A synthetic solution?
17 July 2008
Simulation could provide the capability to fill the major training gaps facing the Armed Forces, but the live environment is an arena not easily emulated, says Wing Commander Mike Dobson.
Simulation fidelity has always been bound by technology, and in the early days, mainly restricted to the air environment. In the '80s, the best we could hope for was a cockpit that resembled the aircraft, the ability to undertake all normal switch actions and, if you were lucky, be equipped with a rudimentary visual system. The computers involved with running these simulations required large amounts of space, environmentally controlled rooms, and the actual simulators were mainly based on aircraft parts. The staff, who prided themselves on being the experts in the aircraft systems, ensured that the crews were always put to the test when they visited the facility; that said, this was only on the aircraft systems and not on how to operate the aircraft. With the advent of Commercial off-the-Shelf and PC technologies, significant computing power became readily available and so started the exponential increase in computing capability that shows no sign of abating. However, technology is useless unless it is correctly channelled to fulfil a genuine training need. We do not have the time or funding to provide something that we consider may be useful; the requirement must be carefully designed to fulfil a recognised training gap. This is the very real challenge of utilising COTS equipment, designed mostly for gaming applications in the simulation arena to provide genuine training value.
One of the most noticeable deficiencies in training is the lack of assets with which to train. In the Cold War era, there were very large Armed Forces dedicated to training in the opposition of a clearly identified threat; they had no other task and therefore, national and international assets were a phone call away. Today, the Armed Forces have been rationalised and formed into sophisticated fighting units designed to provide a reactive and expeditionary force capable of being deployed at exceptionally short notice anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the majority of units are either deployed, training for deployment, or recuperating having returned from operations. The tempo of operations has severely reduced the number of pure training opportunities available, due mainly to the lack of assets and manpower. The second most noticeable gap is the lack of areas where training can take place and, with the advent of modern weapon systems, dedicated ranges where these weapons can be employed.
Just taking these headlines, how can modern advanced simulation provide an arena to assist in the training of today's Armed Forces? The Land component have developed the Combined Arms Tactics Trainer, which provides high quality training to Brigade level. In the Naval domain, the Maritime Composite Training System is expected to provide high quality collective training for ops room personnel. However, it was never envisaged that these systems would have a requirement to interact with each other and therefore, interoperability and security considerations were not part of the original specification. The way that our Armed Forces are so inextricably linked in modern day warfare, it is essential that we provide a synthetic environment where we can undertake collective training. It may seem that the Air component has not been very active in the synthetic environment's development; however, research (led by Dstl) into the use of networked simulators to provide operational collective training for front line aircrew has been going on since the late 1990s. This research initiative, now known as Mission Training through Distributed Simulation (MTDS), has been conducted via a series of trials and integrated analysis. In the early days (from 2000 to 2005), the trials were conducted on a purpose built Composite Air Operation testbed and, crucially, each trial involved front line aircrew and an expert Exercise Management Team (White Force) from the Air Warfare Centre Tactics and Training division.
In 2001, the UK research team also began a collaborative programme of work to further the research into the potential of MTDS for coalition training. Known as Coalition Mission Training Research (CMTR), it has been undertaken under the auspices of a Project Agreement (PA) signed by the UK (Dstl), the United States (Air Force Research Laboratory, Mesa Arizona) and Canada (Defence Research Development Canada, Toronto), and has been a huge success. To bring it all into context, the definition of UK MTDS is: 'The use of the synthetic environment to deliver operational team and collective training for the Air component of the joint battlespace in the joint and combined training areas.'
