U.S., Coalition Troops to Rehearse For Combat in Simulated Afghan War

By Grace V. Jean
KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — A high-tech combat simulation now in the planning stages will seek to achieve what eight years of real combat in Afghanistan apparently has not. And that is to teach U.S. forces how to fight with allies.

It’s a long-standing annoyance for many in the U.S military that they don’t get to train with allies before they deploy to war. They often meet their partners for the first time on the battlefield.

Maj. Michele Boyko, assistant director of operations for the 705th Combat Training Squadron, sums up the problem with a story from her experience flying in a B-1 bomber.

“The first time I had to work with the French was in Afghanistan, during an emergency close-air support situation with a controller on the ground,” she says. “That was unsatisfactory. Why haven’t we trained together?”

In September, she will direct the first-ever Coalition Virtual Flag exercise, a major step towards the groundbreaking virtual mission rehearsal in 2011.

“This event will be a huge mark on the wall for us,” says Lt. Col. Troy Molendyke, commander of the 705th Combat Training Squadron that oversees the distributed mission operations center here. “We hope to establish this as a baseline and really use that as a steppingstone, because we see that as a huge growth area.”

Virtual Flag exercises combine live and computer-based players in a simulated war. They allow “red teams” to test forces with real-life scenarios such as roadside bombs and ambushes.  

Four Virtual Flag events are held annually with participation from units across the services that are preparing for deployments. On occasion, select units from allied nations have linked in to play. But, until now, the interaction between U.S. and coalition forces has been limited.

Coalition Virtual Flag will connect U.S. armed forces and their British, Canadian and Australian counterparts via simulators at their home bases or those located at the center, says Boyko, the exercise director.  

Participating in its first Virtual Flag, the 612th Air and Space Operations Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona will run the “war,” which will span the southwestern United States. That location was selected because the coalition partners have databases that cover the Nellis ranges for their simulations, Molendyke says.

Canadian CF-18 pilots will fly in the game from simulators at their base in Shirley’s Bay, Ottowa, while Australian F-18s and F/A-18s will participate from home stations in Williamtown and Canberra, respectively. F-2 Typhoons and Tornado GR4s from the Royal Air Force will join the virtual battle from Waddington, U.K.

The Australians and Canadians initially had requested training based on the current low-intensity conflict in Afghanistan. But the British wanted to practice major combat operations. “We’re straddling between the two,” says Boyko. “There will be a lot of close-air support, but we will also provide opportunity to do air-to-air and the air-to-ground war as well.”

British crews will man the airborne warning and control system simulators at the distributed mission operations center while a U.S. airborne warning and control system crew will “fly” in the game from a simulator located at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.

All four countries are sending teams of joint terminal attack controllers — the airmen who embed with ground troops and call in air strikes — to play in new simulators in the DMOC. They will peer through special binoculars that provide a 360-degree virtual view of the battlefield and they will communicate on radios with air operations centers, fighter pilots and other aircrews just as they would in the field. The Joint Close-Air Support Operations Systems device will double the center’s capacity to train JTACs and tactical air control parties in close-air support missions, officials say.

The hope is that interacting with coalition partners in these scenarios will promote improved collaboration.

“If we can’t train the way we fight prior to going in to those wars, there are a lot of painful lessons that get learned the hard way,” says Lt. Col. Brynt Query, chief of distributed mission operations integration and senior exercise director at the 505th Distributed Warfare Group.

But it hasn’t always been easy to train with partner nations. In the past, the high costs of transporting and sustaining personnel and equipment for exercises over long distances, the shortage of adequate ranges and the lack of time have prohibited training together. With distributed mission operations, allies can link in with simulations inexpensively.

But ensuring that all the systems are interoperable while protecting classified data has been one of the main hurdles for those at the DMOC.   

“It’s a really huge challenge to bring four nations with different security requirements together,” says Query. “If there is such a thing as a year-long sprint, our tech guys downstairs have been doing that, building the rule sets to make sure that security is maintained for this coalition event.”

One potential hurdle is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, which control the import and export of weapons systems and also restrict the sharing of military technology and information with non-U.S. persons. The British, Canadians and Australians have to meet standards set by their own countries as well.

“That’s a challenge for every nation,” says Query. “I think that is where we will spend the majority of the remaining part of the race to the wire. We still have a long ways to go before September.”

Exercise officials say the hurdles will be cleared in time.

“That will be a huge, huge development in [distributed missions operations] to be able to have a coalition-approved, multilateral agreement in place to run this type of exercise,” says Molendyke. “It’s going to set the groundwork for the future.”
The Defense Department is funding one coalition virtual flag each year. Plans are already under way for next year’s event.

“My hopes are to tighten it up even more and to bring in more players next year,” says Molendyke. For the 2011 event, the goal is to create a realistic setting where “we can actually train like we’re going to fight,” he says.   

To get to that point, the fidelity of the training systems must continue to improve, says Molendyke. Engineers are trying to enhance the visual representation of the battlefield.

“We’re working to get down to the 0.6-meter resolution level,” says Query. “From a flying person’s perspective, that’s about as high-res as it gets as you’re moving along at 200 to 400 knots.”

Officials also are in search of more efficient routers and servers to generate the scenarios faster and maintain the network connections.

“It’s negative training if they come here and not see what they normally would see in a real airplane in a combat environment,” says Lt. Col. Dan Pepper, deputy for operations at the 705th Combat Training Squadron. “Some of our hardware is very old,” he adds.

But the age of the equipment itself has not caused any big network crashes or issues, despite generating more than 40,000 entities in a single day during a virtual flag exercise.

“As those get pumped through the system, of course, we need to stay ahead of that bow wave and make sure that the network or the hardware is not a limiting factor on the training that we can provide,” says Molendyke.

Many of the simulations at the center were not developed with distributed operations in mind. Some originally were built to train airmen on emergency procedures in an aircraft. But engineers have adapted the trainers to fly combat missions in virtual exercises.

“It’s like taking an old TV or Atari and trying to make it compatible with a PlayStation,” says Molendyke.

The oldest pieces of hardware on the exercise floor are four F-15 partial-task trainers, which are on their last legs, says Pepper. Each one consists of a rudimentary cockpit box that sits in front of a large TV screen. “They were very functional, but they are problematic when they integrate with other trainers,” he says. There are still no firm plans or funds to replace them.

In the 2010 budget proposal, the Air Force requested a $500 million increase in funding for training exercises such as Virtual Flag and Red Flag, the annual live-flying training event at Nellis Air Force Base. The plus-up could be interpreted as a vote of confidence for synthetic training.

That is good news for officials here who are actively seeking to add a 16,000-square foot wing to the building that would allow the squadron to increase combat training capability.

“We’re constantly in the line of fire for new missions,” says Pepper.

One of the center’s latest efforts is to incorporate unmanned aerial vehicle training into Virtual Flag exercises.

Another longer-term goal is to conduct exercises at higher classification levels than “collateral” secret. To get at that multilevel security piece, the center is developing a “jumper room” where classified operations such as the integration of space, cyberspace and special operations players could occur to allow participation in exercises.

Looking further out several years, the squadron is considering getting involved in testing and development of new technologies and concepts, says Pepper.              

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training

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