Simulation Industry Plays Savings Game
ORLANDO – Expected cuts in defense spending have the simulation industry jockeying for position in a market now dominated by talk of savings.
At this year's Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, most of the talk on the show floor is about the upcoming Pentagon budget cuts and what they mean for the industry. Executives are confident that budget constraints could be good news for suppliers of simulation products as the military is expected to put an increased emphasis on virtual training.
But some say that the industry must do a better job of attaching hard numbers to their marketing pitches.
“What's a pound of simulation worth?” Booz Allen Hamilton Vice President Keith Catanzano asked during an interview. “I don't think we've got our arms around all of the analytics yet. The community has to be able to define what a pound of simulation is worth . . . Services have moved dollars from flying hours to simulation hours. But that's a question that still needs to be answered more precisely.”
Government and industry managers believe that they can protect their programs from budget cuts by quantifying the savings associated with virtual training.
Navy Rear Adm. Randolph Mahr, commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, said that flying a sortie in an F/A-18 fighter jet costs about $30,000. The same task in a simulator costs less than $100, he said.
Vice President of Engineering at Lockheed Martin, Chester Kennedy, said that a full-motion flight simulator for the C-130 transport aircraft would cost more than $10 million. But Lockheed's Multi-Function Training Aid (MFTA), which relies on software to switch between lower-fidelity simulations for air, ground and amphibious vehicles, has a price tag of less than $1 million.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Stephen Mehling said that a multimillion dollar investment in weapon simulators for special operations paid for itself in the first year alone through ammunition savings. New recruits now learn to handle their weapons entirely through simulations, the commander of Coast Guard Force Readiness Command said.
“I don't think there is any question as to whether simulation saves a lot,” said Nick Gibbs, senior director for simulation products at Rockwell Collins. All one has to do is add up the cost of using real gnus, bullets and fuel in live exercises to discover the savings, he said.
At its booth, Rockwell Collins has a simulator for the Black Hawk helicopter, image generators, night vision technology and helmet displays – that can be bought separately or together. This “pieces of the puzzle” approach helps potential customers define what exactly they need and whether they have to buy just one item or the whole puzzle, Gibbs said.
But many experts agree that simulation can't and won't take the place of live training. And that's where trying to determine how much money can be saved in virtual training can become a little hairy.
Kennedy is the first to acknowledge that the MFTA can't handle all the training requirements that C-130 pilots must meet. Those pilots still must spend many hours in high-end, and expensive, simulators and in actual aircraft or vehicles, where fuel costs enter the equation. But the number of tasks that can be handled virtually are increasing.
“The old adage is nothing will replace live [training.] That's true but only in a certain domain,” said James Blake, the Army's program executive officer for simulation, training and instrumentation.
In some instances, such as the virtual recreation of sensors and unmanned aircraft that provide cover for ground troops, simulation does replace live assets, he noted.
“The question remains how much can be done in simulation and still have the person qualified,” Blake said. Can it all be done in simulation? Can it half be done in simulation? That's a judgment call.”
Hundreds of exhibitors are here showing off a wide range of simulation products – for shooters, tanks, planes, casualty care, cultural training and more. Pictures on screens in many cases resemble actual terrain.
But that doesn't mean that military service members have to be trained on the highest fidelity systems, experts said.“In our view, it's not appropriate to just drive towards the maximum amount of fidelity, because fidelity's expensive,” Catanzano said. “No matter how you slice it, somewhere there is cost in extreme high fidelity. And sometimes it's absolutely needed, it's well worth the cost and it's still better than the alternative of live flying or live rounds . . . But in other cases, it's not.”
At Fort Bragg, N.C., for instance, soldiers weren't receiving enough time on live ranges to cover all the tasks they needed to learn, he said. The Army had to find a way to train these soldiers virtually.
Booz Allen consultants concluded that missile trainer equipment wasn't even being used, partly because of the difficulty involved with building new and accurate scenarios for it. They recommended using software the Army already had developed and the Virtual Battlespace 2 gaming engine to generate scenarios. Proficiency levels in maneuver, indirect and direct fire exercises started to improve, Catanzano said.
“What made the virtual world feasible and engaging for them? It wasn't because it was hyper realistic,” he said. “It was because it was easy to use.”
A similar project for the Air Force increased weekly command-and-control training missions from five to 500. Again, the effort relied on existing infrastructure.
“That's how we look at the market,” Catanzano said. “We look at what we can adapt as opposed to create.”