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The Shift in Training: Defining the Challenge

Dr Robbin Laird 17 August 2021

Navy Topgun pilots walk from their aircraft after landing Wednesday, May 29, 1996 at Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nev. The Naval aviation top fighter school completed the move from Southern California with the arrival of these pilots and their flying machines. (AP Photo/Reno Gazette Journal, David B. Parker) (David B. Parker / Reno Gazette Journal)

This is the third article in our series on training and the strategic shift in warfighting and deterrence. In the first article, I focused on how to define the challenge of training for the high-end fight. In the second article, the focus was upon the skill sets which training needs to shape and reinforce for the high-end fight.

This article focuses on the evolution of airpower training over the past thirty years, and what changes are required in the legacy approaches to be able to train effectively for the high-end fight.

In the last article, I discussed the skill set challenge with Paul Averna of Cubic Mission and Performance Solutions. I continued the discussion with Averna, a veteran Navy pilot and training expert, about the nature of the legacy systems and associated training approaches and the challenges the potential of a Peer fight creates to providing the skill sets now needed.

Training still proceeds from the core importance of learning to operate your aircraft and to master the core skills required to operate your platform in demanding combat situations.

What is being added is that as the multi-mission capabilities of aircraft expand into multi-domain warfare, the aperture of training needs to expand.

And that aperture is wider than what a single or even cross-linked physical training ranges can provide.

Additionally, with the adversary’s capabilities to engage the blue side air combat force significantly beyond visual range, accurately replicating those threats is becoming increasingly difficult on training ranges as well.

As the blue side works its own capabilities to fight via kill webs, a wide range of the capabilities being shaped, trained, and forged need to be done so in ways that the red side will not get significant information and knowledge about how the blue side wishes to evolve its cross-domain warfighting capabilities.

As a Weapons School instructor during his time flying the F-14 in the Navy at NAS Fallon, and later at MCAS Yuma as a MAWTS-1 instructor, Averna noted that Top Gun was set up initially to close a performance gap uncovered in the Vietnam War.

“When we got to the Vietnam War, we saw a very uneven level of competency from one squadron to another, and we saw some individual aircrew that were extremely successful at the complex environment the Vietnam air battle presented, including the introduction of technology like radar guided missiles and integrated Surface to Air Missile systems.

“With the reliance on Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapons and tactics, highly perishable Basic Fighter Maneuvering (BFM) skills atrophied and aircrew were making too many mistakes in maneuvering against more nimble opponents. And as a result, the kill ratio went down dramatically. This led to the formation of Top Gun, to deal with the challenge of the inconsistent proficiency in the fleet aircrews.

“The focus was upon training the trainer. Select individuals who are very competent in their aircraft, but also have the ability to teach, to help their fellow squadron mates learn how to perform in a building block manner to the point where they can go out and be an effective instrument of national policy when it came to the counter air fight.

“And to complement the new focused Air-to-Air training curriculum, new tools were fielded like the Cubic air combat maneuver instrumentation system, or ACMI system.

“And why was that important? You needed to understand where everybody was in time and space to be able to reconstruct what happened. We each have a different mental image of what we did in a particular environment because we’re looking through the heads-up display through the canopy bow out over the nose of the airplane.

“And to the extent that I can turn my head around that perception is good probably up to about 10 miles with a limited number of participants.

“But if I have to keep track of multiple players that are well beyond visual range doing interesting things that I can’t directly see, I have a much more difficult time reconstructing what happened. And it’s in that, the accuracy of what happened that helps us develop the correct learning points out of that flying event.

“And that’s the way that we have trained pilots predominantly from the 70s into the 80s and into the 90s, and that is based on understanding the building blocks that it takes to be able to deliver the right effect for particular missions.

“For example, in an air-to-air syllabus, one would start out with basic fighter maneuvering, learning how to maneuver and max perform my airplane.

“Then one would look at how to max perform my airplane versus an opponent’s airplane.

“Then one would start working in sections and learning how to employ as a section, and then as a division against a limited number and then a larger number to an unknown number of potential adversaries.

“We were focusing on the skill sets to work the mission against a relatively unsophisticated threat or a near peer threat, but certainly not one that was capable of meeting us in terms of quality and density of a fight.”

What Averna described as the training focus was occurring on a physical range, with adversary aircraft or aggressors flying physically against the blue side.

With the impact of both what the blue and red side can operate now, physical ranges are a necessary but not sufficient capability, and the red side is not well represented by flying aircraft like F-5s.

Averna put his assessment this way: “We face a physical range constraint problem, but there’s also the challenge of using weapons that we want to use. We don’t really want people to know what we’re doing with our weapons nor seeing what our tactics are so that we maintain an element of surprise if we need to operate in combat.

“And we have another limitation to our ability today to train well. Even if I was able to find a current contemporary threat system that I might face in a peer fight, I’m not finding it at the local hardware store or the local department store. I’m going to have to acquire it through some means, I might have to decompose it and make sure that I understand all the operating modes on it so that I can present its affects correctly to the aircrew or the team. And that we are interacting the right way in order to defeat it.

