The runaway success of military video games — particularly “America’s Army” — is motivating the Air Force to attempt even more sophisticated simulations. Gaming technologies, officials say, would allow the Air Force to broaden the training options available to airmen, and would help the service save money by shifting flying time from real aircraft to simulators.
The Air Force traditionally has relied on simulations for war planning, analysis and pilot training. But the service has lagged behind the Army and the Marine Corps in employing video games as educational tools that can be made widely available online.
That could change, if simulation technology advocates within the Air Force can persuade the top boss, Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley, that the cost of developing the next-generation gaming systems could be offset by savings in flying hours and other efficiencies. They also assert that these technologies are key to the future of the Air Force because they would help airmen learn new combat skills and sharpen their ability to make tough decisions on the battlefield.
“We want to be able to empower the airman with tools to make decisions, and keep them educated without sending them to school,” says Keith E. Seaman, command-and-control modeling and simulation senior advisor to the secretary of the Air Force.
“We want to create the models and simulations for the airman of the future,” he says in an interview.
“Our simulators are good,” but they tend to be one-dimensional and don’t stimulate “out of the box” thinking, says Seaman. Everyone in the Air Force — from recruits in basic training to airmen, officers and non-commissioned officers training for combat — would stand to benefit from gaming technologies.
“The Air Force has not been engaged in the gaming community as well as the Army and Marines have,” he says. But the intent is not to copy what the other services are doing. “They primarily focus on the shooter. Our approach is holistic.”
The ideal simulation, he says, would be adaptable to suit many different audiences. Further, it would challenge airmen to tackle problems unconventionally. “Think of the Kobayashi Maru,” he says, referring to the complex training exercises that challenged Captain Kirk of Star Trek to contemplate seemingly no-win scenarios.
Gaming technologies could give airmen a competitive edge in their preparation for combat and in their overall education as they move up the career ladder, Seaman says.
Another piece of the long-term strategy to improve training technology in the Air Force is to introduce more advanced simulators that not only can replicate a single aircraft model but also complex combat missions.
Instead of employing simulations just to learn how to fly the F-22 fighter, for instance, operators would engage in unscripted scenarios, such as opening up an airfield in hostile territory. These game-like simulations could be played on home computers or adapted for large-scale exercises. The technology would help boost unconventional combat skills, Seaman says.
The Air Force’s hub for flight simulators at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., known as the distributed mission operations center, or DMOC, is connected to other facilities nationwide. But the technology needs improvements, Seaman says.
One upgrade currently in the works is a new “dome” to train tactical-air controllers who are responsible for identifying ground targets and directing air strikes to the correct location. The dome will be up and running by 2008, says Seaman.
Even though the DMOC is by any measure a state-of-the-art simulation center, the Air Force needs to incorporate new technologies for non-traditional warfare and global operations.
“It’s got to be more dynamic,” says Seaman. “We are working on that.”
Future simulations also must address the emerging challenges of cyber-warfare, he says. The Air Force recently announced plans to expand its network-attack and network-defense operations, and one of the difficulties it faces is how to train cyber-warriors.
One solution, says Seaman, would be a simulation where the player becomes a digital entity and navigates the enemy’s networks, sort of like a “Fantastic Voyage” in cyberspace.
Seaman has yet to put a price tag on these ambitious plans.
“I don’t want to put out a dollar figure,” he says. But he concedes that he faces an uphill battle, at least in the near term, when the Air Force expects to see tightening budgets.
Although simulations are relatively inexpensive when compared to big-ticket weapon systems, they still require substantial investments in hardware and software.
Seaman hired SAIC Corp. to help write a “business case” that will show how investments in modeling and simulation could pay back several times over. He is confident that he can persuade the Air Force leadership to begin budgeting for the new technologies in 2010.
