Leadership: China Uses Tech To Fix Crippling Tradition


October 11, 2016: Since the late 1990s the Chinese have been trying to develop the kind of skilled and adaptive combat pilots Western air forces have had since World War II. This has proved difficult because for decades Chinese pilots have been trained to use the Russian Cold War methods that require fighter pilots to depend more on orders from ground based commanders rather than using their own initiative. On top of that there is the Chinese (and east Asian) tradition of professional soldiers rigidly following orders and waiting for instructions if faced with a difficult situation. Despite all these difficulties reformers in the Chinese Air Force keep trying. But progress is slower than they like to admit.

Numerous new solutions have been tried. In 2011 the Chinese Air Force decided to try making some major changes in how it recruits pilots and trains them. The new procedures include psychological tests as well as the use of realistic flight simulators to see how candidates would react to a variety of flight situations. This appears to be borrowing from techniques Western air forces have long used, perhaps because Chinese commanders noted the strange (often reckless or careless) behavior of some of their pilots as well as the high failure rate of pilot trainees. All this was noted as China implemented new training methods in and after a few years and found that the kinds of men (and some women) they had previously recruited for pilot training were not adapting well to the changes.

One solution for that problem was introduced in 2014 when China introduced a recently developed ACMI (Air combat maneuvering instrumentation) system for training pilots. Development began in 2000 and two generations of ACMI pods were developed before there was one suitable for the fighter pilot training. The current Chinese ACMI system can track a hundred aircraft at once and record all their activities. The ACMI pods record information of individual aircraft and that provides a very complete record of who did what and when. This was essential to get the most out of using your own aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training". This involved trainees flying against Chinese pilots trained in the tactics used by potential foes, flying aircraft similar in capabilities of enemy warplanes. The ACMI system allowed for trainee pilots to get detailed descriptions of what they did right and wrong and how to fix their mistakes. This sort of thing not only creates better combat pilots but also identifies who the “naturals” (potential aces) are.

These dissimilar training innovations began in the 1969, when the U.S. Navy established the original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. This was done in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese flying Russian made fighters and using Russian tactics, with some Vietnamese innovations added. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated, thus the term "dissimilar training".

Before the 1969 innovations American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on-the-job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The U.S. Air Force followed shortly with its Red Flag school. In the early 1980s, the Russians established a dissimilar air combat school, and the Chinese followed in 1987.

The U.S. developed the ACMI pods in the 1970s, and they have undergone continuous improvement ever since. The pods collect and transmit to the ground ACMI station aircraft information, which includes speed, altitude, attitude, current G-forces, ascent/descent rate, turn rate, yaw rate, roll rate, engine power, missile cue, rocket cue, gun cue, bomb cue, and weapons release points. This last item allows the ACMI to calculate the range, trail, and heading of each weapon. In air combat this would mean simulated gunfire or use of air-air missiles. About the time the Chinese began developing their ACMI, the U.S. began developing methods to do away with the ACMI pod and use the internal data systems on the aircraft to do what the pods had been doing.




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