Could increased use of flight simulation training devices be one way to make an air force's hard-pressed defence budget go further?
Speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Annual Conference in April, the head of the Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton said he expects that in the next five to ten years that 50% of training will be undertaken in ‘synthetic environments’ – or flight simulations to you and me. [caption id="attachment_4123" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="An example of a latest gen simulator for the NH90 helicopter. (CAE) "][/caption] Flight simulation has come a long way – from the early days of Link trainers, to the latest hi-tech dome display simulators that can connect to other simulators around the globe providing pilots and crews with an immersive digital battlespace. Furthermore, the video games and computer industry has now leapt ahead massively – allowing military and civil flight training developers to piggyback with low-cost graphics solutions that 20 years ago would have been unthinkable.

So what is driving this?

Expense, as highlighted by ACM Dalton, is one aspect.  Already the concept of zero flight time training simulator rating has been embraced by the airline sector. No airline these days can keep an additional ‘training’ fleet active just for new pilots to learn on.  Some experts predict that increased use of synthetic training could save air forces as much as 70% in costs. And with the UK looking at a £38bn black hole in its defence budget, radical solutions are now on the table. [caption id="attachment_4125" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="DCS A-10C - an adapted consumer version of a military destop training system."][/caption] The acceptance of zero-time rated pilots has been brought about by increased fidelity in flight simulation, with faster computers, producing better and higher fidelity flight modelling, along with ever more realistic graphics and motion systems. This has driven down the costs – and thus there has been a convergence in the middle between high-end consumer ‘games’ (such as X-Plane, ARMA 2/VBS2, Steel Beasts and DCS A-10C) and low-cost ‘professional’ simulation training devices. The latest generation of aircraft, too, incorporating digital systems and fly-by-wire are ideal for converting to simulation - with some software able to be reused directly in the sim. In the past a pilot would only encounter the sim once the aircraft has been in service - now however it can perpare pilots and instructors ahead of schedule - saving time and expense. Indeed, with fly-by-wire the most difficult part of the pilot’s task today is not ‘flying’ the aircraft but in managing its systems. Automation and fly-by-wire have thus removed some of the need for traditional stick and rudder skills – a topic that is highly controversial as we shall see below. The new breed of pilots, too, from the X-box generation, reared on PCs, game consoles and iPads are now inclined to accept (and even demand) highly realistic simulations and synthetic environments to learn in. [caption id="attachment_4126" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Typhoon training device at RAF Waddington - the UK's centre for DMS. (MoD)."][/caption] As well as the expense of avgas and wear and tear, simulations can also save time. Multiplayer (or in the military jargon Distributed Mission Simulation) means that virtual Red Flags can be flown with pilots and crews connecting all over the world at minimal cost - enabling realistic joint and coalition training. These exercises in the real world would either be hugely expensive to run, time consuming to arrange and most probably impractical due to actual availability of real aircraft. In the sim, however, new tactics can be tried and new potential threat aircraft or SAMs can be flown against – something impossible in the real world. [caption id="attachment_4127" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Want to see what happens if J-20s enter a dogfight? Simulation is the place to test tactics. (Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations)"][/caption] There is also another attractive benefit of simulation for western airforces – especially those in Europe. Limited airspace and restrictions on noise and flying means that since the end of the Cold War it has become increasingly difficult for air forces to train as they would really wish. The growth of air travel and low-cost carriers means that today even dedicated military flying areas are under pressure to allow civilian traffic to use them when not in use. [caption id="attachment_4128" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="HUD repeater of an Aermacchi M311 synthetic training system showing an A-A engagement."][/caption] The simulation need not be on the ground either. The latest trainers such as the BAE Systems Hawk AJT, Aermacchi M346 Master and others incorporate 'embedded' virtual radar and weapon systems to simulate air-to-air or no-drop scoring. This allows students to train by engaging ‘virtual’ bandits, or using GPS to hone their bomb release skills – allowing multiple passes on a target range without having to fly back to base to rearm each time. [caption id="attachment_4129" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Predator UAV training sim. (L-3)"][/caption] Finally the rise of robotic warfare and the emergence of UAVs  (RPAVS Remotely Piloted Air Vehicles in RAF parlance) is now blurring the line between simulation and reality. Unlike a pilot an UAV autopilot does not suffer ‘skill fade’ if it does not fly for six months. And, sat in, cabin, peering at a sensor screen the similarities between this task and simulation are all too apparent. As more autonomous UAVs enter service these lines may even be more blurred. In some ways we may already be here – a recent DARPA initiative saw a submarine tactics simulator released to the public – its aim was to ‘crowdsource’ underwater tactics that could be used in a future robot sub. Yet there remain challenges.