In a recent memo to Moseley, Seaman suggested that modeling and simulation could be a “significant piece of the puzzle” that would allow the service to shift flying hours to simulators and to reduce the development cycle of weapons systems by testing more hardware in virtual environments. Moseley’s positive response to the memo was encouraging, says Seaman.
Senior Air Force officials intuitively see the value of advanced simulations, but the financial return on the investments will be the deciding factor, he says. If the business case is strong enough, the chief may support a long-term plan to boost modeling and simulation spending.
Offsetting every simulation dollar with another dollar worth of savings may not be enough, however. “We may need more,” Seaman says.
Historical trends are working against him, he recognizes. The Air Force for years has been trimming spending on modeling and simulation to fund other priorities.
He is confident, however, that there are strong enough advocates in the Air Force who will support shifting resources to simulation programs. Seaman’s boss, Lt. Gen. Michael Peterson, is the Air Force chief information officer and a staunch supporter of modeling and simulation, he says. On Capitol Hill, a “modeling and simulation” caucus chaired by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., provides much needed political clout, says Seaman. “They see the value of modeling, simulation and gaming technologies.”
Industry experts caution that while the Air Force currently has top-of-the-line simulation systems, it needs to find ways to exploit commercial technology to lower the cost of buying and operating simulators.
Training for missions in DMOC-type settings is “time consuming and expensive,” says retired Air Force Col. David M. Votipka, who served as director of the Air Force modeling and simulation agency while on active duty.
“The Air Force has done a good job in DMOC. But the technologies are 10 years old,” Votipka says. Of most concern is the networking technology, which currently does not allow aviators, for example, to practice missions jointly with ground forces. Also, exercises at DMOC take months to plan, which limits commanders’ abilities to train units on short notice and change training scenarios on the fly.
DMOC is well suited for large-scale exercises, but it’s not flexible enough for small-team training, says Votipka. “The war fighters should be able to do mission rehearsals in a few days, connect all the models and do it over next week if they want to.”
The military services increasingly are seeking distributed simulations to train small teams, he says. “That’s where the growth is … There are good simulations, but you need advanced integration and networking.”
In his current job as an advisor to Gestalt LLC, a company that supplies simulation and modeling systems, Votipka is trying to educate military customers on the capabilities of commercial technologies. “The military has a hard time understanding the art of the possible,” he says.
William P. Loftus, president of Gestalt, says the Air Force, much like the other services, is not taking full advantage of currently available networking systems. “The old models are OK but don’t share the information so Nellis Air Force Base [Nev.] and Hurlburt [Fla.] can train at the same time,” Loftus says. “That’s not a simulation problem but an infrastructure problem.”
In the recent Ulchi Focus Lens exercise — the world’s largest military virtual war game, in South Korea — commercial Internet technology was used to run the U.S. secret military network. That meant “enormous savings” in the infrastructure cost of the exercise and the time it took to plan it, Loftus says. In Ulchi Focus Lens, 50,000 U.S. and 300,000 South Korean virtual troops war-gamed an invasion of South Korea by North Korea.
The Air Force DMOC facilities, which are run by contractors, cost the Air Force $200 million a year. The improvements that Seaman envisions would require significant expenditures that, over time, the Air Force would recoup by saving on flying hours, he says.
Because of the high upfront investment associated with flight simulators, the Air Force chose to outsource the operation of the DMOC network of simulators. That arrangement recently was questioned by the Government Accountability Office, which argued that the Air Force is not getting its money’s worth.
“The decision to use service contracts was not supported by a thorough analysis of the costs and benefits of this approach versus alternative approaches, despite a Department of Defense directive on training that provides for an evaluation of the benefits and trade-offs of potential alternative training solutions,” GAO contends in a September 2006 report.
Following the GAO investigation, lawmakers concluded that these contracts are a bad deal for taxpayers, and banned the Defense Department from awarding service contracts for training simulators.
“The secretary of defense may not enter into a service contract to acquire a military flight simulator,” states the fiscal year 2007 defense authorization bill.
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