TRAINING AND SIMULATION

Air Force Looking to Boost Connectivity for Simulators

7/22/2021
By Meredith Roaten
An airman virtually looks at an aircraft.

Air Force photo by Joseph Mather

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Air Force has thousands of simulators and training environments to prepare pilots for combat, but no way to access them all. The service is looking to remedy this by exploring new ways to enhance interoperability between its training platforms.

Training systems are often developed for specific program offices with specific capabilities. Because of this, “simulators are often proprietary products, and there’s no way for those simulators to communicate,” said Kevin McFarland, acquisition lead for modeling simulation and analysis at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Architecture and Integration Directorate.

The Common Simulation Training Environment, or the CSTE, is the answer to this problem, he said. By creating an environment where training systems can better link together, the Air Force will be able to more easily train large numbers of airmen at the level of fidelity that is required.

“When we’re thinking about how we do this, we definitely don’t want to do it like it’s been done before,” he said during the Training and Simulation Industry Symposium, which was hosted by the National Training and Simulation Association in June. NTSA is an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.

The CSTE will be able to rapidly update similar to the way smartphone technology refreshes software on a continual basis through features such as operating system upgrades and new applications, McFarland said.

“The day I trade in my iPhone, it’s more capable than the day I bought it … because we’ve had software updates,” he said. “How do we develop the ecosystem that we need to do this for training systems?” he asked.

But before the Air Force can tackle connectivity, it needs industry’s help to figure out how to avoid potential challenges with fidelity and latency in the simulators. McFarland said he is looking for partners to help build the CSTE through a synthetic environment data architecture consortium that the Air Force wants to create. Requests for proposals for the consortium are expected to be released by the end of this fiscal year. A request for information was published in June. The Life Cycle Management Center’s Architecture and Integration Directorate is looking for “potential business sources in transforming the data architecture and reducing infrastructure acquisition risks for a complex battlespace synthetic environment,” according to the RFI.

It will be key to have the consortium in place as soon as possible, McFarland emphasized.

“I can speculate on what we can build and how fast we can build it, but it’s going to be through our collaboration with industry that we truly start to define exactly what the technology looks like today, and how it can apply, and what the delta is between that and what we envision,” he said.

The Air Force has been putting a heavy emphasis on connectivity. For example, joint all-domain command and control, or JADC2, has been billed as a way to better link the armed forces’ sensors and shooters on the battlefield. The Air Force has taken the lead on the effort through the development of its Advanced Battle Management System.

Additionally, the service is looking for greater connectivity through digital engineering. Air Force Col. John Kurian, senior materiel leader of the simulators division at the Life Cycle Management Center, said digital engineering and model-based systems engineering is the next frontier for faster, more innovative training technology.

“Those are the big imperatives, I think, in terms of how do you take what you see in industry, the best practices, and try to bring it into DoD?” he said.

However, that can be challenging for smaller companies, he noted. They haven’t been able to provide the same level of digital manufacturing capabilities as contractors with more resources. After receiving feedback from struggling companies, Kurian said he hopes to make the process easier.

Meanwhile, the service is working to standardize requirements for its training platforms, officials said.

The Air Force created the simulator common architecture requirements and standards, or SCARS, program in 2016. The initiative will implement a modular open systems approach, as well as a set of common standards for Air Force simulators, according to a Defense Department announcement. The contract has a 10-year ordering period through June 2030.

This year, the Air Force released standards for SCARS efforts related to cybersecurity, and officials are readying core and edge infrastructure, connecting simulator sites across the country with a “core” security operations center in Orlando, Kurian said.

Cyber is a priority for the service because legacy systems have varying and uneven vulnerabilities due to the nature of the systems’ outdated technology.

“Our first part of SCARS is really to help establish a hybrid edge architecture to really get after the cyber pieces,” he said.

This initial step gave the service the opportunity to work with the Army, which also has training offices in the Orlando region, he noted.

“We’re looking for opportunities to say, how do we, as sister services, figure out how best to work together ... [and coalesce] the standards that we’re developing?” Kurian said. “Can [we] both utilize it and be able to do this at a much faster pace?”

The Air Force is working to implement rapid software development cycles to bolster training systems, Kurian said. Platforms such as the C-17 Globemaster III’s training system are being updated on an annual basis, and officials are looking for ways to refresh it even faster.

This approach aligns with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr.’s strategic guidance to “accelerate change.”

Meanwhile, the service is examining the role of artificial intelligence and virtual reality in its training systems, Kurian said. He pointed to the F-16 fighter jet program as an example of a training system moving toward cloud-based environments and virtual learning machines.

The F-35 joint strike fighter program is also considering reducing live training hours for pilots and shifting more to simulators in order to reduce sustainment costs, a program official said at the TSIS conference.

In March, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin said during a House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness hearing that the service is incorporating virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies into its undergraduate pilot and maintenance training.

“This technology differs from traditional approaches in that it enables students a much more immersive training experience, which significantly increases the quality of their training,” he said in his written testimony. “Moreover, because students require less direct instructor support, they are able to more readily tailor their training to address their unique gaps and work asynchronously, accelerating the training process.”

The service is considering scaling up the technology’s use for its broader training strategy, he added.

Some lawmakers during a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing questioned the service’s push for more simulation training and fewer flight hours. Brown defended virtual training, saying that leaders were carefully weighing the capabilities of the simulation technology that currently exists and modernization costs for training aircraft such as the T1.

“I’m 100 percent with you that we want to make sure our pilots across our force are well trained. We don’t put them at risk,” he said.

Another crucial aspect of connecting training and simulations is data. Margaret Merkle, innovation technology chief of the simulators division at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, said promoting data sharing across training systems is a focus area of her office.

“We want them to be interconnected in this model in a cooperative fashion, so that we can lay that groundwork to look at this connectivity being the standard for the future as we move on legacy systems through the SCARS process and establish those standards,” she said at the TSIS conference.

Instructors should be able to focus on training and not on performing unnecessary data entry, she said.

“The future is data-centric, AI-based learning management systems, machine learning, all of these things that we want to try and put into training systems,” she said. “We can’t really put them there until we have data interconnectivity.”

The Air Force wants to move away from passive training systems and to compress the amount of time needed to train pilots while also increasing competency, she said.

One way to aid preparedness for the future high-end fight is through the service’s new “innovation match game,” which will highlight vendors who have previously won contracts at Air Force pitch days. The service will host a new game this year for industry at NTSA’s annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in November to highlight innovative training solutions in a competition similar to the show “House Hunters.”

Major command partners will present three problem scenarios with aircrews describing a particular challenge. Then, industry participants will present three different prototypes for audiences to vote on for the best solution to the problem. The goal is for the vendors to move from the prototype to deployment phase, Merkle said.

Even if the competitors don’t win, they will have their ideas and ingenuity demonstrated on an international stage, she noted. The call for participants is expected to go out in September.

Topics: Training and Simulation