Winning: Simulated Success

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September 18, 2020: In August 2020 the U.S. Air Force opened a 5,500 square meter (60,000 square feet) VTTC (Virtual Test and Training Center) at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada. Nellis is the home of the Red Flag operation, where American pilots operate F-16s as enemy pilots would in various foreign fighters. The F-16s are repainted for this and carry electronic equipment that provides the kind of electronic signals enemy aircraft use. Red Flag training has been going on since the 1970s, following the example of the earlier navy Top Gun program, and has proved its worth in preparing pilots for a foe that flies and fights differently. Israel has a similar Blue Flag program and China has also developed a similar program.

As useful as Red Flag and Top Gun are, this sort of thing is expensive. It costs over $10,000 an hour to fly a jet fighter in training. As China and Russia put more airborne EW (Electronic Warfare) gear into service and develop more capable ground-based air defense systems it become much more expensive to provide affordable and realistic opfor (opposing force) training for pilots. That’s where the VTTC comes in. While the $38 million VTTC is ready to go, it isn’t going far until it is full of a dozen or more flight simulators that, together, cost far more than the VTTC building.

What made the VTTC possible is cheaper and more capable fighting simulators. Since 2000 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 and that larger nations can afford a lot of.

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. 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 well trained pilots. That would include Israelis, Americans and most Western air forces, a category that includes Asians nations like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. The new generation of simulators cost 10-20 percent what the aircraft they simulate go for. Suddenly, countries like China are developing and buying many of these simulators and giving their pilots enough realistic training to make them a threat in the air, especially to Western pilots.

The VTTC was created to take advantage of the cheaper flight simulators to make possible large-scale combat operations using F-15E, F-22 and F-35 fighters along with airborne support aircraft against equally large Chinese forces. Not only can the VTTC train a lot of pilots at once but allows examination of variations in known Chinese aerial tactics. VTTC exercises can also include pilots using simulators at other bases. Current Internet speeds and low-latency (delay) are the result of gamers and some commercial users demanding. Such network conditions mean wide area (international) networked simulators allow for simulating major air battles at an affordable price.

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. In the last decade they been working their way towards the same goals the VTTC has.

Using American aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training" began in the 1960s. The original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school was established in 1969, by the U.S. Navy, in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, 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 air force followed shortly with its Red Flag school.

Since the 1970s the two training programs have developed differently, and the entire concept of "dissimilar training" has changed. The navy kept Top Gun as a program to hone a fighter pilot's combat skills. The air force made their Red Flag program more elaborate, bringing in the many different types of aircraft involved in combat missions (especially electronic warfare).

After the Cold War ended in 1991 it became increasingly obvious that none of America's potential enemies was providing their fighter pilots with much training at all. In other words, the dissimilar training for U.S. fighter pilots was not as crucial as it had been during the Cold War. Actually, it had been noted that flying skills of Soviet pilots was declining in the 1980s, as economic problems in the USSR caused cuts in flying time. During that period American pilots were actually increasing their flying time. Moreover, U.S. flight simulators were getting better. American pilots were finding that even the commercial game-oriented combat flight simulators had some training value.

In the late 1990s, Top Gun and Red Flag were faced with large budgets cuts as part of post-Cold War “peace dividend”. In the last decade some of those cuts have been revoked and the programs remain, as does the memory of why they were set up in the first place. If we find that, say, China is continuing to improve its combat aviation, and gives its fighter pilots more flying time and their politicians maintain a bellicose attitude towards the U.S., there will be a need to increase American dissimilar training efforts like Top Gun and Red Flag. The ground and naval forces were also doing more dissimilar training, often using computerized foes but also with other ground units or ships accurately representing potential enemies. Other nations adopted these American practices. After 2010 China and Russia also developed "dissimilar training" programs. All this meant the U.S. Top Gun and Red Flag schools were being restored to their former prominence.

Because Israel has been at war or under imminent threat of attack since the late 1940s Israel has developed one of the best Red Flag operations outside the United States. The Chinese effort to create a Red Flag operation is based largely on the success the United States and Israel have had with it, and shows that they are serious about preparing their pilots to fight and defeat Taiwanese and American pilots. Dissimilar training is how that is done and for many nations Israel is the nearest place to get it.

 


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