As the U.S. Army retrains its forces to handle conventional war, what the military calls “near-peer” (against someone who has similar weapons and abilities) combat it is finding that computer simulators make it possible to retrain quickly and inexpensively. This is especially true with helicopters, which operate quite differently in near-peer combat than when fighting irregulars and Islamic terrorists. Pilots operate flight controls, sensors and weapons differently and relearning near-peer procedures is very expensive if you do it in the air. It’s also quite dangerous, since one of the things you have to practice is operating in near-peer mode at night, in bad weather or under attack (or all three at once). That’s nearly as scary and is over 90 percent cheaper when done on a simulator.
The primary American helicopter simulator is AVCATT (Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer). This is a mobile (two trailers) system that can emulate AH-64A/D 6.1/10, OH-58D, UH-60A/L and CH-47D. AVCATT comes with terrain databases for the U.S. Army NTC (Fort Irwin), Grafenwoehr-Hohenfels training area in Germany, Iraq, Fort Hood (Texas), Afghanistan and Korea. Multiple AVCATT’s can communicate with each other to allow multiple crews to train together. Since all the trainee data is captured electronically it’s possible to give very valuable and detailed after-action critiques.
AVCATT has been around since 2003 and that first version proved invaluable in converting crews from decades of near-peer combat training to handling less well armed and organized opponents. The original AVCATT cut the cost of pilot training some 80 percent by using the same electronic and display components found in PCs and video games. In addition to saving a lot of money, using off-the-shelf components makes is possible to create portable flight simulators. This is important for several reasons. For one thing, not every helicopter units follows the same training schedule, so it's a major advantage if the simulators could be easily moved from air base to air base. It's also important to get simulators to a war zone so pilots can practice battle tactics. There was also a special AH-64 flight simulator which used full fidelity (almost like the real thing) graphics.
The AVCATT, however, takes the off the shelf components, and mobility, trends a lot farther. Housed in two standard, 40 foot trailers, the system contains;
- Six Reconfigurable Manned Modules (simulated cockpits for pilot and copilot). These do not have the fidelity of older simulators, but are sufficient for experienced pilots to work out tactics in cooperation with other pilots, and against a realistic enemy. What makes these work in 2003 was the photo-realistic graphics then widely available from off-the-shelf PC video cards. Running at about $300 each, these cards provided the graphics power of graphics “systems" from the 1990s ago that cost about a million dollars each.
- A Battle Master Control (BMC) Station. This is the officer who runs the training exercise. He, or she, must be cruel, but fair.
- A Semi-Automated Forces (SAF) Operator. The bad guys are played by software generated aircraft and ground units. But as the name SAF implies, a human operator can intercede to avoid the silliness that software generated NPCs (Non-Player Characters) are often guilty of if left to their own devices.
- Four Role Player Stations are four people who will provide realistic spoken communications over the radio. Eventually these will be replaced by software, but at the moment it's more reliable to use people.
- Eight Tactical Operations Center (TOC) Stations. Similar to the Role Player Stations, but the TOC people usually assume the same role (unit commander, air controller, Etc.) for the entire exercise.
- An After Action Review (AAR) Station. This is a miniature theater that takes up nearly half of one trailer. It seats 20 and has large displays and a sound system on one end. The beauty of this set up is that, right after the exercise, the trainees and some of the staff can go to the "AAR Station" and see instant replay, with appropriate commentary, of what they did right, or wrong.
The first AVCATT cost about three million dollars for each two trailer set and since then have gotten more expensive but a lot more powerful. For example the current model uses helmet mounted displays so wherever the trainee looks they see what they would see in an actual helicopter. AVCATT was also built to plug and play with other army combat simulators, taking networked gaming to places civilian gamers can only dream about.
The U.S. Army had, during the 1990s largely abandoned milspec (military specifications) in purchasing electronics for use in their simulators. Since the 1990s, the army has taken full advantage of the growing power of PCs and, especially, PC graphics. Milspec components can take years to get approved. But in the last few decades, noting how civilian products are developed faster, and often are more reliable than milspec equivalents, and a lot cheaper, the Department of Defense has been more readily giving permission to develop equipment that does not contain milspec parts. The markedly lowered the cost of things like simulators, produced faster delivery times and greater portability and has made the non-milspec pretty much a standard in some areas of military equipment. And in other cases, troops are taking their laptops, PDAs and other off-the-shelf electronics to take care of business in the combat zone. This has been going on for decades, a sort of unauthorized field testing of new gear. Strictly forbidden of course, as using this unauthorized stuff could get someone killed. But so far, the non-milspec gadgets appear to have saved a lot more lives than they have endangered.