“We don’t have that luxury of acquiring those things, they’re extremely expensive, very rare when we do get our hands on something like that. So very few people are actually able to work with it.”

Expand beyond visual physical ranges are difficult and expensive.

Managing training space, ensuring the right kind of training, and getting adequate training time poses the question of resource allocation.

How does the DoD and its Collation partners drive down cost and expand capabilities to train effectively?

One way to do so is the arrival of synthetic training systems, which can target training time to the skill set levels of individual pilots. The arrival of adaptive training systems allows for calibration of the training time needed for individual pilots.

Averna explained this capability as follows: “Let’s say that Pilot A is extremely good at low-level flying, and he doesn’t need to spend all that much time in doing a lot to train for this skill. Pilot B on the other hand has problems with speed rush baseline and needs more time for the low altitude training environment.

“Yet the way that we designed the syllabus is that both get the same amount of flying before they get the proficiency check. Where we are going is a recognition that people learn at different rates and people retain skills at different rates.

“By moving to an adaptive training environment, we can target the skill sets which those two different pilots have and can tailor training times to generate the required proficiencies.”

In other words, it is about making training more targeted and more effective.

We then discussed the multi-mission challenge for training.

Earlier, aircraft were more narrowly focused on mission sets than the new aircraft. Those legacy aircraft would be used for single or a smaller set of missions than later aircraft which are multi-mission focused. The Super Hornet entered the force as a multi-mission aircraft, but the challenge has been to train pilots to be able to switch missions using legacy capabilities.

With the F-35’s new sensor packages, data fusion and 360-degree situational awareness expands the pilot’s capability to operate in a multi-domain environment.

But how to adjust training to be able to maximize this skill set?

These new capabilities impact many facets of the mission, from the way we mission plan, brief, execute, and debrief. Just take a moment to consider a concept such as mutual support between a flight lead and their wingman.

This is how Averna highlighted this change: “We’ve actually started to think differently about concepts like mutual support. If you ask somebody in the early 1990s what’s the definition of mutual support, they’d probably say something along the lines of a mile to a mile and a half and 2000 feet of step up or step down. And that was visual mutual support. You’re not in the same plane but you’re close enough that you could check your lead or your wingman’s tail to make sure there was nobody coming up behind them. That was an integral part of your visual scan of the airspace around you.

“Now with F-35 or F-22, mutual support is several miles plus, and the pilots will not see each other’s planes visually. If we can appropriately identify the objects and the space in front of us, and we have the ROE to engage, we’re going to take those shots well beyond visual range.

“And that’s where the main training problem exists. We don’t expect to ever get into the kind of dogfights we saw in Vietnam. It’s now much more about targeting, shorting, getting the off-board queuing, processing that and figuring out how to stay low observable, and yet maintain that dynamic sanctuary we talked about the last time. It is about training to different mindset and problem set.”

We closed by discussing the coming of Live Virtual Construction (LVC) systems to the training effort.

As Averna put it: “When you’re dealing with a peer threat and you’re dealing with national system capabilities, how many operators are actually aware of those capabilities and how to aggregate those in a rapid manner to fight at the speed of a network?

“The national means such as space-based assets provide information held at high levels of security and, is this information going to be available or not? Are they going to be applied sequentially or not? How I’m going to be able to create the dynamic sanctuary, deliver an effect, assess, and as the sanctuary window closes, because the threats reacting that I can reposition securely and confidently? How do I train to do this?

“Exposure to this level of training is not going to occur on the range but will be put together in a synthetic environment or provided through LVC systems. The LVC environment is the only place that you’re going to be able to train in that environment approximating the physiological and psychological effects in the real world. Because you will not be able to replicate that all live until actual combat starts on night one.”

This situation was projected in a 2015 interview we did with the head of N-9 at the time, Rear Admiral Manazir.

The ability to share information between decision-makers and staffs that are not all geographically located, is getting better and better. This allows not only dynamic combat learning but provides greater fidelity to the training process as air wings prepare to deploy.

In the past, we only sent text reports. Now we are sending full motion video. The EA-18G Growler can send actual data back to the warfighting center and say: “We have not seen this signal before, what is it?”

And then the labs can run it through their data libraries and work the problem to ID the signal and send their findings back to the deployed fleet. The F-35s coming to the fleet will add significantly to this process. It is about rapid combat learning in a dynamic warfighting environment. We are shaping the foundation for “learning airplanes” to engage the enemy.

LVC will enable us to train in a more robust environment than we are on our current ranges that are geographically constrained, and currently do not have the full high-end threat replicated. LVC will allow us to train to the full capabilities of our platforms across a variety of security environments and do so without exposing our training process to an interested adversary.

Featured Photo: Navy Topgun pilots walk from their aircraft after landing Wednesday, May 29, 1996 at Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nev. The Naval aviation top fighter school completed the move from Southern California with the arrival of these pilots and their flying machines. (AP Photo/Reno Gazette Journal, David B. Parker) (David B. Parker / Reno Gazette Journal)

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