As enemy fighters get more lethal, the Air Force's air-to-air combat training is looking to take a giant leap into the virtual world.
Technology moves so rapidly that it is impossible to create a "real world threat environment" that can accurately simulate combat with the most advanced aircraft, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh says. So the Air Force plans to emphasize the virtual component of air-to-air combat training.
"It's going to be a virtual constructive threat arena and we will add live training into it," Welsh told reporters Feb. 13 during the Air Force Association's 2015 Air War Symposium in Orlando, Florida. "We've done the opposite up until now," he said, referring to current training, which relies heavily on actual pilots playing the role of the enemy.
Fighter pilots must train against the most advanced fighters today, the so-called fifth-generation aircraft. They are stealthy, have advanced radars and other sensors, and can share information with other weapons systems in the air and on the ground, said Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The F-22 and F-35 represent U.S. fifth-generation aircraft. The Russians and Chinese are also pursuing fifth-generation fighters, such as the Sukhoi Su-35 and J-10 respectively.
As part of live training, Air Force pilots fly against a physical adversary, known as an "aggressor." But with a virtual component to the training, the aggressor does not have to be a fifth-generation aircraft, Welsh said.
"You could buy a fifth-generation airplane to be your aggressor, which doesn't make much common sense, or you could buy something else that just creates an end game problem that you have to solve as part of your full spectrum of training," he said.
The emphasis on virtual over live training will not put U.S. pilots at a disadvantage if they have to fight fifth-generation fighters, Welsh said.
"If you get to the end game where you're in a visual fight, you've already screwed up," he said. "That's not where air combat is going. This fight takes place outside the visual range now. Any training you do outside visual range you can do in the virtual constructive world."
Not all air-to-air combat training will be virtual, said Lt. Col. Timothy Herritage, Welsh's spokesman.
"Basic Fighter Maneuvers would still be conducted in physical aircraft," Herritage said in a Feb. 17 email. "Gen Welsh was referring to 5th generation aircraft training in beyond visual range tactics in his reference to training in the virtual world."
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Daren "Shotgun" Sorenson spent the last two years of his active-duty career looking at how to simulate fifth-generation threats for Red Flag exercises, where pilots practice air-to-air combat.
"Producing a realistic fifth generation, near-peer, adversary for realistic combat training is extremely expensive and virtually cost prohibitive under the current realities of the DoD budget," Sorenson said in a Feb. 18 email to Air Force Times. "Under those constraints, the chief of staff has little options other than to transform a greater portion of training into a virtual constructive threat environment."
However, Sorenson emphasized that training cannot focus solely on air-to-air combat that is beyond visual range.
"Does that mean we should stop teaching Marines hand to hand combat? No," he said. "There are plenty of scenarios where maneuvering WVR [within visual range] or even post merge maneuvering might be required by tactics, techniques or procedures, Rules of Engagement, or theater special instructions."
In Vietnam, the Air Force mistakenly thought the era of the dogfight was over because the AIM-7 Sparrow radar guided missile could destroy targets beyond visual range, Sorenson said.
"Air-to-air combat is an art and a supersonic chess match between adversaries," he said. "As our adversaries continue to close the technological gap in capabilities; the training and skill of the pilot will once again become paramount to mission success. We cannot afford to restrict their adversary training to BVR [beyond visual range] only and rely solely on technology to produce the desired weapons effects 100 percent of the time. With the stakes as high as they are in aerial combat, it's an assumption we can't afford to get wrong."
Air Force pilots learn how to outmaneuver their adversaries at Red Flag exercises, where aggressor pilots play the role of the enemy. The aggressors have studied enemy tactics and aircraft capabilities.
Lt. Col. Kevin "Flash" Gordon is commander of the 64th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He said the F-16s his squadron flies are a good facsimile of enemy aircraft – but not fifth-generation fighters.
"I would say that the F-16 is very good at representing fourth-generation adversary threats of 10 to 15 years ago: MiG-21s, MiG-29s – maybe to a certain extent – but if you get the new and latest and greatest that the Russians are producing and the Chinese are producing, an F-16 cannot replicate it," Gordon said in a Feb. 10 interview.
While the squadron's F-16s are old and don't have radars as advanced as the latest Chinese and Russian fighters, the aggressors provide a credible threat during air-to-air combat training, said Lt. Col. Mike "Frosty" Shepherd, special assistant to Gordon.
"We're still teaching quite a bit with what we have to give," Shepherd said. "Could we be better if we were with fifth-gen? Sure, but quite frankly we just don't have that kind of money. There's just not money to do that right now. We're putting all of our fifth-gen technology onto our good guys: the blue side of our forces."
Another sign that money is tight: The aggressor squadron has had a hard time flying missions because of the budget cuts, known as sequestration.
Gordon said aggressors try to fly eight sorties a month, but they can't always do that.
"Before sequestration … it was easier to get that," he said. "Now, you may not get eight one month. You may have to get eight every other month."
In September, budget cuts led the Air Force to stand down the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis, which used F-15Cs.
If aggressor pilots fly less, their skills deteriorate, Shepherd said.
"Sequestration hurts," he said. "Similar to not being able to be a stealth fighter without a stealth aircraft, we can't simulate a sortie that we can't fly."