The Air Force’s long climb back to full-spectrum readiness hinges on investments. The service is spending heavily on keeping aircraft healthy and keeping pilots flying. The Fiscal 2017 budget request, unveiled in early February, also includes $235 million for ranges—one aspect of training that has been neglected as budgets have constricted.
“We have to be ready for it all, and with respect to those future high-end threats, this is the only test range where you can bring it all together—not only all the kinds of aircraft that you see on the ramps out there, but the satellites you don’t see and the cyber you don’t see,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said during a Feb. 4 visit to the Nevada Test and Training Range at Nellis AFB, Nev. “So it’s an enormously important installation. That is reflected in our budget, where we’re adding $1 billion more for training of this kind over the next five years in the Air Force budget. … [We’re] investing in these training ranges so that they will continue in the future to be the very best training ranges.”
The service has 34 traditional air-to-ground and electronic combat ranges, including crown jewels at Nellis and other bases, such as Hill AFB, Utah, and Eglin AFB, Fla., along with small “backyard ranges” across the service. The Air Force’s Fiscal 2017 budget requests the $235 million down payment to begin modernizing and updating its training ranges. The funding mostly will go to needed infrastructure, such as communications and improved threat emitters.
“The problem we have is if we don’t invest in readiness today, we risk losing the fight today. If we don’t invest in readiness and capability for the future, we risk losing the fight 10 to 20 years from now. That’s the balance we’re trying to lock,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III warned Congress in March 2015.
The new $1 billion investment builds up flight hours, weapon systems support, critical skills, and the training infrastructure—including ranges—to get aircrews ready to face a task of defeating one high-end enemy in one realm, denying another, and performing homeland defense missions, said Lt. Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, in a Feb. 12 briefing with reporters after the service unveiled its budget plans.
“Really it’s building a fifth generation training enterprise to build what will be a fifth generation Air Force,” Holmes said. “And the training enterprise has to catch up.”
The Air Force’s ranges are a “giant training device” that must continue to evolve, said Col. John Galic, the director of range operations for Air Combat Command. The massive swaths of land are more than just a safely cordoned-off area for aircraft to fly and drop bombs. The service uses the protected airspace to train pilots on current needs, such as close air support, to be ready for combat in the Middle East or wherever they may be called on to take action.
However, investments in expensive equipment, such as high-tech threat emitters designed to replicate surface-to-air missiles and electronic warfare, has declined. This helped contribute to a lack of high-spectrum readiness across the force.
“The emerging threats have to translate into a realistic training environment,” Galic said in an interview with Air Force Magazine. “It has to be guided, we have to make careful but dedicated investments. The piecemeal investment has not worked in the past. Sequestration was not easy on the Air Force.”
RAND Corp., in a 2011 study, warned that over the long term, there needs to be an investment strategy to allow for enough lead time to support an evolving training need, leadership to connect the training needs with national security requirements, and adequate plans for the long-term sustainability of the range infrastructure.
“It is also becoming imperative for the service to justify its range use more deliberately,” RAND reported. “Ranges are under pressure not just because of scarce funding, but also because external entities are seeking greater access to the land and airspace the ranges occupy. These pressures can constrain the types of activities conducted at the range or lead to the return of associated land and airspace to other uses.”
While the money has not necessarily been there, the service has conducted multiple reviews to produce a plan on how to best improve the ranges so pilots can train to and be ready for high-threat environments. This includes an enterprisewide range plan conducted by Air Combat Command in 2014 that looked 10 years into the future and was “designed to steer our range evolving efforts,” said Galic.
“Going forward in FY17, we are going to begin to undergo a significant investment in many of our legacy systems,” he said.
The service’s budget documents request new joint threat emitters for current ranges, upgraded legacy threat emitters to “more closely emulate current peer adversary capabilities,” and new threat emitters that mimic enemy capabilities. The budget also seeks increased funding to be able to fund contract support for a “predictive readiness assessment” tool to build the contractor support for predeployment training.
In addition to buying new equipment for the ranges, the service is investigating what it will need in the future.
“We are also studying the technology required to create synthetic threats in the live environment,” Air Force spokesman Capt. Mark Graff said. “If successful, this capability would allow more relevant and realistic training with a reduced need for ground infrastructure.”
While the service wants to emulate real-life threats during actual flights over its training ranges, the next generation capabilities of its fifth generation fleet will come up against potential adversaries developing high-tech anti-aircraft capabilities. This means more USAF training needs to take place in the cyberspace-enabled live-virtual constructive (LVC) environment that blurs the lines between simulation and real flight.
The Air Force also is working to build a multilevel, multidomain system at Nellis so pilots at Red Flag can face next generation threats, while working with space and cyber assets. This will combine the newest threat emitters and increased use of virtual reality.
Air Combat Command began looking long-term to develop plans for the live-virtual constructive training during the tenure of Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III. Pilots in training cannot fire air-to-air weapons and see how they react to kills in flight, so this is where the virtual construct needs to come in, Hostage, then ACC commander, said at an AFA event in July 2014. The service’s premier training exercise, Red Flag, is great for high-level training, but it has limits.
“Fifth generation has brought us capabilities and lethalities that are straining my ability at Red Flag to produce that same realistic environment,” Hostage said. “I can’t turn on every bell and whistle on my new fifth gen platforms because A, they’re too destructive, and B, I don’t want the bad guys to know what I’m able to do.”
