TIM ROBINSON reports from RAF Waddington on how complex battlespace simulations are honing the edge of the UK's armed forces and how a team of ex-military aviators has raised the bar for trust and expertise in the defence sector.
High above a featureless desert, four RAF Typhoon pilots are fighting for their lives as a special forces extraction mission deep in hostile territory starts to unravel. With support helicopters below delayed after stiffer than expected resistance at the target site, the Typhoon flight lead must now make a difficult choice between escorting the choppers to safety on marginal fuel or racing back to a friendly tanker. Complicating the issue is a call from the RC-135 Rivet Joint/Airseeker that Su-30s, presumably hostile, have swung noses towards the package. Meanwhile, out at sea in international waters, a Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer, able to put-up a formidable anti-air umbrella to help cover the return leg, is preoccupied as its command centre responds to swarms of fast attack boats bearing down on its position. Finally, while a RAF E-3D Sentry AWACS crew attempts to make sense of the overall picture and keep the rescue, escort package and all supporting players informed, an enemy cyberattack takes down their ‘chat’ message system – forcing the crew to revert to old-fashioned voice comms.
This fast-moving, highly dynamic scenario is not the product of a technothriller author, or the latest Playstation game but is actually taking place in a semi-darkened hangar at RAF Waddington – and is one of the most sophisticated virtual battlespaces on the planet – where up to 600 virtual entities can be fighting it out. Inside this simulation, for the RAF Typhoon pilots, this taxing mission may be virtual, but the sweat is real.
Enter ‘White Force’
As ABTC's White Force, civilian SMEs work closely with military personnel and other contractors. (Inzpire/Garry Ridsdale)
The people behind this devilish scenario, designed to provide high-quality collective training to hone the edge of air combat (along with navy and army) professionals are, interestingly, civilians from UK defence company Inzpire. These experienced ex-military contractors, along with a handful of RAF personnel with Boeing, QinetiQ and Plexsys, make up the ‘Whole Force’ at the Air Battlespace Training Centre (ABTC) at RAF Waddington. While it is QinetiQ that is prime contractor for the simulation hardware at ABTC – it is Inzpire, as the majority ‘White Force’, who are mission designers, referees and adversary tacticians; they provide the deep core of hard-worn operational experience that makes this ‘virtual Red Flag’ so realistic for the trainees. Says Inzpire Chief Executive Hugh Griffiths FRAeS: “As part of the ABTC synthetic environment ‘White Force’, what Inzpire provides is the training. We design the exercises. We create the air tasking orders. We brief the exercises. We run mission control. We debrief the exercises, working with our military counterparts. The training is all Inzpire and military people.”
Indeed, some measure of Inzpire’s critical function in keeping abreast of the latest in operational scenarios was that in a recent Red Flag, the RAF gave up a valued personnel slot at a classified fifth-generation debriefing to a subject matter expert from Inzpire.
The Air Battlespace Training Centre
ABTC includes the JTAC/Joint Fires simulators to recreate outposts in theatre. (QinetiQ)
The ABTC at RAF Waddington features four Tornado GR4 and four Typhoon dome simulators – all fixed-base and using touch-screen panels in the place of real instruments (pilots are here to learn advanced tactics, not switchology or how to fly the aircraft itself). The ABTC also has a rear crew E-3D AWACS simulator, a Joint Fires Planning Cell and three forward observer/JTAC posts, which replicate Royal Artillery outposts in theatre – with a giant screen on one wall putting them ‘in’ the scenario. The facility also includes exercise control and a briefing/debriefing theatre. Most important of all, perhaps, is the simulators at ABTC can be networked with others in the UK (including RN Type 45 control centre simulator and Sea King ASaC) and with allies, such as the US and Canada.
For UK F-35B pilots, synthetic environments like the ABTC will be vital for training – not just in saving money and fuel but in allowing pilots to unleash the stealth fighter’s classified capabilities in a highly secure electronic playground."
This sophisticated synthetic training facility at RAF Waddington dates from 2005 as a capability concept demonstrator to investigate simulated air combat training. However, from 2008 it became a vital part of pre-deployment training for British Army units rotating into Afghanistan to practice and hone their air-land integration. The Army, in particular, had spotted the potential of ultra-realistic synthetic training, at a lower cost than live exercises, to prepare its JTACs and artillery co-ordinators for Afghanistan. The unique networked set-up at ABTC allows JTACs and forward observers to practice calling in air strikes, deconflicting artillery and mortars and integrate UAVs, attack helicopters and fast jets in a highly realistic virtual environment before they set foot in theatre. To date, some 9,000 soldiers have passed through the centre. The ABTC also includes 3D after-action reviews, (complete with recorded comms) which enable battles to be debriefed in fine detail – just like aerial ‘Red Flag’ training. The result of this air-land synthetic training has been priceless. Indeed, Inzpire notes feedback from one ABTC graduate who rang from theatre: “You won’t believe the day I’ve had – it was just like Day 4 of ‘Mountain Dragon’” the toughest set-piece of the pre-deployment virtual training exercise.