[caption id="attachment_4130" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Nice desk - but will it inspire future generations to join the air force?"][/caption] Firstly, there is culture. Although this has changed with the rise of a computer literate generation, the main attraction to become a pilot is to actually fly. Best summed up in the F-16 band Dos Gringos song “Predator Eulogy” this attitude is slowly changing – but still remains in some quarters. As UAVs become more numerous and real flying hours are reduced they will be jealously guarded and hoarded. The rise of a UAV career stream may offset that – but how could this affect recruitment if, for example, the only time you get in the real aircraft was if war broke out?


[caption id="attachment_4146" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Sweden's DFS (Dynamic Flight Simulator) combines a flight simulator with a certifuge - enabling high-G training. (FMV)"][/caption] There is also a concern in some quarters that increased fidelity, too, does not (and cannot) replace the real fear of death or injury that happens when something unexpected occurs in the cockpit. Some older veterans worry that recent accidents or near accidents may have been partly caused by a fixation on the glass cockpit or systems, rather than old school stick and rudder skills. For military pilots, who must practise unusual, aerobatic, low level and other manoeuvres close to the edge of the envelope, it is thus unknown how much virtual training can replace it. Fighter aircraft simulators, for example, have traditional eschewed motion as no legacy ground-based simulators could replicate the G-forces experienced by pilots. Already questions about low flying hours and safety are being asked – so how much could synthetic training really replace it? Will a new generation of centrifugal sims be needed to replicate high-G manoeuvres?


[caption id="attachment_4134" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="An Apache crew have have to monitor multiple radio frequencies in today's complex engagements. (Boeing)."][/caption] Another challenge is in communications and specifically ATC. Although simulators have had an instructor ‘playing’ the part of the tower or wingman for some time, the complex modern battlespace of multiple radios, numerous callsigns and civil and military traffic is currently not simulated. This is changing but requires one of two approaches – either humans to act as other ‘players’ or more promisingly a speech recognition and an AI routine. Interacting with say a AI tower to go through the start-up, and take-off communications might allow for more dynamic, free-form verbal communications with a human playing the role of a JTAC or AWACS – and simulating the kind of intense audio environment that might be heard in theatre. Again advances in consumer speech recognition software and AI means that this is now feasible.

Common databases

As distributed mission simulation becomes more common, so too become the problems of a common database set. Linking a AH-64D sim to a Typhoon simulator, for example, to allow joint mission rehearsal may throw up unexpected problems. For example, a small barn or fold in the ground on the AH-64 sim may be enough to hide the helicopter – yet on the Typhoon simulator, with the environment optimised for 40,000ft air battles, this barn may not even appear. And the more objects that are added – the more that a simulator has to deal with and which may throw up unexpected results, if the two (or multiple) databases are not aligned properly.


[caption id="attachment_4135" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Radar reflector on a F-22 allows it to conceal its true cross-section in international exercises"][/caption] Finally, one other issue may be the paradox that while DMS may enable easier and cheaper multinational synthetic training, air forces will want to protect or conceal their real capabilities as much as possible from prying eyes – especially in the field of radar ranges, weapon performance and electronic warfare capabilities. Real world exercises often mean that certain platforms do not show their true capabilities and may operate radars or sensors in degraded mode. Stealth aircraft too, such as the F-22 use radar reflectors in exercises or displays to conceal its true radar cross section. This sensitivity also extends to the virtual realm too. In fact one international synthetic exercise was called off due to one nation's concerns about its participation. But there are ways round this – generic AAMs can be used and fudged radar capabilities based on open-world sources. After all the purpose of the exercise is to develop, learn and hone common tactics and procedures, not to ‘game the game’ and argue that in the real world you would have triumphed because of magic radar mode 'X'.


[caption id="attachment_4136" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="A Flying Training Device (FTD) for Hawk TMK2 at RAF Valley. Note the COTS technology flat screen. (MoD)"][/caption] With militaries in Europe (along with the US) the increased use of synthetic environments to conduct  cost-effective training seems to offer one way to achieve large savings in fuel, practice munitions and aircraft flying hours. The increased fidelty of the latest simulations, the low cost of some training devices, and the opportunities for coalition and joint training through distributed mission simulation cannot be ignored. Yet the long-term result of this and the UAV revolution is still unclear. To obtain the full proceedings from the Annual Conference – contact the RAeS Events department here. To read a report on highlights from the Conference, see the June edition of Aerospace International. To learn more about new technology for flight simulation on 9 June the Royal Aeronautical Society will be holding its spring Flight Simulation Conference, For more details and a programme – click here

Tim Robinson
13 May 2011