“We have a comprehensive LVC, live-virtual constructive flight time, we need to put together; we have to understand what the virtual ranges of the future look like,” Welsh said at the 2014 AFA Air & Space Conference. “We have got to get serious about how we are going to train at the high end, because it’s impossible to fund a physical plant that will let you do that for Generation Five airplanes. Just can’t do it and we also don’t have the capability to do it in the real world and the cyber and space areas. We have to figure out how to do it virtually and get serious about putting this plan together.”
The budget request is part of a five-year plan to build a next generation training apparatus. USAF still needs the traditional ranges and threat emitters to ensure tangible parts of the aircraft work, such as making sure bombs work properly and the aircraft can still detect certain threats. However, this is less of a challenge to the Air Force’s newest fleets.
“If you just train an F-35 against one legacy threat emitter, that just emulates one regular threat,” Holmes said. “He’s kind of yawning through the training and you aren’t really testing the airplane.”
Because the Air Force let its range and simulator infrastructure atrophy, there needs to be investments to bridge the gap between a real cockpit flying over a range and a simulator cockpit taking part in the training.
“With a lot of our fifth generation systems, a lot of our training has to be done in the simulator because we don’t want it out in the open where anybody can watch and see what we’re doing,” Holmes said.
The Air Force needs to spend money to integrate these parts of training and improve network defense, he said.
“We need to work to tie all of these together to build a realistic environment, to train and try things,” Holmes said “All that comes together, over the [next half-decade]. We have a five-year plan to address the gaps that we allowed to build because we didn’t have the money.”
In March 2015, Red Flag at Nellis began to integrate this virtual reality aspect of training. During Red Flag 15-2, hundreds of airmen in simulators at Nellis, at the Distributed Mission Operations Center at Kirtland AFB, N.M., and at various home stations helped take down enemy forces by providing ground surveillance and assisting in targeting.
“The benefits to the warfighter of integrating ‘virtual’ into Red Flags are that it allows us to bring in more of the combat-realistic threat envelope, and we’re now able to maximize the air tasking order with the most amount of ‘Blue Forces’ in both the virtual and live sides of a joint air operations area that is 1,200 by 1,100 nautical miles, compared to the Nevada Test and Training Range, which is about 100 by 100 nautical miles,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Voigt, commander of the 505th Test Squadron at Nellis, in an ACC news release.
During this Red Flag a year ago, there was an all-virtual JSTARS, emulating a “real” E-8, to track live trucks on the range and pass along the targeting information to live F-16s and F-15s. Additionally, the exercise used both live and virtual Patriot missile units to increase the air defense presence in the exercise and save money by not sending as many real-life Patriots to the range.
Future exercises will likely use only virtual Patriot missile batteries, which will save more than $1 million per exercise, according to the ACC release.
“Over the course of time, if it can adequately replace the live play, we’ll save money,” said Col. Jeffrey Weed, commander of the 414th Combat Training Squadron, in the release. “But from the Red Flag perspective, this is about advanced training.” The more opportunities the Air Force gives aircrew, Patriot operators, and JSTARS teams “to participate and learn to fight together, the better off our forces will be. And it’s that training focus that’s driven us to this LVC arena in great detail,” said Weed.
The Air Force spends about $300 million per year on basic operations and maintenance of its ranges. The Active Duty ranges, including the Nellis range used for the service’s highest-level training at Red Flag exercises, rely on contractor personnel with a small amount of military and Air Force civilian management.
The ranges used by the Air National Guard rely more on military personnel for operations, including a team of Guardsmen that are one of a kind in the ANG. The 266th Range Squadron at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, is responsible for running threat emitters and range training for not only the A-10s and F-15Es that call Idaho home, but for more than a dozen larger-scale training exercises across the country and anyone else who comes to visit the 9,600 square-mile range complex there, said Lt. Col. Scott Downey, the squadron’s commander.
The squadron’s 144 full-time Guardsmen can operate a “whole stable of threats,” with about 20 different threat emitters the team can use to test pilots on the range.
While Downey won’t go into specifics of what the team can do, they replicate different types of anti-aircraft artillery, electronic warfare, and “several different generations” of surface-to-air missiles. The team packs up their equipment on trucks and hits the road for about 15 exercises per year, along with local operations from the close-by squadrons. The team’s operations tempo has jumped in recent years, almost doubling what they were tasked to do within the past several years, Downey said.
In early February, F-35As visiting from Hill Air Force Base trained with the 266th RANS for the first time.
“Obviously fifth generation … is a whole new ballgame,” Downey said. “It’s the first time we get to work hand in hand with the crews. We’re getting good data on both sides.”
This data will shape how the Air Force’s Red Forces on the ground can test the next generation of pilots in the newest aircraft, so they can be ready for the most advanced threats in the world.
“We’re in one type of low-intensity conflict, [but] we all know, as fliers, that we could be tasked to go into a whole new battlefield in 24 to 48 hours,” Downey said. “We have been training to the more advanced surface-to-air threats.”
USAF has begun shifting its attention back to high-intensity warfare, but it will take “eight to 10 years to recover full-spectrum readiness. We haven’t been investing in the infrastructure over the last 10 to 15 years,” Welsh said last year.
“Those things must be persistent, [a] consistent investment for us or we will fail down the road. That’s what we are lacking right now,” he said.