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“Fight’s on. Commit. You’re Dead.” Why the United States’ Largest Training Ranges Are Too Small and How LVC Can Provide the Answer

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Executive Summary

The United States is running out of room.

Eielson AFB, Alaska, boasts claim to the Department of Defense’s (DOD) premier training venue, a range spanning over 1.5 million acres of maneuver land and 65,000 square miles of airspace known as the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC). It is the largest block of contiguous airspace the United States has for training.

But it is too small.

In the last 50 years, the baseline for airborne weaponry has progressed from a design space that was focused primarily on how to navigate an object from point A to point B, to one that is focused primarily on how far that same object can fly. Today, it is not surprising to see emergent technologies that threaten entire states with their reach. So how can the United States and its allies train for this type of conflict if backed against the walls of their own airspace? By innovating a larger space.

But how?

Defining the Problem

In the 1980s, weapons like Russia’s R-73 (AA-11 Archer) and R-77 (AA-12 Adder) prevailed. But they were simple and relatively inefficient. Each of these weapons were typified by poor, aerodynamic designs that were restricted to 20-30NM engagement ranges. In the 2000s, newer and more advanced technologies surfaced that iterated on these previous designs, enhancing rocket motors, and optimizing flyout trajectories to bring weapons capabilities out into the 50-100NM range. Modern day advancements are no different. Modern advancements to Russia’s purported “AWACS killer,” The R-37 (AA-13), boasts ranges of up to 200 km (125 nm) and flies at a staggering speed of Mach 6, according to open-source documentation.1 This trend doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime sooner either. The graphic below illustrates this concept. For reference, the JPARC is 298 NM along its longest axis. By comparison, the state of Georgia is 318 NM at its longest; in the 2030s, it would not be unrealistic to see air-to-air weapons that are able to be launched across this entire span. When comparing against the premier range in the Midwest, the situation is even more bleak. The Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), just outside Nellis AFB, is 157 NM at its widest. In all reality, aircraft training for the high-end fight there are already at their limit. The United States needs a solution and fast.

 

To tackle this problem, one could attempt first to increase the available range space, but political, economic, and geographic constraints will inevitably win out as weapons advancements exceed opportunities to expand. The eastern edge of the JPARC, for example, sits along the Canadian border—a geographic constraint that limits the JPARCs expansion eastward. When considering other premier ranges, the situation is even more grim, and political factors associated with the expansion of ranges like the NTTR complicate the problem even further.2 If we abandon range expansion, deeming the effort futile, you might be tempted to accept that in ten years ranges like the JPARC and the NTTR will be insufficient for training and resort instead to all simulation-based training. But this as well falls short as realistic, real-world training cannot be replicated solely inside the walls of a simulation where G-forces, sensory inputs, and the complex stressors associated with combat are just a fantasy.

This is where the concept of live, virtual, & constructive (LVC) simulation takes shape. LVC taxonomy has been around for dozens of years and is used to classify a broad set of modeling and simulation methods that could provide a hopeful path forward.

The Modeling and Simulation Environment; Live, Virtual, & Constructive Architecture

According to the Modeling and Simulation Glossary published by the DOD, live, virtual, and constructive simulation is “a broadly used taxonomy describing a mixture of live, virtual, and constructive simulation.”3 In this regard, “live” references real people operating real systems. This would be the aspect of operations that deals with pilots flying actual aircraft within an airspace. “Virtual” references real people operating simulated systems. This would apply to real pilots flying a simulator that integrates and patches into existing infrastructure to fly with or against real assets. Finally, “constructive” implies simulated people operating simulated systems. This is most easily explained by using computer programs that simulate adversary aircraft, which real aircraft would shoot at while airborne.

If developed properly, all three of the above can synergize in novel and powerful ways to create unique training solutions for the joint force. To bring clarity to the discussion, however, a large portion of LVC efforts can be quickly eliminated if reframed into two main categories: Within visual range (WVR) and beyond visual range (BVR).

Within Visual Range: The Degenerate Case

Here’s why. The WVR arena is generally defined as the region inside 5 NM where a pilot can begin to visually pickup and identify a converging aircraft. As a result, LVC efforts in this arena aim to modify or enhance the visual environment as seen by a pilot, but they largely fail to increase the battlespace.