Roughly half of ABTC’s 38-week annual collective training is for the Army, with the other half being for the RAF and other services with a more air combat focus. Exercises include Virtual Fury (RAF Typhoons with RN elements) and Red Kite (US/UK bi-lateral exercises). All told, around 25-30 human participants can be getting high-quality tactical training at once during these exercises.
The ABTC has a limited number of terrain databases, which reflect recent operations and Red Flag work-up training but this doesn’t limit the potential for looking forwards. Since 2014 the changed geopolitical climate, with the annexation of Crimea and complex operations over Syria, has seen the ABTC scenarios evolve from COIN operations to focus on contingency operations, using peer-level enemies with the latest equipment and integrating fifth-generation assets. As noted above, the reading in of Inzpire experts to the latest tactics and operational lessons means that the ABTC will remain on the cutting edge of providing adversary threats to challenge and teach UK forces warfighting skills.
Typhoon simulators will be relocated back to squadrons under DSALT2. (RAF)
Now under the MoD’s Distributed Synthetic Air Land Training (DSALT) programme heading, the future of the ABTC (under a follow-on DSALT 2), will highlight the ‘D’ in distributed – with the intention that, by 2020, the ‘targeted fidelity’ sims will be relocated back into their units. Allowing Typhoon pilots to ‘log-in’ and fly from RAF Coningsby, for example, will save on travel costs and also allow pilots to use the sims outside of the formal ABTC exercises. While the RAF will have lost Tornado by 2020, ABTC (or its successor) will gain new simulators to plug into exercises with RAF/RN F-35Bs. For UK F-35B pilots, synthetic environments like the ABTC will be vital for training – not just in saving money and fuel but in allowing pilots to unleash the stealth fighter’s classified capabilities in a highly secure electronic playground.
Inzpire recruit highly experienced ex-military weapons instructors and specialists. (Inzpire/Garry Ridsdale)
So who are Inzpire, who have seemingly come out of nowhere to become a key player in the UK's defence industry sector? First founded in 2005, Inzpire is a small privately-held company focused on defence aviation and with a profoundly military ethos. Started by three people with £300 of capital it now turns over around £12m and has succeeded in winning defence contracts against primes many times bigger than itself. Says CE Hugh Griffiths, an ex-QWI and Electronic Warfare Instructor on the Tornado F3 and who previously led the RAF analysis team at the Defence Science and Technical Laboratory (DSTL): “Inzpire’s Vision is to become the most admired and trusted defence company in the world.” Although it only employs 106 people, Inzpire boasts that its mainly ex-service personnel have around 100,000hrs of aviation experience. Its ex-military aviators include ex-QFIs and QWIs, Apache pilots, Typhoon instructors and fighter pilots with exchange tours on F-18 Hornets and F-35 programme experience. Says Griffiths: “We have around 2,000 years’ military experience, and about 1,000 years flying tour experience. Within 106 people that is pretty amazing. Our experience covers rotary, fixed-wing and also 'fifth gen', so we currently have five pilots who have previously been fully embedded into the F-35 programme.” The result of this, where the target has been mission success, integrity and customer focus has seen Inzpire make the ‘Sunday Times Top 100 Small Companies to work for’ three years in a row. As one Inzpire pilot enthused: “I wanted to join a company I believe in.”
Privately owned, the company is also unusual in that profits are not the overriding force that drives decisions. It is no wonder then, that the company is now receiving numerous CVs a year from military pilots around the globe wanting to join what might well be described as ‘an elite 617 Sqn gone private’.
Inzpire's ‘mission planning and situational awareness tablet on steroids’ GECO is in service with the RAF Puma force. (Inzpire/Garry Ridsdale)
This deep knowledge and combat-experience has already allowed Inzpire to branch into new areas – including mission systems, for which the company has won a number of accolades including the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation in 2014. In 2010, it began to supply GECO – a mission planning, briefing, and moving map system to UK forces in Afghanistan. Developed entirely in-house and, not surprisingly, designed by pilots for pilots, supported by a top engineering team, GECO runs on a Panasonic Toughbook to provide an enhanced situational awareness and mission planning tool for pilots as a low-cost ‘avionics upgrade’ for any aircraft – even advanced glass-cockpit types such as Typhoon or Apache. The tablet device features checklists, weight and balance apps, a moving map (with various layers including satellite imagery) and, can also insert SAM umbrellas or threat zones. The map display can also be seen in a 3D ‘flythrough’ view, allowing easy comprehension of terrain and, along with obstacles such as wires and power lines. Importantly for mission planning, it is also able to be synced with a desktop version – allowing all pilots to see, adjust and modify the plan before the mission starts. In service now with Joint Helicopter Command and the RAF Puma force, GECO is also being used by Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16 and helicopter pilots.