In 2005, DEC(TA) funded the first Capability Concept Demonstrator programme to support UK MTDS: 'To de-risk the delivery of the UK MTDS programme by defining the UK MTDS user requirements.' The MTDS CCD programme took forward the previous Dstl research in order to better define the user requirement for the UK's future MTDS capability. Each exercise that has taken place at the Air Battlespace Training Centre (ABTC), RAF Waddington, has been designed to progress the UK MTDS concept of training, and provide greater exposure to the front line and other MOD stakeholders on the potential of MTDS for training Force Elements at Readiness (at both tactical and operational levels). This programme has been a true 'joint' programme, involving both the Land and Maritime components. In addition, it has continued to involve our primary coalition partners. Exercise Northern Goshawk was designed to enable UK war fighters to undertake realistic mission training within a complex distributed synthetic environment, using a secure network linking the ABTC, not only with AFRL and DRDC, but also with the Distributed Mission Operations Centre (DMOC), the hub for the US Distributed Mission Operations (DMO) and Virtual Flag exercises. This was an important step along the road to a persistent training capability with the USAF and also to expedite the alignment of UK MTDS with the DMO initiative. The ABTC has demonstrated a mix of capabilities, which include targeted fidelity Tornado GR4, Typhoon, AWACS, Fire Planning Cell and Forward Air Control simulators, but most importantly, a credible exercise management capability able to accommodate the requirements of the joint, combined and collective training audience. Previous trials have seen the achievement of a number of significant world firsts undertaken in the synthetic environment: Tornado GR4s buddy lasing for F16s; UK FACs and US Joint Tactical Air Controllers; undertaking multi-ship de-confliction during Close Air Support missions, and successfully lasing targets for GR4 crews in the ABTC and A10 pilots in Mesa Arizona simultaneously. Other significant world firsts include the UK connecting to the DMOC and the Distributed Mission Operating Network; utilising their F15, A10 and AWACS Mission Training Centers; and undertaking full mission training with our US coalition partners. The CCD exercise programme has now been successfully concluded and the resulting data is being analysed to further inform the future of synthetic training.
Turning to the future and what simulation can do to ameliorate the current challenges in providing a significantly enhanced training arena for our Armed Forces, the technology continues to develop, and as both the early research trials and the UK MTDS CCD has demonstrated, MTDS has the potential to close a number of training gaps and provide a capability to improve the operational effectiveness of the front line. The ability to provide unlimited Forces, both friendly and opposing Forces, by utilising Computer Generated Forces (CGF)/Semi-Automated Forces (SAF), can provide a rich training environment for the training audience. There are no airspace or environmental constraints. Full utilisation of the SE can be made to support the operational need, and the employment of weapons and sensors no longer relies on the availability of valuable equipment, nor the vast weapon ranges required to employ the weapons.
However, security and compatibility are the two areas that will provide the key challenges. Nodes operating at different levels of security classification on a Wide Area Network is not currently possible. This in turn limits the type of joint training that can be undertaken. As demonstrated in the CCD, Land personnel who would normally have been located in CATT at Warminster had to travel to RAF Waddington to participate in a joint exercise. The front line does not have the time, nor should we take them away from their home base, to participate in these exercises, and it is essential that the multi-level security problem is addressed as a matter of urgency. Compatibility is being actively addressed by the Directorate of Analysis Experimentation and Simulation, who are striving to provide common re-useable databases, CGF/SAF, to the MOD community.
The vision from the Centre is taking shape and our ability to 'plug and interoperate' in the future is looking a real possibility. However, being given all of the capability is not the final answer; these capabilities must be carefully managed and expertly assembled to provide a training event that addresses all the requirements of the training audience. Training must, at all times, remain realistic and focused on the operational imperative. If this task is undertaken correctly, the synthetic environment should be able to emulate any battlefield in any country, allowing Forces to rehearse any mission required in the comparative safety of their home base, prior to deploying to what could be a significantly hostile environment.
In summary, the synthetic environment could provide the capability to fill some of the major training gaps currently facing our Armed Forces, typified by a comment from a participant of Exercise Ebb and Flow: 'The potential of networked simulation to increase our skills and understanding of our own limitations is vast. Indeed, as the requirement for synthetic training is enshrined in such a document as the manual of British Military Doctrine, I have little doubt that I have seen the future of Royal Air Force operational training.'
However, there remain many aspects of our training today, and in the future, that cannot be emulated in the synthetic environment. During the upcoming years, it behoves all personnel involved with its development to carefully examine what training must be undertaken in the live environment. A simulator will never be able to provide the tactile feel to an operator of equipment at the limit of its operating envelope, be it an aircraft in a dog fight or a fighting vehicle in close combat. The only way is to learn these skills in a live environment, a fact that will not change until synthetics discovers and takes the next big step.