The AlphaDogFight Trials is an industry leading example of WVR LVC efforts. 4 AlphaDogFight was a three-day competition hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and designed to demonstrate the incredible capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) in defeating a skilled fighter pilot at his own game: basic fighter maneuvers, otherwise known as “dogfighting.” Overall, the trials were a resounding success with the AI defeating a highly skilled aviator 5-0, demonstrating the capabilities of computers to augment manned aviators in future conflict. The event was live streamed to YouTube from 18-20 August 2020.5

Another example in the WVR regime comes from a team named Red 6, a company with a vision to bring true augmented reality (AR) to USAF combat training.6 In 2019, Red 6 was awarded an $1.5 million AFWERX development grant to solve what CEO Dan Robinson calls “the military’s multi-billion dollar pain-point”: the requirement that mock dogfights be between two real pilots, costing the USAF billions of dollars annually. Their idea proposes a novel and cost-effective solution by enabling an airborne pilot to fight a constructive asset (a computer) through a software upgrade to his helmet display. This AR technology is akin to Apple Inc.’s Measure app on iPhones—with the simple use of your camera, you can build rulers in virtual reality that, through your phone, sit directly on a table or surface needing measured and will remain anchored as you walk around the space. Similarly, Red 6’s project would superimpose an enemy fighter in real-time onto the helmet displays of the airborne pilot and allow him to fight this constructive adversary in real-time, saving the USAF billions of dollars otherwise spent on live training assets.

Unfortunately, both of these efforts are inadequate at solving the problem at hand. Although they present a hopeful future of cost savings and risk management to the DOD, they do not address the threat posed to our airspace. If the problem of increasing threat ranges and ever tightening airspace boundaries is left unchecked, all of these WVR LVC efforts will have largely been in vain.

A Hopeful Solution: Beyond Visual Range and F-35 Embedded Training (ET)

Although the above efforts mark monumental advancements in the field, each would require significant upgrades to existing software and hardware suites across the DOD fleet and are largely peripheral to the true solution needed for the joint force through 2030. As a result, a look at efforts in the BVR arena may provide the answer.

In 2020, Capt Kyle M. Swartz wrote an Air University advanced research article titled “F-35 Embedded Training Update: Cost Effective, Realistic Training” that provides an interesting look into LVC efforts that might inform a solution. In the article, Capt Swartz writes “Embedded Training has the potential to complement live…threats and enhance the quality of F-35 pilot training.” It does this by enabling “ET air threats that are not constrained to the scheduled airspace.”

Impressive. But can they shoot? Modern LVC capabilities implemented annually at exercises like RED FLAG already allow virtual and constructive entities across existing architectures, but they are limited in their ability to employ simulated, threat realistic, weaponry—let alone assess those same weapons in real-time.7 In my own experience flying during RED FLAG-Alaska, the capability to inject virtual and constructive assets is definitely there, but their realistic integration into the live fight still leaves something to be desired. With F-35 embedded training, this is no longer an issue.

Captain Swartz (callsign “Rolex”) mentioned in a phone interview that F-35 ET software has the distinct capability to manually program threat representative aircraft and weapons that are autonomously able to punish errors in pilot tactics through a real-time assessment of threat weapons employment. This means that not only can F-35 software generate constructive assets outside the lateral confines of scheduled airspace, but those same assets can fire simulated shots and kill live aircraft in real-time. As a result, the problem-set is already solved for the F-35. A constructive asset built in the F-35 ET system can originate, shoot, and timeout simulated weapons outside the physical boundaries of the assigned airspace. Beautiful.

However, this capability is internal only to the F-35. To date, there is no known capability that extends F-35 ET to anywhere but the F-35 formation that is running the software. If F-35s are on an escort mission for live F-16s executing a strike mission, the F-16s can’t see the red air. If F-35s are providing suppression of enemy air defenses for A-10s on the range, the A-10s can’t see or threat react to the simulated ET surface to air missiles. To everyone but the F-35s running the software, the ET assets don’t exist. And so, in regard to training in United States airspace with any joint assets/partners, the problem remains.

Recommendations and Thoughts

Outside capabilities inherent to the F-35, there are no known efforts in the open domain that directly address the problem of airspace. I believe this is not because the problem is too difficult to solve, but possibly because few have framed it in this manner up to now. Despite this, the F-35 example does provide a mold by which engineers and teams across the DOD and corporate sector can find a solution, which I believe could be found through innovations in any or all of the following areas:

  • Link-16 architecture
  • The debrief paradigm
  • Fully integrated virtual/constructive assets

Link-16 is a standardized communications system used by the US, NATO, and Coalition forces to transmit and exchange real-time tactical data using links between ground and airborne assets.8 This capability is an incredible force multiplier for joint forces, but it’s antiquated and ill adapted to address the need for constructive assets that can originate, fly, and shoot outside the confines of established airspace in real-time. If the existing Link-16 architecture could be intelligently upgraded to either synergize existing message types (J-series messages) or repurpose less utilized ones, it’s possible that the problem could be solved in architecture organic to Link-16. As conjecture, this could manifest itself as constructive assets pushed through Link-16 that could use repurposed J-series messages to provide real-time simulated threat weapon data to attack and kill live aircraft in training.

