Support: China Simulates As Well As Anyone

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May 18, 2012:  In the last decade China has introduced a growing number of flight simulators for its combat pilots. While some were bought from Russia, China has managed to rapidly acquire the technology and expertise to design and manufacture its own. Given the amount of Western technical data stolen by Chinese hackers in the last decade, China is believed to have made this rapid progress partly due to stolen technology. China has also been a major customer for Western commercial aircraft simulators, which use a lot of the same technology found in military sims. That said, China has a lot of talented programmers and engineers, which is key to building modern military flight sims and reverse-engineering any Western tech they have access to.

Since 2002, Chinese military pilots have spent over 15,000 hours in Chinese built simulators. The new simulators are particularly useful to train pilots for the high-performance Su-27s and Su-30s. A big money saver here is the ability to practice firing missiles in the simulators. This saves a lot by not having pilots do it with actual missiles. In the past, pilots rarely fired an air-to-air missile until their first time in combat. It was simply too expensive for the low-budget Chinese air force.

China now has about a hundred of these simulators, although many are crude by Western standards. That is, they are, for the most part, not full motion simulators (with electrical motors realistically moving the cockpit around and a dome over the replica cockpit, showing other aircraft and the terrain below). China already has many of these high-end models for commercial aircraft. But these can also provide training for pilots of military transports. Simulator training for military pilots was seen as critical for the future success of Chinese warplanes. Now the Chinese are building full-motion military simulators that match Western models in every way.

The biggest threat to American air superiority is not Russia selling high performance combat aircraft to countries like China but the development of really inexpensive flight simulators. Over the last decade computers have become a lot cheaper and the graphics capability of these machines has skyrocketed. That's important in bringing the cost of realistic flight simulators down to a level that any country can afford.

Until the late 1990s, a realistic combat flight simulator cost about as much as the aircraft it was simulating. While that did reduce the cost (per "flying" hour) of pilots practicing, it was not enough of a savings to make it practical for less wealthy countries to get these simulators and use them heavily. Thus there was a continuation of the situation where countries could scrape together enough money to buy high performance aircraft but not have enough to pay for all that flight time needed to make their pilots good enough to face the Americans. The new generation of simulators cost up to a tenth of the price of the aircraft they simulate. Suddenly, countries like China can (and is) buy many of these simulators and give their pilots enough realistic training to make them a threat in the air (at least to Western pilots).

Each of these simulators can be run about 6,000 hours a year. While a hundred hours a year in a simulator isn't a complete replacement for actual air time, it's close enough if the training scenarios are well thought out. And another 40-50 hours of actual air time gives you a competent pilot. Add another few hundred hours using commercial (game store bought) flight simulators (especially when played in groups via a LAN) and you have some deadly pilots. The Chinese have, since the 1990s, stressed the use of PCs as a foundation for cheaper and more powerful simulators. Now they have an opportunity to really cash in on this insight.

 


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