. The contractors will set up, operate, and train the trainers, with the Air Force paying hourly rates for using them.
The arrangement not only spares the service the large up-front expense of buying simulators, but it also speeds the process of starting up. Under traditional acquisition practices, it would take up to six years to develop, purchase, and install a new simulation system. The contract-services approach reduces the time to as little as 18 months. Moreover, in negotiating the service contracts, the Air Force can require that the systems be updated periodically as new technology becomes available.
Officials say this helps solve one of the long-standing problems with service-owned simulators-ensuring that they are compatible with the latest models of the aircraft on the ramp. Now, with concurrency priced into the contract, it is up to industry to comply.
The transition to DMT may not be a complete break with conventional simulation. ACC has decided that contractor-supplied services is the best approach for the F-15C and the F-16, but it is considering other weapon systems on a case-by-case basis.
It is looking at the simulators for the F-15E, for example, to see if it is possible to convert them to the DMT environment. It will take a similar look at trainers for the A-10, B-1, B-52, and the rest of the inventory. Even if it is possible to modify some of them to be compatible with DMT, however, it may prove more cost-effective to contract for services on new ones than to update the old ones.
The Long Winding Path of Simulation
As early as 1910, the Wright brothers were putting their beginning students into a ground-bound flying machine rigged to tilt unless they worked the controls properly.
World War I trainees were subjected to similar devices, some of them suspended from trees, overhead gantries, and even captive balloons. One early trainer put the pilot in a barrel that rolled from side to side in response to his movement of the controls.
By the 1920s, Edwin A. Link had developed a motorized trainer that incorporated not only responsive controls but flight and navigation instruments. Thus was born the Link Trainer known to thousands of World War II pilots.
After the war, improved technology led to more realistic trainers which could simulate many sensations and experiences of flying. Still, until recently, the focus has been on individual pilot training in a single aircraft.
By the early 1990s, however, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Warfighter Training Research Division at Mesa, Ariz., was working with advanced, multi-airplane simulation techniques for use in testing programs.
Gen. Richard E. Hawley, while commander of Air Combat Command, heard of the program and asked why the testing program trainers couldn’t be used for operational training as well. The early focus was on the F-15, but it has widened to include a whole array of other aircraft.
Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “To Fix Air Force Housing,” appeared in the July 1999 issue.