EINSIEDLERHOF AIR STATION, Germany
In a dimly lit room in a nondescript yellow building at the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa’s Warfare Center (UAWC) near Kaiserslautern, Germany, a Russian Su-24 appeared on a radar simulator, dangerously close to Dutch and American F-35s. The pilots, one in the Netherlands and the other in Germany, could communicate and rehearse strategies for confronting the threat together, and even pause and debrief at the unclassified level.
Just a few months prior, this kind of rehearsal would have been impossible. The allied pilots could neither speak openly during simulated joint exercises nor debrief together. After years of effort, this is finally beginning to change, thanks to a new effects-based simulator designed by the Air Force at a moment when allied air power requires unity.
“Even in this theater, when we’re right in the middle of Europe, where there are F-35 partners everywhere, there are still a blockage of communication,” said Maj. Dan Prudhomme, an F-35 pilot who is helping with training on two new, effects-based simulators at the UAWC.
We’re trying to break down those walls all the time, and this is a great step forward to doing that.Maj. Dan Prudhomme, F-35 pilot
Prudhomme, who is assigned to the 495th Tactical Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, U.K., taps the touchscreen and the radar locks on a red jet heading in his direction. An indicator identifies details about the Su-24. A Dutch pilot symbolized by a green jet on his touchscreen, is nearby. He clicks a red button and a projection screen displays the smoke plume of a fired missile.
“We’re trying to break down those walls all the time, and this is a great step forward to doing that,” he told Air Force Magazine during a Feb. 4 visit to Einsiedlerhof Air Station, a short drive from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. “There is a huge emphasis on allied and U.S. cooperation, collaboration, communication.”
The new Air Force simulator enables pilots to communicate with each other over an unclassified network, honing their tactics and overcoming communications challenges.
Prudhomme explained that communicating directly with another pilot goes beyond relationship building and preventing communication breakdowns.
“It just provides a much higher degree of debrief capability and root-cause analysis on mission success or failure,” he said. “Without that sort of live, actual communication with a real person who that comes from—communicating directly with another pilot really doing it—I don’t think that’s possible. That’s something that we have a huge problem with right now.”
While lacking the enhanced resolution, helmet-mounted display and other effects in the more expensive Lockheed Martin version, the Air Force-developed simulator for the first time allows allies to train and talk to one another from globally dispersed locations. The Full Motion Simulators are not expected to do the same until 2023, according to the Air Force.
Erik Etz, Lockheed Martin senior manager of new business, strategy and roadmaps, said that only the Lockheed Full Mission Simulator allows F-35 pilots to “train like they fight.”
“The full mission sim is a dome-based solution. So, it provides an immersive experience for the pilots to train in a very realistic environment,” Etz said by phone from the Lockheed training facility in Orlando, Fla.
“We are currently across the F-35 enterprise in discussions about what it would take to bring that same capability to the F-35 partners and allied nations as well,” he added. “We have the technical capability.”
Etz said simulators are now able to talk to U.S. Air Force bases through “Distributed Mission Training (DMT),” but he declined to say whether they were at U.S. air bases overseas. The F-35 Distributed Mission Training system provides secure network interoperability for training, including large force exercises, between F-35s and with other platforms like F-22s, F-16s, F-15s, and E-3s for pilots at U.S. locations.
Lockheed said it is working on a lower-priced, smaller footprint simulator similar to the one at UAWC called “MRT Light” that would be DMT compatible with allies and partners.
Lockheed could not provide a timeline for when its simulators would allow allies to train together from globally dispersed locations.
The Air Force said a limited test between RAF Lakenheath and RAF Fairford is not expected to yield results until late 2022 or early 2023. Lockheed could not confirm this timeline.
Lt. Col. Lee Stanford, commander of the 5th Combat Training Squadron, confirmed that allies possess Lockheed simulators, but not the ability to establish full communications.
“They have them out to other foreign countries, but the ability for U.S. and the foreign F-35s to connect has not been established yet,” he said.
Meanwhile, the UAWC simulator is getting the job done.
“It is high enough fidelity that you can do mission training with it, testing with it, tactics development with it between countries,” Stanford added, noting American F-35 pilots are already talking to the pilots from the Netherlands and Norway. Soon, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Australia will also be connected.
Four F-35s are now deployed to the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, and USAFE-AFAFRICA Commander Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian has made allied F-35 integration and joint training opportunities a priority.
Harrigian worked closely with the Royal Air Force to ensure their training area worked for both British and American F-35s, as well as accommodating fourth-to-fifth generation integration. The commander then flew to Decimomannu Air Base, Italy, to discuss flight distances, altitudes and emitters that would be appropriate for real-world air training.
But, Harrigian said, “there are some things you just can’t do out on the range with these fifth-gen airplanes.”
“As we bring on fifth gen, we have to have the simulator capability, the virtual capability to go train at the very high end,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the African Air Chiefs Symposium in Kigali.
Harrigian explained that integrating F-35s and fourth-generation capabilities with partners in theater “really drives home the interoperability requirements,” building trust and confidence between squadrons to work together.
“We’re working very hard to ensure that we can connect in the simulators our F-35s with the U.K., and then with all our F-35 partners, such that we can train together in the virtual environment,” he said.
Getting the simulators to talk to each other to improve the allied force was “fundamental to our long-term success.”
“It’s powerful, and that’s the path we’re on and we’re going to figure that out,” he stated. “If something happens here, we’re going to be in it together. So, we don’t want to have to figure it out on Day One.”
Funding and Policy Roadblocks
With F-35 flight hours and training opportunities limited, the new UAWC simulator allows allied pilots to train more at a critical moment for the NATO alliance, with Russia threatening in the East. Congressional funding is not the only problem the program faces. Allied F-35 pilots cannot talk to each other at a classified level.
“Having discussions with our foreign partners at a common level is absolutely vital to coordination, interoperability, and training,” he explained. “Any barriers that lay in the way of that need to be broken down.”
Prudhomme said the American and allied restrictions that prevent pilots from speaking freely to each other and debriefing together put the force at risk.
“The people that are putting themselves at risk, the operators that are flying, they understand that they must trust the partners and allies,” he said.
Sitting in the effects-based simulator, Prudhomme underscored that it is now technically possible for the heavy data flows to move back and forth between simulators while pilots communicate in real time. The virtual training opportunity is a fraction of the cost of real-world training—without the logistical challenges—and allows pilots to stop and rehearse scenarios over and over, then debrief and discuss best practices. Policy only needs to catch up.
“The operators are willing to accept the risk of sharing sensitive information because it’s what allows us to win in a collaborative conflict,” Prudhomme said. “If they’re unable to communicate with them, that trust is going to disintegrate.”