Warplanes: The GPS Edge In Training


November 24, 2007: Combat training for fighter pilots has gotten a lot cheaper because of GPS. Aircraft can now carry a pod, the size of a heat seeking missile, that contains a GPS locator, and other electronics, that record everything the aircraft does, and supplies appropriate signals for sensors to simulate various threats (enemy radars and the like) and weapons. After pilots have completed a practice bombing or air-combat mission, they can transfer the data from the pod to analysis software running on a PC (even a laptop), where they can replay their performance, and see where they screwed up, or could have done better. The same data is used for post-exercise analysis and critiques by unit commanders.

Since the early 1970s, before GPS, the U.S. has been using warplane training areas that were equipped with radio towers to collect information on where the participating aircraft were during the exercise, and what they were doing. These were the "Top Gun" (U.S. Navy) and "Red Flag" (U.S. Air Force) training systems. The facilities included "enemy" aircraft (often actual Russian fighters, but also U.S. aircraft flown in the same manner as Russian ones). The "enemy" (or "aggressor") pilots knew how to fight like various enemy pilots (usually Russian, during the Cold War). On the ground, there were mockups of Russian air defense systems, including transmitters putting out the same kinds of electronic signals the Russian gear would. But all of this is expensive. But the arrival of GPS enabled one to dispense with the radio towers, and put all the electronics on the aircraft, via a bomb size pod.

This "rangeless" training is not as realistic, particularly for operations against ground targets, as the specially built ranges. These have "enemy" airfields and air defense installations that look like what pilots would encounter in wartime. But with the GPS based gear, pilots fire "electronic" (simulated) missiles and drop similar smart bombs on these targets. But you can do the same thing with rangeless equipment, you just miss the realistic views of what's on the ground.

The GPS equipped pods brought the price of the rangeless systems down, and made it possible for any fighter squadron, no matter where it was stationed, to get realistic training. Basically, if you could afford the fuel to let your pilots fly at least a hundred hours a year, you could afford to use these training systems. So now, pilots who got a lot of hours in the air, were even more important, because those flight hours were being used much more effectively.




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