Inzpire provides Apache conversion training for the Army Air Corps. (Inzpire/Garry Ridsdale)
If the GECO mission planning tablet from a tiny unknown UK company caused raised eyebrows in some quarters of the UK's military-industrial sector – Inzpire winning key contracts to provide AH-64 Apache conversion training to the Army Air Corps in 2012 may have made some monocles fall out in shock. Notes Griffiths: “We won this contract five years ago which we were amazed at because at the time we were 35 people.” In late 2016, this contract was renewed with Inzpire, now to provide two extra Apache instructors, as well as provide three instructors for conversion to type training for the AW149 Wildcat for the Army – a key training role on the Army's newest helicopter.
However, it is important to note for Inzpire that ethics comes first in recruiting highly-experienced military pilots – poaching is not on their radar. “Our first question to anyone wanting to join us is ‘are you still serving?’” says Griffiths, “If they say yes, then we say ‘thanks but talk to us when you are out’.”
Going live? Inzpire is now teamed with tactical training ‘Red Air’ contractor Discovery Air to bid for the UK's ASDOT requirement. (Inzpire)
As well as managed services (ABTC) mission systems (GECO), helicopter training for the AAC and other contracts (the company provides CRM training for RAF pilots and mission data for RAF Typhoons) Inzpire is also primed for growth in other areas. In 2016 at the Farnborough Air Show it signed an agreement with Thales with the intent to co-operate on synthetic training opportunities. Here, Thales would supply the hardware in the form of ‘targeted fidelity’ simulators able to make up a mini-ABTC, while Inzpire would contribute the core knowledge and softer training skills. Three or four potential customers are reported to be interested in this capability.
Inzpire is also set to make the leap into operating fast jets itself as a private ‘aggressor’ company should its partnership with Canada's tactical training providers Discovery Air prove successful for the UK MoD’s upcoming Air Support Defensive Operational Training (ASDOT) requirement. ASDOT will cover existing live ‘adversary’ training for the RAF, Army and RN, including Red Air, EW and fleet support, with industry currently expected to supply around 5,000-6,000 hours of annual training. ASDOT envisages contractors providing aircraft to training that span multiple levels from ‘low slow, type threats’ to fourth gen (supersonic, agile with EW) that will challenge F-35 and Typhoon. With Discovery Air’s FJ fleet consisting of A-4N Skyhawks and Alpha Jets, Inzpire is cagey about what a fourth-gen aggressor would be, simply stating: “There are not many fourth-gen platforms out there on the market.”
While Inzpire's focus is very much on military aviation, another interesting future niche that Inzpire is developing is cybersecurity – but for distributed military simulators. Securing critical data swapped between simulators is an unappreciated vulnerability and one that will become increasingly important in the future. While some synthetic environments may use generic, rather than actual, missile or weapon ranges and feature multiple levels of classification (depending on which allies of friendly nations are ‘playing’) – an adversary simply watching a rival’s exercise in a simulated Red Flag may learn much tactically.
Outside of war, the F-35 will only be fully unleashed within classified simulations. (Lockheed Martin)
The RAF’s ABTC – in whatever form it evolves into (and whether Inzpire remains as its chosen ‘White Force’ contractor or not), is thus set to be even busier in the future. First, pressure on defence budgets will not go away– meaning simulation, synthetic environments (and outside contractors) will be in greater demand to make scarce resources go further. Second, is that the range of modern weapon systems, such as S-400 SAMs and Meteor BVRAAMs, means that pilots are now bumping up against the edges of even the US’s giant airspace training ranges. (A recent USMC report on the F-35B at Red Flag, for example, noted that pilots were constrained by airspace restrictions). There is also the up-coming F-35 – the UK's first stealth fighter and the full capabilities of which, outside actual war, might only be revealed in top-level classified simulated battles of the kind in which ABTC specialise.
The ABTC’s ‘Whole Force’ partner Inzpire, is also primed for further growth as its reputation spreads and it aims beyond the UK defence market. Yet as the company grows, it will face new challenges. No longer the underdog, it is now firmly on competitors’ radar. And as it looks to expand internationally, a key challenge will be how it will retain its uniquely British military ethos in a global market. Says Griffiths: “The key thing for us, that distinguishes us from virtually all our competitors, is the military ethos. The company runs with a very military ethos. It is basically the military in civilian clothing but with a business focus.” Finally, there is a nagging sense of frustration that under MoD rules for businesses the size of Inzpire, the contracts it has been given so far are fairly short and not in keeping with Inzpire’s long-term vision and commitment.
Through Inzpire, the UK MoD still has access to a source of highly experienced military aviators. Says Griffiths: “These people, if they weren’t with us, they’d be lost to the UK military. The skills would be gone. What we’re doing is that we’re getting people who left the military of their own free will, because they've gotten to the end of their time, and offering them back into military service as part of the Whole Force. We think that’s an invaluable service, because it’s stopping this drain of expertise, and the military’s paying no more for it than when they were in.”
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