In regard to the debrief paradigm, it’s no mystery that the method by which the US executes and debriefs its sorties—from 1v1s to major force exercises (MFEs)—is robust and effective. In any given MFE, each side will have a ground controller (designated the range training officer, or RTO) that watches and listens to every shot that is “fired” in the battle. This provides the training aircraft with a near instant assessment of whether or not their simulated weapons have destroyed their targets, or if opposing aircraft have killed them. But the current debrief paradigm is limited to assessments made from real aircraft flying in the real airspace—which does not solve the dilemma at hand. If ground crews (RTO and battle-trackers) had software that could simulate threat realistic weapons from virtual or constructive assets (passed through the Link-16 or otherwise), it could help solve the problem at hand.

Even better yet, a software structure that could fully integrate virtual or constructive assets across the Link-16 architecture would provide a hopeful step in the right direction. This could be a computer or network of computers (or simulators) that have been coded with threat realistic weapons that can shoot at live assets through the existing C2 or Link-16 architecture used for training today. Bottom line, the joint force needs an effective way to fight against simulated assets that can shoot and kill them in real-time. It doesn’t matter how, but innovation in this area must happen or the United States will run out of realistic training space.

Conclusion

“Today, every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace…without sustained and predictable investment to restore readiness and modernize our military to make it fit for our time, we will rapidly lose our military advantage, resulting in a Joint Force that has legacy systems irrelevant to the defense of our people.”

We will lose.

These are the words of former secretary of defense Jim Mattis in the 2018 edition of the National Defense Strategy. In stark contrast to the 2008 Strategy which focused on winning the “long war against violent extremist movements”—typified by largely uncontested operations against an ill-equipped enemy—Mattis’ opening words should ignite both a sobering reality and rapid call to action for innovation in the United States on the grandest scale. 9

As an F-16 pilot and warfighter, this article is a long discussion for a short request. Warfighters need to be able to fight against realistic threats that can target, shoot, and kill live aircraft at ranges commensurate with their capability—while airborne and in real-time.

As the United States shifts focus to great power competition, innovation across the joint force has become more important than ever. In order to maneuver to a position of strength on the global stage, the United States must demonstrate effective adaptation to the shifting landscape of tomorrow’s war by innovating and adapting meaningful training opportunities appropriate for our time; if not, we will lose.

Captain Travis “Flip” Worden

Capt Travis “Flip” Worden is an F-16 Pilot assigned to the 422d Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, NV. At the time of this writing, Capt Worden was a pilot assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson AFB, AK and provided world class training and threat academics to the United States and joint partners. He has over 960 flight hours logged in T-6, T-38, and the F-16 C/D aircraft, and has flown in a wide array of national and international exercises including those in South Korea, Alaska, Las Vegas, Guam, Hawaii, Australia, and multiple missions to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in support of US strategic efforts. His distilled perspective for this piece stems from his former role as one of only four radar missiles subject matter experts for the United States Air Force.

Notes

1 David C. Isby, “MiG-31 AAM in Final State of Development,” Jane’s Missiles & Rockets, 5 March 2012, https://customer-janes-com.aufric.idm.oclc.org/.

2 “Nevada Democrats Aim to Block Nellis Bombing Range Expansion,” Air Force Times 11 July 2020, https://www.airforcetimes.com/.

3 Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology, “DOD Modeling and Simulation (M&S) Glossary,” Department of Defense, January 1998, https://apps.dtic.mil/.

4 “Alphadogfight Trials Foreshadow Future of Human-Machine Symbiosis: Virtual Finale Showcases AI’s Impressive Abilities in Simulated F-16 Aerial Combat,” DARPA, 26 August 2020, https://www.darpa.mil/.

5 DARPAtv, “AlphaDogfight Trials Final Event,” YouTube, 18-20 August 2020, https://www.youtube.com/.

6 Charlie Fink, “Red 6 Brings AR to USAF Combat Training,” Forbes, 25 November 2019, https://www.forbes.com/.

7 SSgt Siuta B. Ika, “LVC Integration Takes Red Flag to Next Level,” Nellis AFB, 4 March 2015, https://www.nellis.af.mil/.

8 “What is Link 16?” BAE Systems, https://www.baesystems.com/.

9 National Defense Strategy, Department of Defense, June 2008, http://www.comw.org/.

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