Flight Training
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 6)

Few would argue that training is crucial to combat success, and yet, when it comes to cutting defense budgets, training is among the first items being reduced and redlined. Such budgetary pressures on training will only serve to impede future combat success and put warriors at needless risk. It is hard enough to fight and win; it is even more difficult when training gets cut to the bone and threatens to diminish or demolish a core combat advantage. Such impacts are being felt in both the U.S. and Canadian military.

Pilots and maintainers of today’s and tomorrow’s fleets are handling more complex aircraft than ever before in history. For pilots, this requires significant proficiencies that go beyond simply being a competent “flyer” of an airplane – they are becoming key C2, ISR and strike assets, all in one. Clearly, training is crucial to dealing with the growth in complexity.

As General Hostage, the U.S. commander of Air Combat Command, said in a recent interview: “What we’re asking a young lieutenant to do in her first two or three years as a fighter pilot is so far beyond what they asked me to do in my first two to three years, it’s almost embarrassing. The things we require of her, the things she has to be able to do, the complexity of the system that she operates, are so much more taxing, and yet, they make it look easy; they’re really, really good. Training, training, training comes to mind as a requirement for dealing with today’s and the coming air systems, which are managed by the fighter combat managers in their cockpits.”

Another example of complexity is in the execution of ever-more-stringent Rules of Engagement for pilots in combat; this can only demand more training, not less. Politicians and strategists can invent a wide range of engagements for the military – which our young men and women are required to execute as flawlessly as possible – yet funding for training is not seen as a crucial correlate for such missions.

During a recent visit to Fallon Naval Air Station in the Nevada desert with my colleague Ed Timperlake (a Naval Academy graduate and former Naval aviator), we had a chance to discuss, with the USN’s premier aviation training command, the challenges of preparing for 21st century conflicts and training proficiency demands for shaping an integrated air wing as a key tool­set to deal with those conflicts.

The orchestrated ballet at sea, which the carrier air wing executes, is one of the most demanding missions facing any aviation community worldwide. Yet the processes associated with budgetary downturn and sequestration cuts have significantly reduced the amount of flight time available. The trend, in terms of flight hours for the U.S. airpower services, is roughly half that of a decade ago. In the U.S. Navy, the trend line from 1998 to 2010 is about 30% less and, with pending budget cuts and future uncertainties, could continue a steep decline.

During our visit to Fallon, it became very clear that the term “training” can indeed confuse more than clarify. To non-uniformed personnel, training may sound a bit like a ‘nice-to-have’ preparatory drill, rather than what it is for the air power community – the shaping of core instincts and critical “muscle memory” for the quick and efficient execution of missions.

Admiral Scott Conn, the Commander of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, puts the importance of training simply: “Naval aviation is a very integrated operation. Shortfalls in one area affect other areas and has a serious impact on overall mission effectiveness. We need to understand as people pull levers on flight hours, the kinds of aircraft and maintenance challenges we set in motion; we need to understand the bow wave we are creating in terms of expertise for the future as well. But clearly we are not going to lower our standards or lower the bar necessary for achieving operational success. We are working hard to find new ways to conduct business to meet our standards. That is in part where virtual training comes in. Training is the essential glue for operational success. In combat, you’re not going to rise to your level of technology or the capabilities of your opponent; you’re going to fly back to your level of training. The distance between winning and losing is measured in seconds, not minutes.”

Clearly, naval aviators are concerned about reductions in core competencies under flight hour reductions. As one aviator explained, “Before you can shape the kind of sophisticated tactics we need with regard to peer competitors, or to execute missions in crowded areas with demanding ROEs, you need to know the basics. If you cannot execute the basics, then air wing integration is clearly threatened, and the ability to execute the kinds of missions we are being asked to do is reduced as well.”

The importance of training and its role in preparing a carrier strike package for sea was highlighted as well by U.S. Cdr Jayson “Plato” Eurick, current Air Wing Training Officer, at Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, Fallon Naval Air Station, who works on the four-week course with air wing integration prior to deployment to the fleet. “Training can be conveyed in a couple different ways, depending how you look at it. The way we try to teach training is, we work to the end state. For example, we have an air wing that’s coming through Air Wing Fallon here starting Monday for their four-week exercise. In our training, we will convey to the air wing the importance of training, and that’s not just routine training – you are doing that training for a certain reason. In this case, look at what USS Bush is doing (Arabian Sea). That is what we will convey, the overall end state of what the training is going to eventually lead to.”

And the mention of the USS Bush is not by accident. What we learned from Cdr Eurick was that the Commander of the Air Group (CAG) on USS Bush is in daily contact with Fallon to both provide input with regard to operations and their impact on preparing the next air wing out as well as to get help when needed with altering tactics and training while on deployment.

