The defense sector's interest in simulation capabilities is surging, with the confluence of improved technologies and shrinking defense budgets creating a perfect storm of interest from the Pentagon and, in particular, the Air Force.
That means opportunities for simulation firms that traditionally focused on creating top-line simulators for multimillion-dollar aircraft.
Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Education and Training Command, has made simulation a priority.
"It is really important to us and we're looking at increasing that in every way we can with the use of simulation," Rand told Defense News, a sister publication of Air Force Times.
"I think when you think of simulation, everyone immediately gravitates toward flying simulations," he added. "In AETC, we have so many examples of the use of simulation that has nothing to do with flying"
As examples, Rand highlighted how security forces are using simulators to prep what going into the field is like, or how medical students can use high-end dummies for triage training, which he called "so close to reality, it's almost scary when you're doing it."
The service is also experimenting with simulation in nontactile ways. At Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, for example, Air University professors are using new technologies for students in long-distance education programs.
Matthew Stafford, vice president for academic affairs at Air University, said some of the schools are using the simulation program Second Life to help keep students' attention during lectures.
"It's more visually appealing," Stafford told Defense News during a November visit to the campus. "It's more engaging. People feel the fact they can look around, that multiple things can be hanging on the walls — it's kind of a bells-and-whistle approach to education."
But using Second Life is more the exception than the rule for long-distance students, and that is unlikely to change in the near-future.
Stafford noted that those who aren't used to a video game interface can struggle with logging on, going through the avatar creation process and understanding how to use that avatar in-game. There are also bandwidth limits, where an airman taking a course at a remote base may not have the necessary stable Internet connection.
On another part of Air University's campus, Col. Thomas McCarthy, commandant and dean at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, highlights the benefits of simulation from a strategic perspective.
McCarthy, along with other officials from Air University, emphasizes the importance of high-level war-gaming scenarios.
"You have to have an idea of where you're going before you begin to make weapon system, acquisition and organizational structure decisions," McCarthy said. "So at the senior leadership level we have to be emphasizing those sorts of geopolitical simulations, war gaming if you will. That's the priority."
With more powerful computers and software, war game planners can simulate what would happen if next-generation technologies, such as hypersonics or directed energy weapons, were deployed against current Air Force assets. The results of those simulations, McCarthy argues, should drive how the service plans its strategic growth.
"From that comes the understanding of what capabilities you need, and working through those capabilities, and how you integrate those capabilities together," he said.
"So when you get to the tactical level simulation, like hooking up a series of F-35 and F-22 simulators with KC-46 tankers and Army ground simulator teams, all that stuff is how you use the things when you know the capabilities you need."
Compared to fighter simulators, which can feature immersive projection bubbles and moving parts, the simulators used to train pilots on unmanned aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are low-key. But that reflects the nature of the unmanned systems themselves.
During a trip to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, Air Force officers showed off the training systems for the unmanned systems, which are essentially small computer consoles designed to look like the inside of a ground control station used to operate the UAVs.
Although relatively simple looking, pilots who have trained on it expressed great confidence in the system.
The simulator is managed by CAE, which organized the trip and paid for the hotels for media, including Defense News.
One nut left to crack for the unmanned simulators? Linking up the MQ-1/MQ-9 systems with those of other aircraft in the live-virtual-constructive realm.
"The piece that we're struggling to get to is … our sims being able to interact with other sims," said Lt. Col. Steven Beattie, 29th Attack Squadron commander. "We haven't cracked the code … I think we're a couple years away."
Being able to link unmanned simulators into wider LVC situational practices could have major benefits, particularly as fifth-generation jets like the F-35, which can take in massive amounts of information from other systems, are deployed.
However, there could be a downside. Lt. Col. Jim Price, commander of the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, notes that because Holloman is home to the most basic of unmanned training, including LVC could overwhelm the students.
Instead, Price said, LVC training on the Predator or Reaper would be more appropriate for an advanced level, when pilots are out with their units learning to specialize in an area of operations.
Increasing the use of LVC is a priority, Rand said.
LVC is "still an area that we need to continue improvement, but we've come so far, and it's just amazing," he added.
Michael Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, called unmanned training "still in the early stages" and indicated there is room for growth, particularly on smaller, hand-held unmanned systems. But for larger systems like the Reapers and Predators, he predicts the biggest changes will come as the systems are streamlined.
"I think what we're going to see is the training is going to follow the innovations and technology in the actual systems," he said. "Everything is going to be pared down to try and control everything from one universal ground station or control, and that will simplify the training. The training just becomes that much easier because if you go to fly something else that just has the same interface."■