NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — A new simulator campus at Nellis Air Force Base could be key for the U.S. Air Force as it grapples with the question of how it can train pilots against complex threats like Russia and China at a budget-friendly cost.

On Aug. 17, the Air Force opened the doors of the Virtual Test and Training Center, or VTTC, a new, $38 million building where pilots will practice advanced tactics in a simulated environment that replicates war against a near-peer nation.

“When you think about great power competition and where we might have to fight — shipping out to fight a China or Russia, particularly — there is no live training venue for the joint force, certainly for the Air Force, that’s big enough, that has the threat density that can replicate what China or Russia can do,” said Maj. Gen. Chuck Corcoran, who leads the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis.

While live exercises will remain an important component of pilot training, the VTTC will give the Air Force a way to simulate a vast battlespace populated by high-end threats. Users will be able to network with other pilots on the system — who fly F-16s, F-22s, F-35s and F-15Es, with perhaps more to come — and fly complex missions against virtual enemies that are impossible to emulate in live training exercises like Red Flag.

The VTTC building, which Defense News toured during an Aug. 21 visit to the base, is currently empty. But it won’t stay that way for long, said Lt. Col. Chris Duncan, an F-35 operational test pilot and commander of Detachment 1, 29th Training Systems Squadron.

F-15E Strike Eagle simulators are slated to be delivered to the center in October and will go online in April 2021. The joint simulation environment — a government-owned virtual training environment currently under development at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, and when finished will emulate high-end threats — is set to be fielded at the VTTC in October 2021.

“Typically aircraft simulators have taught pilots how to fly them and basic employment,” Duncan said. “We’re not worried about those things. We’re assuming they already know that.” Instead, the training will focus on more robust mission sets, including advanced training for Air Force Weapons School students, operational testing of new platforms and large-scale war games, he said.

The Air Force is deliberating how best it can expand the VTTC’s capabilities over time on a limited budget. Among the factors under consideration is whether to buy additional simulators, such as ones for the new F-15EX. It may roll out the Nellis Mission Operations Network, on which the VTTC will run, to other bases such as Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri — the home to the service’s only stealth bomber.

There is also discussion about how to integrate the simulators on the network with live aircraft flying on the Nevada Test and Training Range, which would allow the VTTC to project synthetic threats to jets practicing midair tactics.

Historically, the Air Force has been hard-pressed to fund advanced simulation efforts. The ultimate success of the VTTC may ultimately come down to whether there is enough money to continue funding simulators for additional aircraft and to keep upgrading hardware and software.

Duncan said the Air Force is already keeping that point in mind. Instead of simulators that provide a completely accurate cockpit experience, the service is looking to save money by prioritizing simulators that can provide the experience of advanced missions, even if the simulator imagery or cockpit experience isn’t completely realistic.

But he underscored the cost-effectiveness of virtual training when compared to its live counterpart.

“The payoff, the bang for the buck,” Duncan said, “it far surpasses what we can do in live flying.”

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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