Training also supports currently deployed CAGs. As Admiral Conn noted with regard to an historical example of the process: “We are in regular communication with the deployed carriers. We provide reachback for those carriers as well. If they see a performance shortfall of some sort that requires modifications of TTPs we support them in closing the gap,” he said.

Admiral Scott Conn, Commander, Naval Strike and Air ­Warfare Center, Nevada

He described an example how the air carrier air helps to provide strike support, at night, in Afghanistan. “To do this strafing mission at night, I need to put my airplane below mountaintops, perhaps in a valley, provide bullets precisely and then pull off target, and not hit the mountains.”

He explained that when they got that request, they had to quickly come up with the tactics, techniques, and procedures for the fleet to execute that mission.

“And the connectivity we have with the fleet through modern communications allows for an ongoing combat learning process between Fallon and the fleet, and this flow of information, is central to the process of training in the 21st century.”

One way the USN at Fallon is trying to deal with the challenge of declining flight hours and enhanced complexity is to ramp up the ability to leverage virtual training. Simulators are so much more advanced than they used to be, however, there is one thing that, so far, cannot be replicated into a simulator. As the Vietnam War ace, Chuck DeBellevue noted: “One of the things that Sims cannot do is bring the challenge of facing death.” From his perspective, a warrior needs “cojones” to go against the enemy under the worst possible conditions, and that requires an “ability to understand fear and how the adrenaline affects you – because it will.”

The USN aviation community clearly understands the platform training limits on a simulator, but the virtual role is increasing and becoming more flexible all the time.

At Fallon, it is clear that their virtual training really is geared for preparing to operate in the extended battlespace, and leverage other USN and joint assets more effectively in that battlespace.

Admiral Conn described the transition within which he sees Virtual Constructive Live Training (VCLT) grow: “For me, it is about expanding the battlespace and training with regard to how to do this. We have to develop the means to push out the battle space, whether it’s being able to find hits, target, track, engage, and assess in time of war. And we have to push those boundaries out. We are adding new capabilities to do so in the period ahead and, with the virtual training environment, we can integrate those new capabilities into an ability to fight in an expanded battlespace. With regard to building out our Virtual Constructive Training, it is a work in progress and one, which is central to future of training here at Fallon.”

Captain Kevin “Proton” McLaughlin, outgoing STRIKE Commanding Officer, and previous TOPGUN CO and Instructor, provided his insight into the process of change, whereby Virtual Constructive Training would grow in significance: “The ranges – although large – are too small to train against a threat that can shoot longer than the ranges. We need to train to a 21st Century Plus type of threat, with very long-range missiles in the mix. It is not about succeeding; it is about how are we going to do this with highest probability of success. We are rolling in Live Virtual Constructive training to provide the extenders for our operators to work in that threat environment and to reach out to other assets – Navy and joint – which can allow us to fight in an expanded battlespace.”

Clearly, such a construct with regard to training to the extended battlespace can reduce flying hours but really places a premium upon training budgets and needs to prepare the challenging strategic environment ahead.

Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada

Cdr Eurick provided a perspective echoed throughout the command about the challenge going forward from the impact of reduced flying hours: “The guy who has been on combat deployment for nine months is comfortable because he’s been doing carrier operations. The guy that has very little flight hours or flight time over the last six months during the first month or two of deployment, he’s not very comfortable doing carrier operations, and it definitely raises the hair on the back of your neck. And the longer you go, from being away from the ship, whether that’s due to reduced flight hours, shore duty, whatever, it takes a lot more time and money to get the pilot back up to speed where he is comfortable to get on or off the Carrier.”

The training officer went on to explain that training must be broad and comprehensive. “We need to be strike fighter pilots, fighter pilots, weapons officers […] you have to be very good at operating your sensors, the integration in the cockpit, the weapons that are onboard your aircraft. But you can’t focus on that part of your training or your job until you are very good at the basics of flying the airplane. You have to be comfortable flying the airplane, and all your button pushing, your takeoffs, your landings – all of that has to be second nature. You have to be able to do that in your sleep because you need to be able to focus on the more advanced and complex systems in the airplane,” he continues. “And when you don’t fly that airplane on a regular basis, even though a simulator can account for some of that time, but you got to be able to get into the air, and experience the effects of the airspeed, the Gs, you know, just the ground rush that’s associated with the airplane.”

Of late, the concept of training muscle Memory has been gaining advocates among the uniformed services. “When you get to that point where you’re comfortable, and you’re doing that on a daily basis because you have flight hours, all of that basic stuff is second nature,” affirms Cdr Eurick, “now you can focus on more advanced and complex systems associated with the airplane.

Robbin Laird is an international defence analyst based in Virginia, USA, and a regular FrontLine Defence contributor.
© 2014 FrontLine Defence