The Future of Flight: VR Fighter Pilot Training

f-35sThe latest breeds of military aircraft are naturally smarter, faster, and more stealthy than their predecessors. Known as Fifth Generation craft, they are designed to incorporate numerous technological advances – like Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR), supersonically launched guided missiles, a wealth of sensors, highly-integrated computer systems that provide full situational awareness, and automated targeting.

The problem is, these planes are too powerful to be trusted to the untrained. This creates a paradoxical situation where  recruits have to learn how to fly them before they can be allowed to fly them. This is especially so during Red Flag training, where pilots take part in advanced aerial combat exercises intended to prepare roughly 27,000 pilots and engineers for warfare every year.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye memorial service in HawaiiThe solution, according to General Mike Hostage, is to train pilots in virtual reality in every facet of fifth generation fighter jet technology. It’s what is known as “Live Virtual Constructive” (LVC) training, which the military is increasingly turning to because it is a major cost saver.  Every branch is feeling the financial squeeze, and simulated training is a popular idea since it cuts down on the time it takes to get a pilot airborne and the cost of launching a jet.

As Hostage explained during an Air Force Association speech back in July:

The fifth generation brought us capabilities and lethalities that are straining my abilities at Red Flag to produce that same realistic combat environment. I can’t turn on every bell and whistle on my new fifth-generation platforms because a) they’re too destructive, and b) I don’t want the bad guys to know what I’m able to do… I will still do Red Flags, I will still do live training in live platform. But the place where I will be able to take the gloves off, the place where I can turn on all the bells and whistles and get full capability is going to be in the virtual constructive arena.

AFAMSIn addition to the cost-saving benefits, the US Air Force has embraces the technology thanks in no small part to the new head of the Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation (AFAMS), where much of the research into virtual reality training is being done. Colonel Franz Plescha, who was instituted as the agency’s new commander back in July, is a committed futurist who believes there is great potential in warfighting simulation technology.

A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy in 1987, Plescha’s most recent assignment (from July 2010 to June 2013) was as the Commander of the Warrior Preparation Center of the Einsiedlerhof Air Station in Germany. Here, he became intimately familiar with the kind of software and simulations that are designed to help commanders simulate the conduct of combat operations without ever having to put lives in danger.

F-22A_Raptor_-03-4058As he made clear, upon taking the helm at AFAMS, he refuses to waste any time on making the integration happen:

I personally believe the differences between live and simulation will continue to blur. Live or simulation? What’s the difference? What we call simulation today will become so real, it may actually influence our enemies in the future. Just imagine how that could change combat in the future.

But of course, one has to wonder if this vision is not already here, since digitally-assisted situational awareness, unmanned drones and cyber warfare are already present in militaries the world over. And as all other aspects of combat training become increasingly digitized, the distinction between simulation and warfare are themselves likely to become increasingly blurred.


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